Newt Gingrich and Religious Realignment
We're all used to being told that the Christian Right as we used to know it is dead, dying, moribund, divided, leaderless or rudderless. But for at least two putative candidates for president in 2012, the Old Time Religious Right in all its atavistic glory is an important constituency to be wooed. And that's why (as Sarah Posner discusses in today's edition of her FundamentaList column for TAP) southern Baptist minister Mike Huckabee and Baptist-turned-Catholic Newt Gingrich recently went to one of the Christian Right's holy cities, Virginia Beach, for a "Rediscovering God in America" event that was webcast live by God.TV (an interesting site, BTW).
It's no surprise that Huckabee showed up; he's struggling to hang onto the Christian Right as an electoral base. Those who remember his 2008 campaign as representing a refreshing and light-hearted break in the grim and monotonous presentation of Republican dogma might not recognize him now. According to the local newspaper in Virginia Beach, here's some of what he had to say to the event:
Huckabee told the audience he was disturbed to hear President Barack Obama say during his speech in Cairo, Egypt, on Thursday that one nation shouldn't be exalted over another.
"The notion that we are just one of many among equals is nonsense," Huckabee said. The United States is a "blessed" nation, he said, calling American revolutionaries' defeat of the British empire "a miracle from God's hand."
The same kind of miracle, he said, led California voters to approve Proposition 8, which overturned a state law legalizing same-sex marriages.
Other speakers included the Virginia-based Christian Right warhorse Ollie North, and David Barton, the leading advocate of "Christian Nation" revisionist history.
The Newtster wasn't about to let Huckabee outdo him on the subject of America's unique divine mission:
"I am not a citizen of the world," said Gingrich, who was first elected to the U.S. House from Georgia in 1978 and served as speaker from 1995 to 1999. "I am a citizen of the United States because only in the United States does citizenship start with our creator."
I guess Newt has never heard of Saudi Arabia.
In any event, Newt's maintenance of close ties to the hard-core evangelical Right is interesting because he recently left Protestantism altogether and was accepted into the Roman Catholic Church (for those interested in how this twice-divorced confessed philanderer managed that, the answer is that his first wife died after their divorce, and his second marriage was annulled by the Archdiocese of Atlanta because that wife had been previously married; thus officially, Newt is merely a remarried widower with a very bad habit of engaging in fornication, adultery and illicit cohabitation).
Newt's long transition from Southern Baptist to Catholic tells you a lot about the past and present of both faith communities in the United States.
The minister who originally baptized Gingrich and accepted him as a member of the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans in the 1960s once had this to say about the future Speaker:
"He found there a liberal approach to both theology and sociology. . . . Whether our teachings had any effect or not, he was at least exposed to the basic Baptist principle of freedom: personal freedom before God, an open mind before an open Bible, the separation of church and state, and compassion toward other people as sinners saved by the grace of God.
"He also may have learned that we Baptists fuss and fight a lot with each other. It has been suggested by some that in baptizing him, I didn't hold him under long enough."
Yes, youngsters, Baptists were once pretty famous for thinking of themselves are theological "liberals" and "freethinkers," and were particularly fierce about insisting on strict separation of church and state.
But in making the walk to Rome, Gingrich seems to think that he's now found the perfect religious expression of his political conservatism:
The whole effort to create a ruthless, amoral, situational ethics culture has probably driven me toward a more overt Christianity.
In Virginia Beach, he put it a little more bluntly:
"I think this is one of the most critical moments in American history," Gingrich said. "We are living in a period where we are surrounded by paganism."
This sentiment certainly resonates with the evangelicals he regaled in Virginia Beach, even if some of them privately believe he has left the True Church of Protestantism for the Whore of Babylon. And Gingrich offers a particularly strong example of the confluence of Christian conservatives across all the old theological lines, where centuries of hostility have been replaced by hostility not only towards "unbelievers" but towards co-religionists who reject theocratic cultural and political goals.
Indeed, a religious realignment in America has been an important part of the political realignment that's drawn so much attention in recent years. And it's still underway.