Newt Gingrich, Newbie Catholic

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Newt Gingrich was a featured speaker at this morning’s National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, an annual event in Washington that traditionally draws (Republican) politicians looking to court conservative Catholics. Much of the breakfast was focused on the biggest news in the Catholic world this week–the upcoming beatification of Pope John Paul II this Sunday. Gingrich’s speech fit neatly within this theme, as he delivered an extended infomercial for the film he and wife Callista produced about the late Pope’s 1979 visit to Poland, “Nine Days That Changed the World.”

But Gingrich’s detour into one of his favorite topics–the idea that secularists are taking over America–was met with a lukewarm response and indicated that this recent convert may not know his Catholic audience as well as he thinks. For the past five or six years, including his 2006 book Rediscovering God in America, Gingrich has taken up the cause of religious freedom for Christians in America. (Religious freedom for American Muslims? Not so much.)

Gingrich is particularly fond of going after “activist judges” who, in his reading, have banished religion from the public square. From his remarks today:

From the 1962 school prayer decision on, there has been a decisive break with the essentially religious nature of historic American civilization. As Justice Stewart Potter said in his dissent to the Court’s 1963 decision in School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp, which held that it was unconstitutional to read the Bible in school or recite the Lord’s Prayer: “a refusal to permit religious exercises thus is seen not as the realization of state neutrality, but rather as the establishment of a religion of secularism.”

The argument is not without Catholic supporters, but it finds much more traction in conservative Evangelical circles. Why? Because Catholics remember the history of anti-Catholicism in public schools, they remember that the “essentially religious nature of historic American civilization” was an essentially Protestant nature. Those Bible readings were from Protestant Bibles, student prayers were Protestant prayers, and religious instruction focused on Protestant theology.

The overwhelmingly Protestant nature of public schools was just one factor that led American Catholics to set up their own parochial schools. But it left enough of a bad taste that it’s hard for many Catholics to stand up and cheer alongside their Protestant peers at the prospect of a return to the good old days.

One side note I find interesting: The Gingrichs’ production partner on their films about religion is one David Bossie, whose name might be familiar from Whitewater days. Bossie was an investigator for Dan Burton’s House committee in the 1990s, and he was ultimately fired for tampering with audio tapes and transcripts of the Clintons and Webb Hubbell to make them seem incriminating.