By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
I've got a story up on www. usnews.com about former House speaker and GOP idea man Newt Gingrich turning his attention to the concerns of conservative Christians like never before, at a time when many religious conservatives say the Republican Party is ignoring their issues and taking their support for granted. My interview with Gingrich about his stepped-up work defending religion in the public square:
You've started a new organization, Renewing American Leadership, that's devoted to issues like religious liberty and defending the role of religion in American history. Why now? Aren't there lots of groups like that already?
You look at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals outlawing saying "one nation under God." You look at the current [White House] effort to impose the secular state as a matter of conscience on people who believe profoundly that abortion is an act of murder, and we go from tolerating abortion to telling doctors you can only serve if you cooperate in abortion. You look at the current effort in Connecticut to impose a legal order that would destroy the Catholic Church. And you have to ask yourself, when you have this kind of continued assault on religion, whether you need to reach out to the whole country and talk about these kind of issues. You weren't known as a religious conservative during your House speaker days. Was there a turning point for you in focusing more seriously on religious issues?
I think it's that the overtness of the assault on religious liberty has risen dramatically. It was the 9th Circuit Court's decision [in 2002] that was the last straw. [The decision found that recitation of the pledge of allegiance in public schools was unconstitutional because its "under God" clause violates the First Amendment's ban on government-established religion.] And I said, "It's time to challenge head-on secular domination in the West.'" It's pretty clear that religion plays an important role in President Obama's life. And he's vowed to take a different tack on values issues like abortion than Democrats traditionally have, pledging to work to reduce the need for abortion.
The gap between his rhetoric and symbolism and his actual policies is so radically different. The stimulus package had a lot of money in it for sex education and included a prohibition against any money being used in buildings used for religious purposes. Every evidence is that they're going to move on a Freedom of Choice Act, which would remove every limit on abortion at the state level. He has appointed people with very close ties to abortionists who offer late-term abortions. The evidence we have so far is that he's going to move methodically to limit the use of freedom of conscience and impose abortion on institutions. So I'm not sure his actions are not fundamentally different than his words. It has been very clear he's trying to represent and reflect the core values of the American people [in his rhetoric]. It is probably better to have somebody who at least has indicated that religion matters to him than to have somebody who is totally, overtly secular. But I don't know that a totally overtly secular person can win in this country.
It seems like the alliance between religious and economic conservatives is weakening, with each blaming each other for the GOP's sagging fortunes.
I don't think it's weakening now, but it was weakening when Bush was president. But the Obama financial mess and the Geithner misstatements and the tax increase proposals—all those are driving fiscal conservatives back to a realization that if you're liberal on social policy you're also bankrupting the country fiscally. There is a much greater openness to working together now than even a month ago. Some social conservatives say the GOP is ignoring their issues and taking their support for granted.
The Republican Party is in a period of trying to rethink itself. But it's clear that Ronald Reagan brought together three big streams of American thought: national security, economic growth, and belief in core historic values, and many of those are inherently religious. You can't have an honest discussion of American history without recognizing the depth of religious influence. Look at Lincoln's second inaugural, which is 703 words long and includes 14 references to God and two quotes from the Bible. You can't explain that inaugural without getting into religious beliefs, and yet we have 30 or 40 years in which the educational system has grown rabidly antireligious. A lot of people who don't think of themselves as social conservatives nonetheless believe that their rights come from the creator, that their freedoms come from God. Those are 80 or 90 percent issues.
Has this work affected your personal faith?
I am very sobered that my grandchildren might live in a secular society that might drive God out of public schools in such a way that they are now antireligious centers of propaganda. Part of my journey began with [Reagan aide] Mike Deaver. And he was doing good with Alcoholics Anonymous around the city of Washington. It's clear that this is the most effective antiaddiction program in the world. And a federal bureaucrat tells him "We would love to strengthen and increase the program but we can't because the first step is God." And he goes, "can you develop an 11-step program?" And Deaver broke up—he said, 'I don't think you get it." So I've always been in favor of addressing the issue in a broad way. In the last few years I've decided that we're in a crisis in which the secular state, if allowed, will fundamentally and radically change America against the wishes of most Americans