By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 20, 2007
LYNCHBURG, Va., May 19 -- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich decried a "growing culture of radical secularism" Saturday morning as he hailed the life of Liberty University's late founder, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, in an address to the school's 2007 graduating class.
In a speech heavy with religious allusions but devoid of hints about his presidential ambitions, Gingrich drew applause from the graduates and their families in the school's 12,000-seat football stadium when he demanded: "This anti-religious bias must end."
"In hostility to American history, the radical secularists insist that religious belief is inherently divisive," Gingrich said, deriding what he called the "contorted logic" and "false principles" of advocates of secularism in American society.
"Basic fairness demands that religious beliefs deserve a chance to be heard," he said during his 26-minute speech. "It is wrong to single out those who believe in God for discrimination. Yet, today, it is impossible to miss the discrimination against religious believers."
Gingrich was invited to be the school's commencement speaker before Falwell's unexpected death last week.
Though he ended his speech by telling the graduates that he hopes "that you shall run and not grow weary," Gingrich told reporters later that he has not decided whether he will take his own advice and run for president, becoming what he called a "citizen candidate." The former Georgia lawmaker has said that he will make his decision in September after he hosts a series of "ideas" workshops.
In a brief news conference after the speech, Gingrich derided the process by which Americans pick presidential nominees, saying that he will never participate in "game-show, 30-second-answer, so-called pseudo debates in both parties. . . . I am totally uninterested in applying for a game show as if this were 'Bachelor' or 'American Idol.' "
Gingrich vowed not to "pay any attention" to the presidential campaign between now and September. He said the odds that he will decide later this year to run are "better than not." He even offered a potential date for an announcement: Nov. 6.
"One year before the election. Somehow that strikes me as good a time as any," he said, after promising: "If I do decide to announce, it will not be on Leno or Letterman or Comedy Central. The whole point of running would be to have dignity. To have seriousness."
A politician known more for his focus on economic and cultural policies than on theology, Gingrich spent much of his speech on Saturday extolling the teachings of the Bible. He cited the book of Matthew, the book of Revelation and the Sermon on the Mount, and his own 2006 book, "Rediscovering God in America."
He also read verbatim a prayer offered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the radio during World War II, and urged stations to replay it as a way of giving strength to U.S. troops in harm's way.
"Almighty God. Our sons, pride of our nation, this day has set upon a mighty endeavor," Gingrich said, quoting Roosevelt. "Lead them straight and true. Give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith. They will need thy blessings."
But Gingrich devoted much of his speech to recalling the virtues of the school's founder, whose death cast a pall over the 34th graduation ceremonies.
Jerry Falwell Jr., who took over as chancellor this week, tearfully told graduates: "All is well at Liberty. We've prepared for this time for 15 years. No one can replace Dad, but there's a team here that's ready."
The younger Falwell also later told reporters that his father was "very excited when he heard that Newt was even considering running for president."
In his speech, Gingrich praised the elder Falwell's efforts to build Liberty University, which was founded in 1971 and now has 28,000 undergraduate students. It also has a law school, a divinity school and a business school. An engineering school and a medical school are scheduled to open in the coming years.
"Jerry Falwell put his trust in the Lord. Despite all obstacles, he persevered and was not discouraged," Gingrich said. "If you seek a monument to that perseverance, look around you."
And Gingrich hailed the connection Falwell made between religion and politics, becoming for decades a new kind of evangelist in the political arena as much as in the Christian one.
"Anybody on the left who hopes that when people like Reverend Falwell disappear, that the opportunity to convert all of America has gone with him fundamentally misunderstands why institutions like this were created," Gingrich told reporters.
Falwell's influence in the political process -- at its height when he headed the Moral Majority and led a new army of politically active Christians -- waned in recent years. But Gingrich noted that Liberty University has graduated 120,000 students.
"Jerry Falwell has spread 120,000 seeds of Christianity across the country to go out and take up the life of the Lord," Gingrich said. "I have every reason to believe that many of those . . . are going to provide the kind of leadership we want."