Is Newt the New Neuhaus?
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 07:24:47 AM EST
The passing in January of Richard John Neuhaus -- the former Lutheran minister of the Left-turned-Catholic priest, icon of the neocon Right has left a leadership vacancy that is hard to fill. Neuhaus was a pioneering broker between mutually suspicious  conservative Catholics and Protestants.

And suddenly Newt Gingrich converted to Catholicism.

But let's not get too far ahead of our story. Needless to say, the death of Neuhaus poses a problem for the Religious Right, particularly for the clique of socially conservative Evangelical and Catholics formed under the late priest's guidance. Among the divergent group he brought together were Charles Colson, Richard Land, George Weigel, Bill Bright (Campus Crusade for Christ) and Pat Robertson.

I wrote at the time of his death: "Neuhaus was well grounded in both Protestant and Catholic perspectives. This understanding facilitated his ability to build political bridges between socially conservative Protestants and socially conservative Catholics. His passing leaves a void that is not easily filled." He was able to build such an alliance due into no small part to his own background in both realms of Christianity. Yes, there are others such as Deal Hudson who have been part of both communities, but they are either not charismatic or - like Hudson - come with baggage.

So the question is, can Newt serve as the new Neuhaus, bridging the main factions of the Religious Right?

Like Neuhaus, the former Speaker of the House is a champion of both laissez-faire economics (and interestingly, quite contrary to actual Catholic theology) and blind obedience to the hierarchy. His call for tea parties to protest New Deal-style economics girded by a fairer, progressive system of taxation is, however, a direct contradiction to Church teaching on Distributive Justice. Likewise, his attack on President Obama's proposed changes to the charitable deduction for top earners, claiming that it is a "war against churches and charities" is clearly aimed at an audience that simultaneously anti-tax and religiously conservative. In these ways, he certainly is a logical heir to the Neuhaus legacy.

Since his conversion Gingrich has become increasingly visible. His condemnation of President Obama's planned commencement speech at Notre Dame is clearly a clarion call to potential voters of the Catholic Right, if not for himself, possibly for another prospective GOP presidential candidate and fellow convert to Catholicism Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.  As Bill Berkowitz recently reported on Newt's new venture:

Gingrich's actions are aimed at revivifying the relationship between economic and social conservatives: "There's too much finger-pointing between economic conservatives who say we're losing ground because of social conservatives and social conservatives who say the opposite," says Barton, who sits on Renewing American Leadership's board. "Instead of having a circular firing squad, we need to start identifying real allies and the real opponents."

"Secular conservatives often operate from a perspective that says, 'Why should I care about evangelical voters?'" said Rick Tyler, who served as Gingrich's spokesman before becoming founding director of Renewing American Leadership. "And I show them why: because when you turn out evangelical voters who support socially conservative candidates, you also get conservative economic policies."

Max Blumenthal thinks that he is positioning himself for a 2012 run for the White House. Possibly to that end Gingrich has closely allied himself with Catholic Right icon Deal Hudson, a fellow former Baptist-turned-Catholic. As Blumenthal keenly observed:

With his sins officially expunged, Gingrich appears poised to play a decisive role in the 2012 Republican presidential sweepstakes. Whether or not Gingrich is a candidate, Hudson, who advised John McCain in 2008 and plans to participate in the next campaign, says he believes Gingrich has consolidated his influence in the party. "[Gingrich] has gone through a change in his life through his third marriage and he has decided to settle down," Hudson said. "You're never too old to settle down."

But while Max Blumenthal may well be spot-on with regard to Gingrich's intentions for 2012, we would do well to remember first and foremost his skills of political organizing. While Gingrich is a politician and - unlike Neuhaus -- not a priest able to dispense deep theological arguments, he is quite astute at building political bridges. While serving as the Chairmen of GOPAC from 1986 through 1995 he help orchestrate the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in the 1994-midterm elections. It was an achievement that resulted from endless (and often questionable) fundraising and unceasingly grooming prospective candidates for successful electoral outcomes.

It might well be that the kind of factional broker that would best serve the Religious Right for today may be different than what was needed when Neuhaus assumed the role. With Hudson as his intellectual and initial relational "coach," it could well be that Gingrich is the new Neuhaus.

But more importantly, Gingrich's Catholic emergence is one more reason to believe that the Religious Right is far from dead.

And Newt's ascension proves their ability to reinvent themselves.

But on a happier note, Happy Easter and Happy Passover to everyone!

by Frank Cocozzelli on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 07:28:51 AM EST

When the rich and powerful join a movement, they are generally not converted! The join to change where they exercise their influence and power. Catholicism in America is all to often defined by it's loudest and most extreme voices, just like evangelicalism is defined by the loudest voices in the movement. Wouldn't it be refreshing, if the core values of our religious tradition actually "converted" or transformed the people who claimed their name. Remember the story of Haman in Esther, some of us might be building our own gallows, as we welcome these strange voices into our midst.

by chaplain on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 08:45:54 AM EST
And I couldn't have put it any better!

by Frank Cocozzelli on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 03:08:53 PM EST

Thank you for the excellent article and the well reasoned insight into this interesting development. Keep up the good work, please!

by COinMS on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 10:12:43 AM EST

I can see Newt and Deal Hudson allied with Bobby "The Exorcist" Jindal for a presidential run. The hierarchy tends to behave like a bunch of ward heelers for the GOP.

by khughes1963 on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 05:30:19 PM EST

What really bothers me is that people don't seem to see his baggage, just as they don't realize the threat the NAR and the Religious Right are to this country.

There is a news article that "Homeland Security" has issued a warning about the threat from "Right Wing Extremists".  I just wish they speak more about the threat we're aware of.

by ArchaeoBob on Wed Apr 15, 2009 at 10:35:19 AM EST

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