Newt Gingrich is surging in the polls but as he is running an “unconventional” campaign (which means one which might lack the organization needed to win), it remains difficult to predict who the Republican nominee will be. The Obama campaign is concentrating its fire on Romney, believing that Gingrich will be far easier to beat, but there are some reasons to question if the conventional wisdom is really correct on this. Gingrich’s views are far more in line with the far right Republican base, making him more likely to motivate the base to turn out, assuming that Gingrich doesn’t self-destruct and assuming the religious right doesn’t reject him for his past actions.
Those in the religious right who fail to recognize the importance of our heritage of separation of church and state will find Gingrich’s theocratic views appealing, while those who respect individual liberty, the Constitution, and the views of the Founding Fathers will find Gingrich’s views to be appalling. Sarah Posner has accumulated some statements from Gingrich on this topic:
Rob Boston, senior policy analyst at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, was at the Heritage Foundation in 1994 when Gingrich announced his push for a school prayer amendment. “He wasn’t speaker yet,” Boston told me, “but all of the polls showed that the Democrats were headed for shellacking, and many analysts interpreted the announcement as one last effort to rally the religious right voting bloc.”
At that announcement, Boston later wrote in the November 1994 issue of Church and State magazine, Gingrich called the 1963 Supreme Court school prayer decision “bad law, bad history and bad culture.”* He lauded David Barton’s book, The Myth of Separation, calling it “most useful” and “wonderful.” He insisted that there needed to be a full debate “over secularism versus the right of a spiritual life.” Foreshadowing his more recent pronouncements on American execeptionalism, Gingrich stated that “to be an American is to be aware that our power comes from a Creator.” (This was around the time that he began having an extramarital affair with his current wife, Callista.)
It appears from his actions afterwards that Gingrich was more concerned about raising this topic to receive the votes of the religious right as opposed to stressing school prayer while in Congress. This should give religious conservatives further reason to question his integrity, but is hardly reassuring to those who understand the importance of separation of church and state:
But the amendment obviously didn’t mean all that much to Gingrich. According to Boston, “Once in power, Newt promptly began serving his corporate masters and handed the school prayer project off” to Rep. Ernest Istook. But Istook, Boston added, “aided and abetted by religious right groups, overreached and drew up a monstrosity called the ‘Religious Freedom Amendment,’” which “went beyond school prayer and would have also guaranteed religious groups access to tax money and allowed the placement of religious symbols on government property.” Although the amendment won a majority vote in 1998, it fell short of the two-thirds majority required for constitutional amendments.
Gingrich shows either amazing ignorance, or dishonesty, in his attacks on Obama as a “secular socialist.” The Founding Fathers intentionally founded the United States as a secular state to guarantee freedom of religion, making Gingrich’s use of secular as a derogatory term absurd. He also appears to have adopted the new Republican definition of socialism as a few percentage point increase in the marginal tax rate on the wealthy, as opposed to the traditional meaning of support for public ownership of the means of production. Gingrich has discussed his beliefs regarding a “Judeo-Christian heritage” vs. “secular socialism.”
Gingrich’s book, Rediscovering God in America, co-written with his wife Callista, first published in 2006, became the basis for his speeches at Pastors’ Policy Briefings, the purpose of which were to mobilize “pastors and pews to restore America to her Judeo-Christian heritage.” It was at these meetings that the idea for Gingrich’s organization Renewing American Leadership was hatched. When Barton, who serves on ReAL’s board, appeared on Glenn Beck’s program last year, the organization boasted that “David’s appearance builds on the mission of ReAL. We work to protect our God-given freedoms in Washington, D.C. and around the country. Educating Americans is critical to preserving those freedoms and spreading the truth about our Judeo-Christian heritage.” (ReAL was a Gingrich self-reinvention, which followed an earlier reinvention effort, American Solutions.) The current chair of ReAL is California pastor Jim Garlow, a veteran of the Proposition 8 wars, and who, like Gingrich, claims to also be a historian. At Rick Perry’s August The Response, Garlow said the event was not about whether Perry became president, but rather “about making Jesus king.”
To contrast his “godliness” to that of President Obama’s, Gingrich has claimed that the Obama administration is a “secular, socialist regime” and “the most radical administration in U.S. history.” Just today, Gingrich maintained that the Occupy movement is “un-American.”
This is reminiscent of John McCain’s claim that the United States is a Christian nation, which was debunked by Alan Dershowitz:
Recently John McCain–whose presidential campaign is in the sewer–declared that “the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation.” What an ignoramus! McCain should go back to school and take Civics 1, where he might learn that the United States Constitution was called “the godless constitution,” by its opponents, because it was the first constitution in history not to include references to God or some dominant religion. The Constitution mentions religion only once, in prohibiting any religious test for holding office under the United States.
The Bill of Rights mentions religion twice, once in prohibiting an establishment of religion (a clear reference to any branch of Protestant Christianity, which was then the dominant religion) and a second time, in guaranteeing the free exercise of all religions. Several years after the ratification, the Senate ratified a treaty with the Barbary regime of Tripoli which expressly proclaimed that “the Government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” In fact, many of our Founding Fathers, including the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, were not Christians but rather were deists. In other words, they believed in the existence of God, but not in the divinity of Jesus or the divine authorship of the bible. Today they might be called Unitarians; in fact, John Adams, another author of the Declaration, and the President under whom the treaty was ratified, is buried in a Unitarian church, along with his wife Abigail and his son John Quincy.
Roger Williams–the religious leader most responsible for separating church and state in America–put it very well a century earlier: “no civil state or country can be truly called Christian, although the Christians be in it.” That is what is so striking about American history, namely, that a nation of Christians ratified a Constitution that did not in any way establish “the United States as a Christian nation.” We are in fact the most diverse nation in the history of the world and that is the secret of our success. McCain may prefer to vote for someone who “has a solid grounding in [his] faith,” namely, Episcopalianism (though he is apparently thinking of changing his faith to Baptism), but in doing so, he is violating the spirit of our Constitutional prohibition against requiring a religious test for the holding of office in our diverse country.