We’ve been told for months that the Tea Party is a decentralized, mostly leaderless movement dedicated to whittling down big government and reining in federal spending.

As such, it is a respectable, responsible organization that many politicians, including our own U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, have taken pains to court.

Could somebody please explain, then, why we’ve been hearing so much hateful, homophobic talk from prominent Tea Party members and sympathizers in Montana in the past couple of weeks?

There was Jason Priest, a Republican Senate candidate from Red Lodge who, on Facebook, referred to the economist John Maynard Keynes as “a big homo.” After slinging some other vulgarities, Priest accused President Barack Obama of “giving America … the dry thumb.”

This is the same candidate who pledged on his website to contribute “to a respectful discussion of our challenges.”

In a so-called letter of apology printed in the Carbon County News, Priest said: “My passion for controlling spending overcame my better judgment and my crude metaphor understandably detracted from the point of my comment.”

The reference to sodomy may have been a “crude metaphor,” but the “big homo” comment was not. It was a playground taunt that he made because he thought he was among like-minded friends.

Say cheese

Also on the Web is a YouTube video of Priest addressing a Tea Party gathering in Columbus last winter, in which he says that in Red Lodge he sometimes finds it necessary to talk to people he disagrees with.

“I would rather tell them they’re insane,” he says, then pauses and says, “Is that camera on?” His listeners erupt in laughter and he adds, “but I can’t do it. I have to be nicer than that.”

The short answer is that yes, nowadays the camera is always on, and there is almost no such thing as a completely private website.

That lesson was learned by Facebook user Tim Ravndal, former president of the Big Sky Tea Party Association. Ravndal recently started a Facebook discussion by making the bizarre claim that allowing gay people to marry would somehow deprive him of his rights.

Another Tea Party activist, Dennis Scranton of Miles City, chimed in by saying, “I think fruits are decorative. Hang up where they can be seen and appreciated. Call Wyoming for display instructions.” Ravndal then asked Scranton where he could get “that Wyoming printed instruction manual.”

When that exchange went public last weekend, the board of the state Tea Party group quickly ejected Ravndal. The board obviously realized that the hateful exchange was a direct reference to the 1998 torture and murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming.

Ravndal now claims he didn’t make the connection with Shepard’s murder, an assertion that no one but a few diehard supporters pretended to believe.

It’s not over yet

Ravndal said Scranton had “a deep hatred of homosexuals.” No surprise there; I’ve been the recipient of Scranton’s vile, raving e-mails. For Ravndal to engage in a jocular exchange about “hanging fruit” with a man he knew to harbor hatred for gays — well, good riddance.

But wait. Ravndal now wants his job back, and some members of the Tea Party are agitating for Ravndal’s reinstatement. Tea Party association secretary Kristi Allen-Gailushas said she would resign from her position unless Ravndal was brought back into the fold. No surprise there, either. Allen-Gailushas, who is running as a Republican House candidate near Helena, said on her own Facebook page: “The Gay community wants a war. They’ve got one!!”

At least she appears to be proud of her crude bigotry, which spares us another phony apology.

On top of all that comes news that the Custer County Patriots, a group related to the Tea Party movement, displayed a hangman’s noose at their booth at the Eastern Montana Fair in Miles City last month.

The display raised quite a ruckus and moved a lot of people to write letters of condemnation to the editor of the Miles City Star.

Brian Schoof, a member of the Custer County Patriots and a Republican House candidate, brushed off the noose by saying, “A lot of ads use symbolism to make something stick in your mind. That’s all it was.”

Rhonda Campbell, a rancher who visited the fair and was outraged by the “symbol,” set Schoof straight. She told the Star: “A noose means one thing, and that’s a hanging. Anybody over the age of 10 knows what a noose means in the United States of America. It’s an instrument of terror against black people, and there is a black man sitting in the White House.”

Thank you, Rhonda. It’s nice to hear an adult speaking like an adult, and telling the plain truth.