Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and high-profile conservative intellectual, announced today that he is officially in the running for the Republican nomination for president. Along the way he’s been playing the politics of religion.
In the speeches and media appearances he did in preparation for his run, he has emphasized two things. The first is the importance of God and morality in the public square, referencing his own conversion to Catholicism to give him credibility. The second is to rail against the dangers of Islam in America.
This two-pronged approach underscores just how far we have come in America on issues of religious tolerance, and also how far we have to go.
Just a half-century ago, John F. Kennedy’s Catholic faith was widely viewed as a significant liability to his presidential aspirations. Kennedy had to do the opposite of what Gingrich appears to be doing: effectively de-emphasize his faith, and say that it would play no role whatsoever in informing his public acts. “I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” he told the American Association of Newspaper Editors in April 1960. “I am the Democratic party’s candidate for president who happens to be Catholic. I do not speak for the Catholic Church on issues of public policy, and no one in that church speaks for me.”
The irony, of course, is that many of the same slanders leveled at the Catholic Church are now leveled at Islam in America. Catholicism was considered incompatible with liberty, democracy and pluralism. Any inroads made by Catholics into the corridors of power was considered a threat to the American way of life. Catholics were considered loyal to the autocratic Pope, not the American flag. Catholic politicians would enact policies to advantage their Church and hurt American values, everything from appointing an Ambassador to the Vatican to sending public funds to parochial schools.
The ‘No Popery’ signs of previous eras feel remarkably like the ‘No Sharia’ signs of today. The view of the Catholic faith as inherently incompatible with American values mimics today’s view of Islam. And the hysteria about the effects of increasing Catholic influence on American culture sound precisely like today’s fears about Muslims. Norman Vincent Peale, a powerful Protestant minister and a leading anti-Catholic anti-Kennedy voice, put the matter of Kennedy’s possible election in stark terms to a Who’s Who group of conservative Protestant leaders: “Our American culture is at stake.”
The same is said, frequently, about Islam in America. And one of the leading voices in raising such fears is none other than Gingrich. He compared the Muslim group seeking to start an interfaith center near Ground Zero to Nazis putting a plaque near a Holocaust memorial. His film ‘America at Risk’ raises fears of Muslim domination. In some of his statements, it feels as if Gingrich is channeling Peale: “America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.”
The historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. wrote that anti-Catholicism was the “deepest bias in the history of the American people.” The fact that Gingrich can proudly advertise his conversion to Catholicism as a personal and presidential asset is a sign of how much progress we’ve made. But it is profoundly un-American to replace one bias with another, and even more troubling that a man whose Catholic forbears experienced discrimination because of their religion should turn around and peddle such prejudice himself.
The forces of inclusiveness in America always turn back the forces of intolerance – we’ve seen it in the defeat of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism and segregation. Gingrich, who has a PhD in history, is well aware of this. Which makes it all the more surprising that he is willing to risk being remembered on the wrong side of that divide.