Newt Gingrich sees “mortal threats” as often as that kid in “The Sixth Sense” sees dead people.
In the recent past, Gingrich has claimed that Sharia law poses a “mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States.” He argues that the Obama-led “secular-socialist machine,” whatever that is, poses “as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did.” Even the petition method of organizing a union represents “a mortal threat to American freedom.”
In an appearance in Iowa over the weekend, Gingrich expanded on his list of mortal threats. Liberals, he told an audience of social conservatives, are trying to abolish traditional religion in this country and are using government “to repress the American people against their own values.” Furthermore, he warned that conservatives need to be “very aggressive and very direct” in opposing this “mortal threat to our civilization.”
Lest there be any doubt about Gingrich’s meaning, the former speaker also explained that we shouldn’t be surprised by all the problems we’re enduring, because ever since 1963, “we’ve in fact attempted to create a secular country, which I think is frankly a nightmare.”
Gingrich clearly believes that the United States is not and should not be a secular country, meaning that its government should not be neutral on matters of religion. Instead, he believes that government should favor and advance “traditional religion” — a euphemism for Christianity — and he seeks Christian votes to help make it so.
It is a ludicrous proposition from a ludicrous man.
The argument that he makes is nothing new of course. This week, we gather as families and friends to celebrate a national holiday with origins almost 400 years old, a legacy of a group of people who came to this continent to freely practice the religion that they were barred from practicing back home. That’s the part of the story that we like to celebrate, and understandably so, because it speaks to our basic concepts of freedom.
However, there’s another part of that story that we ignore too often. In their quest for religious liberty, the Pilgrims and their later-arriving cousins, the Puritans, themselves established governments that brutally denied religious liberty to those of any faith different than their own. They used that power to imprison and banish those they labeled as heretics, and on occasion to execute those such as Quakers who dared to disagree.
In other words, their motto was religious freedom for me, but not for thee. Because they believed they possessed the one true faith, they believed they had the right, and indeed the obligation, to use government to protect and advance that faith.
In time, however, a competing ideology arose. It recognized that, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God,” and that government has no right to interfere in that relationship. It further recognized that on matters core to who we are as human beings, the majority has no legitimate right to impose itself on the minority, and it expressed that value through the First Amendment.
Our Founding Fathers understood that you cannot claim to support a limited government and individual freedom while also claiming that government has the right to tilt the scales in favor of one person’s religion, and against that of another person.
I was particularly struck by Gingrich’s assertion that by trying to keep government and religion separate, liberals are trying “to drive out of existence traditional religion.” Such a statement implies that traditional religion requires government support to survive, and that is blatantly false. Without exception, and throughout human history, a religion that becomes dependent on government also becomes corrupt and weak.
As a historian, Gingrich ought to know that. He also ought to understand the dangers of trying to rouse a religious majority to exert its power at the expense of the minority, because that too has never ended well. However, like many cynics before him, he also understands the political power of such appeals, and frankly, that’s his real priority.