‘War on Religion’? The problem is religious, not political
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.”
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.