Michelle Goldberg is the author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. Her new book, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World, will be published in April by Penguin Press.
As I was walking out the door yesterday evening, the phone rang. On the line was a woman from something called the National Committee for Faith and Family, contacting people, she said, on behalf of Newt Gingrich. She asked me to hold for a message from the great man, I dutifully agreed, and was treated to a recording of Gingrich hawking a full-length documentary called Rediscovering God in America. Then the woman came back on, saying, "Do you think we need to stop the momentum of anti-God liberals and Obama?" She wanted a donation of $35 to distribute the movie, which claims that the United States was founded on religious principals, and that separation of church and state is a myth fostered by devious subversives.
"There is no attack on American culture more destructive and more historically dishonest than the relentless effort to drive God out of America's public square," Gingrich says in a trailer for the documentary on his website. Among the program's talking heads is David Barton, a former math teacher and Texas fundamentalist who has fashioned a career as a prominent revisionist historian, reinterpreting the American past along theocratic lines. Barton started out on the fringe--in the early '90s, he was a speaker at white supremacist Christian Identity conferences--but in the modern GOP, he's hardly an extremist. Indeed, in 2004, the RNC hired Barton to give get-out-the-vote speeches to groups of clergy nationwide. What's surprising is not that Gingrich would associate with Barton, whose work he's been praising for years. What's surprising is that, at a time of serious collapse on the right, Gingrich is hitching his bid for renewed relevance to the most exhausted culture war tropes.
Gingrich, after all, likes to imagine himself an innovator. And yet, at a time when he seems to be hoping to take advantage of Republican disarray to return to the political fray, he's doing it in the most tired way imaginable. There he was on the O'Reilly Factor a couple of weeks ago, warning of "gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us." Visitors to his website are asked to sign a petition on behalf of an issue surely disturbing the sleep of a crisis-ridden nation--insufficient references to God in the new Capitol Visitor Center. (South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint is on the case as well, putting out a statement yesterday saying, "The Capitol Visitor Center is designed to tell the history and purpose of our nation's Capitol, but it fails to appropriately honor our religious heritage that has been critical to America's success.")
One has to wonder--is this really all they've got? I've been reporting for a long time on the central role of the religious fundamentalism and sacralized nationalism in the Republican Party--that's how I've ended up on the kind of calling lists used by groups like the National Committee for Faith and Family. Still, I'd have expected some attempt to modulate the message of perpetual kulturkampf in the wake of the election results, the public disaffection of so many prominent conservative intellectuals, and the cascading economic disasters threatening millions of Americans. Perhaps, though, people like Gingrich can't imagine any other way. And so, with the defeat of Republican moderates rendering the rump GOP more right-wing than ever, he apparently sees a path to power in challenging Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee for leadership of the Elmer Gantry wing of his beaten party. Maybe he's clueless about the future of Republicanism, but if he's right about it, it's hard to see what kind of future Republicanism has.