Gingrich, Historian, Religionist, Fails Own MLK Weekend Test

Newt Gingrich not only touts his experience as a historian, but he fancies himself a religionist as well. When he began orchestrating the political comeback that culminated in his current presidential bid, he published a book, Rediscovering God in America, the themes of which he reprised for “Pastors’ Policy Briefings” across the country: America is a Christian nation, there is no separation of church and state; if the secularists just understood this and gave into my, Newt Gingrich’s (via David Barton) vision of America, many, if not most, of our problems would be solved.

But when Gingrich appeared at a town hall at the Jones Memorial AME Zion Church in Columbia, South Carolina, on Saturday, he did not flash his Christianist talking points. Surely he knew what sort of religious angle would inspire here, being a student of American history, an aficianado of its religions (because, after all, he also knows how dangerous Muslims are and what Jews think), an expert on the nation’s essential Christian core, and in particular someone who taught history in the American south.

He launched straight to economic issues, offering his “solutions” to create jobs by drilling for offshore natural gas and modernizing the Port of Charleston for when the Panama Canal is expanded. But justice? Totally absent.

The audience didn’t care about Gingrich’s “solutions.” The first question out of the box came from a gentleman who wanted to know, quite simply (to paraphrase), what in the hell was Gingrich thinking when he said that kids should work as janitors?

The questions didn’t let up: will you retract your remark that Barack Obama is the “food stamp president?” (No, because more people are on food stamps under Obama, said Gingrich.) Why do Republicans place all blame for the country’s economic woes on Obama? And a heartbreaking question, from a schoolteacher and mother who recently became homeless, to which Gingrich failed to react like a, um, human.

Gingrich simply did not get the environment: in response to a question of how he would be bi-partisan should he be elected president, he harkened back to his days as Speaker, when he helped pass welfare reform and tax cuts (including capital gains tax cuts, he took care to emphasize). In response to the question about his advocacy of child labor, he told a story about a 16 year-old he met in New Hampshire who had started a donut business at age 11. He offered wonkolicious “solutions,” completely divorced from the situations and questions being presented to him.

The headline for the Politico story on the campaign stop was “Newt Gingrich battles with crowd at black church.” That, of course, misses the point. Here was Gingrich, who in any other church setting would blather on about God and Jesus and what makes America great. That he could stand in a black church the day before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, and be questioned about race and economic injustice and not once invoke any religious themes — even broad themes that transcend particular faiths — lays bare the emptiness of his hyper-religiosity, which he reserves only for certain audiences.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email