Oscar Wilde once observed that “the Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone. For respectable people, the Anglican Church will do.” Newt Gingrich would have made a pitiable Anglican–or Mormon, for that matter. As a Catholic, however, he fits right in. Catholics are all too familiar with frailty, and in fact the central Christian idea of redemption by Christ presupposes a need for such redemption.
A few years ago, a friend who frequents the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. told me that he had seen the former Speaker there often, speculating that Gingrich was likely going to convert to Catholicism. Such a conversion would be what the old Jesuits called “a big splash” (the bigger the stone, the greater the splash). The Catholic intellectual tradition’s rigorous examination of theology and philosophy undoubtedly appealed to his acquisitive mind. And in the Church’s annals, the professor of history found two millennia of events that shaped the course of the Western world, from Leo the Great riding out armed only with his scepter to meet Attila the Hun, to John Paul II traveling behind the Iron Curtain to his native Poland to bring down the scourge of Communism—an iconic event that seems to have captured the imagination of the recent convert.
To many observers, he appears to be the same old Gingrich–a pompous policy wonk who will eventually implode, either before or after he becomes the Republican nominee. Perhaps.
Gingrich’s journey to Rome, like many who journeyed there before him, involved many messy detours. He resembles in many ways the deeply flawed figures of an Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene novel, rather than the prototypical American politician. His baggage is well known (even if myth sometimes overtakes fact in the retelling). His is no storybook American or Christian family, and yet it is a fairly typical twenty-first century American family.
Since his conversion is well known to political insiders, he will no doubt be accused by some of hypocrisy (as if Christianity demanded perfection) and cynical opportunism. It is, of course, impossible to know his heart, though not altogether impossible to know his mind, and it is telling that on what are perhaps the three most crucial international policy issues facing the next president–the Arab world, Iran, and illegal immigration–Gingrich’s positions appear to have been shaped significantly by Catholic thought.
In a recent debate, Gingrich referred to the Arab Spring as an “anti-Christian Spring,” signaling that the status of Middle Eastern Christians might become the centerpiece of his foreign policy toward the Muslim world. The fate of Middle Eastern Christians has never figured prominently in American foreign policy, despite foreseeable consequences that have led to destructive genocide in places like Iraq. This political indifference is in no small measure attributable to the fact that American Christians have expressed little affinity for their fellow Christians in the Muslim world. The Catholic Church has been virtually alone in its advocacy on their behalf. Gingrich’s expression of concern may, then, have been less an obscure policy reference than a deliberate decision to propel this issue to the forefront of his foreign policy toward the Muslim world–a decision rooted in Catholic thought and culture.
On Iran, Gingrich has said he would approach the matter as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and John Paul II dealt with the Soviet threat: Contain Iran, while bringing moral and political pressure to bear, rather than mere military force–the clear preference of many. Reagan was similarly always prepared to talk tough but would generally engage militarily only as a last resort, often finding himself at odds with the more hawkish elements in his party. Whether Gingrich envisions a role for the Vatican in his diplomacy with Iran (the Vatican has amicable relations with the current regime, which it presses for religious tolerance–especially of the hundreds of thousands of Christians who live in Iran) is unclear. What is clear is his preference for the model of a multifaceted, multilateral approach.
On illegal immigration, Gingrich has offered a humane, if arguably unworkable, solution to the issue of illegal immigrants, stating that he would not use the government to “break up their family and deport them.” Taking a harder line would almost certainly be politically advantageous in a primary fight steered more to the right than many in recent history, yet he has opted for a moderate approach. In so doing, he has invoked the language of the Catholic Church, which recognizes the primacy of the family unit, even amid immigration controversies.
Newt Gingrich is nothing if not a shrewd politician. The fact that his positions appear to reflect the influence of Catholic thought suggests that he at least takes seriously the teachings of his newly-adopted faith. Time will tell. Whatever the case, it is refreshing to see Catholic ideas in the public square, even if they are not recognized as such.
Andrew Doran is a consultant for the U.S. Department of State, where he served on the Executive Secretariat of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO (2008-09). He was a Director for the Educational Initiative for Central & Eastern Europe, a Vienna-based institute that promotes democracy in the former Soviet-bloc region. He is an attorney, writer, and has traveled extensively throughout the Muslim world.
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