Our Humanity, Naturally

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Newt's conversion and reinvention

Would John Adams loathe the former House Speaker?

Chances are, John Adams would loathe Newt Gingrich.

And not for his politics.

Adams, like most of the Founding Fathers, was fiercely anti-Catholic, and there can be little doubt that he would be unkind in assessing Gingrich's 2009 conversion to the Roman Catholic faith.

The extent of anti-Catholic bigotry in colonial America is rarely discussed in schools, and when mentioned in mainstream media it is usually glossed over, but the truth is rather shocking. We tend to think of the founders as open-minded men who encouraged religious tolerance, but their prejudices were actually rather severe.

Adams referred to Catholicism (often called "Popery" in his day) as "nonsense and delusion" and "dangerous in society" and a "detestable system of fraud, violence and usurpation."  The Catholic faith reduced people to "a state of sordid ignorance" and "cruel, shameful, and deplorable servitude." As such, Adams was pleased that, in his home region of Massachusetts, Catholics were "as rare as a comet or an earthquake."

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And Adams was by no means unique, for anti-Catholicism was the norm among the founders. Jefferson loathed "Jesuitism" as "a retrograde step from light towards darkness." John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, was well known for despising Catholicism. In proposing language for the New York state Constitution, he proposed tolerance for everyone except Catholics who refuse to renounce papal authority.

These prejudices aren't pretty. But acknowledgement of the founders' religious biases, like their biases against racial minorities and women, can be constructive, furthering the ideals of equality, tolerance, and pluralism. Moreover, knowing this background of anti-Catholicism, we can more fully understand the significance of Newt Gingrich embracing the church of Rome while he simultaneously claims both moral authority and loyalty to the vision of the founders.

Gingrich's claimed moral authority is indeed unambiguous, for as a new Catholic he speaks to his audiences as a defender of God: "In America, religious belief is being challenged by a cultural elite trying to create a secularized America, in which God is driven out of public life," he warned a crowd recently.

The irony of Gingrich claiming moral authority can't be overlooked, because few individuals carry with them his degree of public moral baggage. This is a man who cheated on his first wife, then confronted her with divorce papers while she was hospitalized for cancer treatment. He then cheated on his second wife while simultaneously berating Bill Clinton for a sex scandal with Monica Lewinski, aggressively leading the call for Clinton's impeachment. He later became the first House speaker in history to be sanctioned for ethics violations. His eagerness to play the role of moral attack dog, of Grand Inquisitor, would be noteworthy anyway, but is even more remarkable in light of the train wreck of moral failures in his own life.

In fact, if one were cynical, one could see Gingrich's own Catholic conversion as a necessary step in his effort to remake himself. With such a disastrous personal life and such a reputation for ruthlessness, Gingrich was in need of a complete makeover in order to make a plausible claim of likeability as a public figure.

Personally, I never question anyone's claimed religiosity, and therefore I take Gingrich at his word when he says that his late-life submission to papal authority is an act of sincere religious devotion. Others, however, some dating back decades, have expressed skepticism about Gingrich's religiosity. In a famous 1984 article about Gingrich in Mother Jones magazine, for example, David Osborne writes that a young speechwriter who knew Gingrich described him as "not very religious" and even quoted Gingrich himself as being "not a very strong believer." (That article, still a worthwhile read, provided early insight into both his shortcomings and ambitions.)

Since then, of course, from a religious standpoint Gingrich has apparently seen the light, though some would no doubt say he has "seen the Right" - as in the Religious Right, which now requires all GOP candidates to wear their religion proudly.

But not everyone is convinced of Gingrich's claimed moral authority. Politics Daily recently quoted a Penn student, Isabel Friedman, as asking Gingrich: "You adamantly oppose gay rights . . . but you've also been married three times and admitted to having an affair with your current wife while you were still married to your second. As a successful politician who's considering running for president, who would set the bar for moral conduct and be the voice of the American people, how do you reconcile this hypocritical interpretation of the religious values that you so vigorously defend?"

Gingrich shot back by trying to put the student on the defensive for asking such a brash question. "I appreciate the delicacy and generosity with which your question was framed," he quipped sarcastically.

There's humor in a plea for "delicacy" coming from Gingrich, whose reputation as a gloves-off pit bull is legendary. His pursuit of Bill Clinton's impeachment is perhaps the best-known example, but there are many. When a South Carolina mother killed her children years ago, most of the country was simply stunned, but Gingrich suggested, rather indelicately, that the moral decay of such a "sick" society was attributable to Democrats.

Thus the irony of Gingrich crying foul over a tough question from a college student. "I hope you feel better about yourself," he told Friedman condescendingly, as if a question such as hers would never emanate from his dignified lips. After chastising the student (no doubt a budding cultural elitist) for asking such a bare-knuckle question, Gingrich continued his answer by conceding, "I've had a life, which, on occasion, has had problems."

This understatement appears to be Gingrich's latest pitch for public acceptance, and his Catholic conversion fits into this theme. Given Gingrich's history and the depth of his moral and personal issues, a mere claim to have rediscovered religion would have been an inadequate reinvention. He needed more. Surely, nothing sends a signal of complete personal and moral renewal better than a conversion to a new religion. Fortunately for him, such an epiphany apparently occurred - and by coincidence almost immediately after the last presidential election.

In years past, as noted above, a conversion by a Baptist to Catholicism would have been political suicide in America. Fierce anti-Catholicism continued even long after the founding era, such as when an angry mob burned down a Catholic convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1834. In fact, in the mid-19th century the Know Nothing Party was built on anti-Catholic prejudice. Surely such sentiments, were they prevalent in America today, would translate to virulent disdain for Gingrich's conversion to "Popery."

A wide chasm with much distrust remained between Protestants and Catholics in America even into modern times, and it is only in recent decades that we've seen some joining of their forces. So-called "culture war" issues have resulted in evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants frequently seeing the value of political coalition with once-hated Catholics on like-minded issues such as abortion. The historical foes have combined in modern times to oppose the new common enemy of "secularism."

All of this works to the good fortune of former Speaker Gingrich, making his Catholic conversion potentially beneficial. With the new religious beginning, his adultery and ruthlessness can seem like a past life, a flawed aspect of the old Newt. With the reinvention, Gingrich can try to dismiss his history of moral and personal shortcomings as having been remedied by a spiritual renewal.

One need not speculate about what Adams and Jefferson would think.

For more on American anti-Catholicism, see "Question to Justice Scalia: Does the Establishment Clause Permit the Disregard of Devout Catholics?" by Mike Newdow, Capital Univ. Law Review: 38 Cap. U. L. Rev. 409 (2009-2010)

Text Copyright 2011 Dave Niose

Dave Niose is an attorney, activist, and writer. He is president of the Washington-based American Humanist Association.

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