As ever, Newt Gingrich minced no words. “I understand that there’s a war against religion,” Gingrich told the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody last week, “and I am prepared to actually fight back.” In the same conversation, Gingrich claimed that most journalists simply could not understand people of faith given the media’s purported secularism. And so Gingrich’s “war” goes on.
Playing on one of the most ancient traditions within Christianity — the fear of persecution — Gingrich has chosen to cast contemporary American life as a duel between light and dark, between believers and secularists, between ordinary Americans and pagan, condescending “elites.” His most common target (and the subject of a long white paper on his website): judges who he claims favor secularists over believers. “The revolutionary idea contained in the Declaration of Independence is that certain fundamental human rights, including the right to life, are gifts from God and cannot be given nor taken away by government,” says newt.org. “Yet, secular radicals are trying to remove ‘our Creator’ — the source of our rights — from public life.”
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Ah, those “secular radicals.” No doubt there are secular extremists with radical ideas about religion in public life. But here’s what we know for sure: President Obama is not one of them, nor are at least five of the Justices of the Supreme Court, including the Chief Justice, a practicing Roman Catholic. Though Gingrich’s hyperbole may be good primary politics, the problem is that politicizing religion in this way trivializes the honorable tradition of real martyrdom in the service of creating an exaggerated sense of grievance and self-pity among believers.
The more the Republican field talks in such apocalyptic terms, the more likely it seems that the GOP could alienate the independent voters who might be otherwise inclined to turn President Obama out of office in November. A holy war might play well to the Republican base, but the base isn’t exactly a swing bloc.
The “war on religion” tactic is an old one. To use an analogy Gingrich likes — one from World War II — the Pearl Harbor of the culture wars he is trying to perpetuate is the 1962 Supreme Court decision declaring mandatory prayer in public schools to be unconstitutional. Eleven years later, Roe v. Wade created (to belabor the metaphor) a permanent conservative war machine that survives even now.
Yet it is very hard to see how a fair-minded person could agree that there is a war on religion in America. There are, of course, policy questions with important religious elements. There always have been and always will be. What’s remarkable is how well America has tended — and, importantly, still tends — to handle such difficult matters. The power of the American system of republicanism lies in its capacity to allow religious belief to be a competing, not a controlling, factor in American life.
The nonbelieving, not the believing, are the ones who should feel outnumbered. According to Gallup, 78% of American adults identify with some form of Christian religion. Jews make up less than 2%; Muslims form 1%; and 15% say their “religious preference” is “none/atheist/agnostic.” Ninety-five percent of Americans who say they are religious are thus Christians. The President of the United States routinely invokes God’s blessing on the nation. Washington and state and county and city buildings throughout the country use religious imagery. We open our congressional sessions and our inaugurations with prayers; chaplains receive publicly funded salaries. The pagans, therefore, are not exactly at the gates.
Still, in his hyperbolic way, Gingrich is onto something. According to a 2010 Gallup survey, 7 in 10 Americans say religion is losing its influence on American life, which the polling organization says is “one of the highest such responses in Gallup’s 53-year history of asking this question, and significantly higher than in the first half of the past decade.” The percentage of Americans who say they are not affiliated with any specific religious group is growing too.
It is true that traditional Christianity is losing some of its appeal among Americans, but that is a religious, not political, matter. It is worth remembering that the Jeffersonian “wall of separation” between church and state has always been intended to protect the church from the state as much as the state from the church. And evangelism is about winning souls more than it is about winning votes. For many serious believers, that’s the real war. And it’s not the one Gingrich thinks is unfolding.
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