At a time when many religious conservatives say the Republican Party is ignoring their issues and taking their support for granted, former House speaker and GOP idea man Newt Gingrich is turning his attention to the concerns of conservative Christians like never before.
Gingrich has launched an organization devoted to bringing conservative evangelicals and Catholics into the political process and to strengthening the frayed alliance between economic and religious conservatives. Called Renewing American Leadership, the group is led by Gingrich's longtime communications director and includes some of the country's top conservative Christian activists on its board.
This spring, Gingrich will speak to a handful of large gatherings for politically conservative clergy that have been organized by David Barton, an influential evangelical activist who spearheaded the Republican National Committee's rigorous outreach to pastors in 2004.
And this fall, Gingrich is planning to release a movie about the role that Pope John Paul II's 1979 trip to Poland played in bringing down the Soviet Union.
"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," Gingrich said in a phone interview on Thursday. "You've had such rising hostility to religious belief that I wanted to reach broadly into the country and dramatically raise public awareness of threats to religious liberty."
Just this week, Gingrich's new group partnered with the American Family Association—the conservative evangelical organization headed by Don Wildmon—to encourage churches and religious groups to participate in no-more-taxes rallies across the country on April 15. Rick Tyler, who served as Gingrich's spokesman before becoming founding director of Renewing American Leadership, says that on the first day of the largely Web-based organizing effort, 5,000 people signed up to attend the rallies.
The antitax rallies illustrate the new group's quest to unite religious and fiscal conservatives, two flanks of the Republican base that have squabbled with one another since Election Day. "There's too much finger-pointing between economic conservatives who say we're losing ground because of social conservatives and social conservatives who say the opposite," says Barton, who sits on Renewing American Leadership's board. "Instead of having a circular firing squad, we need to start identifying real allies and the real opponents."
To accomplish the goal, Renewing American Leadership has prepared a PowerPoint presentation it plans to show conservative economic groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Tax Reform, laying out the case for taking religious conservatives more seriously. The PowerPoint slides list Republican senators and congressman with the highest ratings from the National Right to Life Committee and juxtapose them with ratings for the same elected officials from Americans for Tax Reform. The conclusion: politicians with the strongest socially conservative records also have the strongest antitax records.
"Secular conservatives often operate from a perspective that says, 'Why should I care about evangelical voters?' " says Tyler. "And I show them why: because when you turn out evangelical voters who support socially conservative candidates, you also get conservative economic policies." Tyler says the rift between religious and economic conservatives helped nominate Arizona Sen. John McCain to lead the GOP ticket in 2008 because the two constituencies split between the socially conservative Mike Huckabee and the fiscally conservative Mitt Romney in the presidential primaries.
Gingrich's group is also planning to take its presentation to Republican Party donors, who tend to be less religious and focused more on economic issues than the party's rank-and-file. "A lot of donors have been out to lunch on this issue," says Tyler. "If I can prove to them that mobilizing evangelical voters leads to the best economic policies, I don't have to convert them into Catholics or Protestants. It's pretty straightforward."
Renewing American Leadership, which was just designated a nonprofit organization by the IRS in the last month, has also produced a 23-page report alleging that the new Capitol Visitor Center distorts American history by scrubbing out religious references.
Gingrich was not considered a religious conservative during his days as House speaker. He did vow to work for a constitutional amendment to allow organized school prayer after the 1994 Republican House takeover, but that effort quickly foundered.
A 2002 court decision that found the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools unconstitutional shifted Gingrich's attention more seriously to the debate over religion in the public square. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that the pledge's "under God" violated the First Amendment's ban on government-established religion. "That was the last straw," Gingrich said. "And I said, 'It's time to challenge head-on secular domination in the West.' "
The crusade led Gingrich to publish Rediscovering God in America in 2006. Since then, Gingrich has appeared before large gatherings of pastors, joining a circuit that had been the province of politicians like Huckabee, an ordained Baptist preacher. "The response was overwhelmingly positive," says Tyler. "We realized there was a large segment out there that we were not reaching because a lot of Christians are just tuned out of the secular media."
The experiences before pastors' groups helped hatch the idea for Renewing American Leadership. Gingrich's stepped-up work in evangelical circles also led him onto James Dobson's Focus on the Family radio show in 2007, when the former House Speaker admitted to having an affair about the same time he was leading impeachment efforts against President Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair. Gingrich is now married to his third wife.
Gingrich alleges that threats to religious liberty have multiplied under the Obama administration. He points to the recent economic stimulus package, which prohibits colleges from using federal funds to build or repair buildings used for worship or other religious purposes. He says the White House's plan to reverse a last-minute Bush administration regulation that allows healthcare workers to refuse to provide services that they oppose on moral grounds represents another attack on religious liberty.
And Gingrich dismisses Obama's pledge to take a new tack on culture war issues by vowing to reduce demand for abortion and by launching his own Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. "The gap between his rhetoric and symbolism and his actual polities," Gingrich says, "is so radically different."