Newt Gingrich is, in all likelihood, heading towards a loss tonight in Florida. It wasn’t so long ago that the Speaker was riding high off a double-digit victory in South Carolina, where he declared that “the centerpiece” of the campaign was “American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky.” Since Gingrich has promised to take his campaign all the way to the convention regardless of tonight’s results, we can expect to hear a lot more about Saul Alinsky. What was Alinsky’s legacy?
A 1998 paper in Theological Studies argues that Alinsky played a central role in the history of U.S. Catholicism—specifically, the Campaign for Human Development (CHD), “the most significant and longest-running experiment of 20th-century U.S. Catholic social action.” The CHD, which was started in 1969, reflected the Church’s concern for the poor and marginalized by embracing a program of political and social action. Many of the Catholic leaders behind the movement were closely associated with Alinsky and drew inspiration from his organizing work in Chicago. One of the campaign’s central concerns was the cycle of poverty, and to address that crisis, it focused on the need for political organization among impoverished populations. This, it turns out, was an idea directly inspired by Gingrich’s bogeyman: “Their recognition that the poor needed organized power sprang directly from their respect for Saul Alinsky.” That’s a bit of an awkward fact for a candidate who has touted his own conversion to Catholicism.