Tea Party Research by John Coggin '09 and Fellow Harvard Scholars Adds to National Debate on Government Spending as Debt Ceiling Deadline Looms

Despite the fact that his grandfather cautioned him against mixing religion and politics, John Coggin ‘09 recently graduated from Harvard University with a Master of Theological Studies in Religion, Ethics, and Politics.

“I am convinced that, while church and state should remain separate, religion and politics have always gone together and they always will,” says Coggin, a Sanford, North Carolina native who received degrees in communication media and interdisciplinary studies while at NC State. “They both give us ways of envisioning a better world – they acknowledge our current condition, along with all its flaws, while giving us hope for what could be.”

Coggin receives the William Jefferson Clinton Hunger Leadership Award from former President Bill Clinton.

While at Harvard, Coggin’s research agenda focused on how people organize into religious and political groups, and how the social networks formed by those groups can impact the political system. Specifically, his work involved a focus on the Evangelical Christian community in America and how it has influenced the political process over the past thirty years. He also explored how Muslim communities have interacted with political systems in recent years. The latter included studying the gradual recognition in the international relations field of the importance of religion on the world stage, as well as the integration and treatment of Muslims in the United States following 9/11.

Coggin’s work on the Evangelical Christian community led to a paper he co-authored with Harvard scholars Vanessa Williamson and Theda Skocpol entitled “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism” published this spring in Perspectives on Politics, the journal of the American Political Science Association. The paper looks at the origins and rise of the Tea Party and examines the bolstering of already-existing conservative networks in the wake of the 2008 presidential election, the influence of conservative media sources in movement building, and the ideological bonds that united citizens behind the Tea Party.

The paper was the subject of a recent piece in The New York Times entitled The Tea Party vs. The ‘Freeloader’ by Christina Freeland. In the article, Freeland comments that “the Harvard scholars’ careful parsing of the thinking of the Tea Party has some important political implications,” especially as the deadline to raise the debt ceiling grows near.

Coggin credits his time in the Park Scholarships program as preparing him well for the rigors of graduate studies at Harvard. “The Park experience began teaching me about social capital before I ever started studying it at the master’s level,” says Coggin. “As a Park Scholar, this communication student interacted with historians, engineers, designers, biologists, economists, and educators – those interactions helped broaden my education at NC State by showing me the diverse ways of approaching common issues.”

Coggin during a research experience in the Galapagos Islands.

During his time at NC State, former President Bill Clinton presented Coggin with the inaugural William Jefferson Clinton Hunger Leadership Award for his work with the Presbyterian Campus Ministry and international hunger relief organization Stop Hunger Now. “Meeting President Clinton was a thrilling experience, but even more than that, I was glad to see how the award increased awareness of hunger-related issues on the NC State campus and inspired even more students to get involved,” says Coggin.

After spending the past two years in Cambridge, Coggin has decided to return to his home state of North Carolina and plans to begin a career in community development and civic engagement. He believes his studies involving religion and politics at Harvard have established a solid foundation for his future. “I feel that there is no better preparation for pursuing a career in public service than a degree in which I was able to delve into these two incredible change agents in our society,” says Coggin.