No longer conservative about his religion
By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
It says much about the transformation of the Republican Party that even Newt Gingrich is now carrying the cross.
When Gingrich came to power 15 years ago, his Contract With America was a document of fiscal conservatism that mentioned God only in passing. When he led the impeachment of Bill Clinton a decade ago over the Monica Lewinsky affair, Gingrich was involved in his own longtime extramarital relationship with a former aide, who is now his third wife.
"Newt," Christopher DeMuth put it gently as he introduced the former House speaker Monday to a forum at the American Enterprise Institute, is "a politician who in his private life is a seriously religious man but who does not make religious belief an upfront part of his political platform."
His first two wives might have quibbled with the description of Gingrich as a seriously religious man in private. But after Monday's performance, nobody will ever again say that he "does not make religious belief an upfront part of his political platform." His talk was titled "The Victory of the Cross: How Spiritual Renewal Helped Topple the Berlin Wall."
The former speaker, his eye on a 2012 presidential run, said that as he thought more about the felling of the Wall 20 years ago Monday, he began "to understand a message of faith, a message of salvation, the centrality of the cross in this whole fight."
And it wasn't just about 20th-century Europe. "I am tired of secular fanatics trying to redesign America in their image," he announced. Further, he said, "I believe the most important question in the United States for the next decade is: 'Who are we?' Are we in fact a people who claim that we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights?" Or, are we "just randomly gathered protoplasm -- and lucky for us we're not rhinoceroses -- but that in the end our power is defined by politicians and their appointees? Once you decide on this, almost everything else gets easier."
Gingrich is calculating that everything will get easier for him politically as a religious conservative.
He has never been particularly close to the religious right. The iconography in his office was more paleontological than prayerful. He followed the New Age philosophy of Alvin and Heidi Toffler. And though a promoter of traditional values, he didn't push the point, in part because doing so would invariably cause people to remind him that he had sought a divorce from his first wife while she was recovering from cancer surgery.
But as his presidential aspirations swelled in recent years, Gingrich took the road to Damascus. He went on James Dobson's radio show to talk about his adultery. He spoke at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. He appeared on GodTV. He converted to Catholicism. He wrote a book, "Rediscovering God in America," and produced two related films. He's at work on a documentary about Pope John Paul II's role in defeating communism.
But he still has a way to go to convince religious conservatives that he has changed. At this fall's "Values Voters Summit," a straw poll found Gingrich in the single digits, well behind fellow potential candidates Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Sarah Palin.
Gingrich's piety hasn't changed his style, thank God. He was still talking Monday about the "stunningly wrongheaded" elites, about his wish to shut down the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, and about President Obama's decision not to attend the ceremony commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall falling: "It doesn't involve embracing Hugo Chávez, it doesn't involve appeasing Ahmadinejad. . . . It doesn't involve any of the patterns of appeasement and avoidance which are the heart of this administration."
But Gingrich, a historian by training, supplemented the insults with nuggets about faith. Lech Walesa "wears an icon of the black Madonna every day." A novena by the late Polish cardinal Stefan Wyszynski created "a countervailing culture of belief to offset the secular culture of the dictatorship." He spoke of a television tower in East Berlin that, during certain hours, appeared to show a cross because of the sun's reflection.
From there, the speaker turned from faithless communists to godless liberals. "There is a secular-left model of reality which cannot tolerate the thought that state control fails, that tyranny is evil and that a liberated human being whose rights come from God is the centerpiece of the human future," he said. In fact, he added later, he felt so strongly about this that "I'm trying to get a poster done. It's going to have a series of Polish crosses that form a cross."
A man in the audience stood up to say that over the past nine months, the Berlin Wall "is being reconstructed right here" by Obama and congressional Democrats. "At the end of four years, is it not likely that a lot more people will be rediscovering God through tyranny?"
"The underlying move toward a secular socialist worldview has been going on now at least since the early '90s," Gingrich answered. "The great Reagan Revolution defeated communists overseas, but it didn't defeat the left here at home."
Of course, now that Newt and God have joined forces, that could all change.