Gingrich's War on 'Secularism'
All 43 American presidents – even those who doubted religion – associated themselves with the Christian faith. Today, it is still far easier for a politician from a fringe religious sect, such as Mormonism, to be a serious national candidate than it would be for an atheist or an agnostic.
Yet, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is basing his political comeback, in part, on an assertion that the real bias in America is against those who believe in religion and that “radical secularism” is oppressing them.
“This anti-religious bias must end,” Gingrich told an enthusiastic audience of graduates from the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Gingrich’s strategy appears to be to repackage the Right’s lament about the so-called “war on Christmas” into a year-round campaign to make Christians view themselves as victims of evil, all-powerful secularists and liberals.
Much like the “war on Christmas” alarms, Gingrich’s detection of this “anti-religious bias” across America is derived by cherry-picking small gestures aimed at minimizing discrimination against both non-Christians and non-believers and transforming that into a pattern of oppression against the Christian majority in the United States.
For instance, a core complaint about the alleged “war on Christmas” was that some store employees welcomed customers with the non-denominational greeting “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Somehow, Christians were oppressed when a check-out clerk at Wal-Mart didn’t say “Merry Christmas” in late November.
Right-wing pundits collected similar affronts, such as the failure of the United States Postal Service to print up a new Madonna and Child stamp before Christmas 2005. (As it turned out, the Postal Service was trying to sell off its existing stock of Madonna stamps from 2004 before the postage rate went up.)
Similarly, in his Liberty University commencement address on May 19, Gingrich saw phantoms of anti-religious bias everywhere such as when secularists criticize what some consider dangerous aspects of religious fundamentalism.
“In hostility to American history, the radical secularists insist that religious belief is inherently divisive,” Gingrich said, accusing these secularists of employing “contorted logic” and “false principles.”
Gingrich also detected an unjust ban against religious Americans presenting their case publicly. “Basic fairness demands that religious beliefs deserve a chance to be heard,” the Georgia Republican said.
Much as the Right’s “war on Christmas” theme required a listener to ignore the obvious, like America’s extravagant month-long celebration of Jesus’s birth, Gingrich’s complaint demanded a self-inflicted blindness to the endless opportunities for Christians to present their views – both traditional and more extreme versions – to the public.
Bookstores across the country sell all kinds of Christian books, including millions of copies of novels about the “end times.” TV and radio outlets, both local and national, broadcast Christian religious services and Christian Right versions of the news.
Indeed, Jerry Falwell, Liberty University’s founder who died last week, emerged as a national political figure in the 1980s because of the popularity of his televised “Old Time Gospel Hour” and his appearances on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network.
Beyond the Christian media, both Republicans and Democrats make a point of citing scripture in their speeches. Politicians of all stripes lined up to denounce a federal judge in San Francisco who ruled that it was unconstitutional to have children in school recite “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.
For months after that ruling, supporters of the “under God” phrasing would shout those words during public recitations of the Pledge, just like some Fox News listeners would spit out an angry “Merry Christmas” into the face of a store clerk who had wished them “Happy Holidays.”
Despite the pervasiveness of religion in U.S. life, Gingrich depicted Americans who believe in religion as an abused and persecuted group. “It is wrong to single out those who believe in God for discrimination,” Gingrich said. “Yet, today, it is impossible to miss the discrimination against religious believers.”
On the contrary, a neutral observer arriving in the United States would find it impossible to miss how the major U.S. news media and virtually all national politicians bend over to accommodate religious believers, yet have no qualms about publishing smears or taking pot shots against so-called “secularists.”
The Washington Post devoted a half page to Gingrich’s attack on “radical secularism” without including a single response from anyone representing secularists or giving any balance to the article, such as pointing out the inherent absurdity of some Gingrich claims. [Washington Post, May 20, 2007]
If some foolhardy politician dared criticize any aspect of religion, you could rest assured that plenty of religious leaders would be given a chance to respond.
The reality is that Gingrich’s complaints – like the “war on Christmas” lament – mark a world in which up is down, where right-wing Christians feel oppressed even when they are doing the oppressing.
For instance, Justice Department official Monica Goodling, a graduate of Pat Robertson’s Regent University law school, was allowed to weed out applicants for government civil-service jobs based on how they responded to her questions about their personal morality and political views.
Though Regent’s law school is rated by U.S. News near the bottom nationally – with about 60 percent of Goodling’s graduating class failing the bar exam on the first try – some 150 Regent lawyers have landed jobs in the Bush administration, as candidates from top schools are turned away. [Boston Globe, April 8, 2007]
But Gingrich and other Republican leaders have grasped the political advantage that comes from letting some group, even a powerful and privileged one, wallow in the self-pity of their own “victimhood.”
In the 1990s, an effective right-wing theme was the complaint against “political correctness,” which often came down to universities and other institutions applying clumsy restrictions against young white men shouting the n-word at African-Americans or using other offensive language.
Though American white men were arguably the most privileged group on earth, the “political correctness” theme allowed them to get righteous and angry against their supposed persecutors.
There is, of course, a grave danger when a powerful group begins to view itself as the victim, because its real power allows these ersatz oppressed to inflict far greater harm on their imaginary persecutors than could a group with little or no power.
Historically, the world has seen this phenomenon many times, such as when Christians in Europe convinced themselves that they were at the mercy of cunning Jews. Many of the continent’s anti-Jewish pogroms were conducted by Christians convinced that they were simply defending their way of life, that they were the real victims.
Now, Gingrich, known for his worldly ways and a hedonistic past, has detected a political opening if he can come across as the defender of God-fearing Americans resisting their oppressors, the “radical secularists.”
Yet, the truth is almost the opposite. For the past quarter century, one of the easiest groups of Americans to demonize has been the so-called “secular humanists,” a phrase popularized as an epithet during the 1980s along with the word, “lib-rul.”
The reality is that there is perhaps no more readily accepted bias in America than the one directed against atheists and other non-believers, a fact demonstrated again by Gingrich’s speech and by the news media’s easy tolerance for his slurs against secularism.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
To comment at Consortiumblog, click here. (To make a blog comment about this or other stories, you can use your normal e-mail address and password. Ignore the prompt for a Google account.) To comment to us by e-mail, click here. To donate so we can continue reporting and publishing stories like the one you just read, click here.
Back to Home Page