Michelle Goldberg is a contemporary writer. She is the author of Kingdom Coming, The Rise of Christian Nationalism. That is a book that should be required reading for every student of religion and theology in our contemporary world. She is not a Senior Writer for Newsweek and The Daily Beast.
In the current issue of Newsweek and yesterday's edition of The Daily Beast, she presents an article titled, “Let There Be Newt, How the religious right is learning to love the adulterous, thrice-married former speaker.”
While there are a number of reasons her article should be read by anyone concerned about the future of this country. I was struck by, or perhaps it would be more proper to say, convicted of, the ease with which supposed rigid religious dogmas or views can be altered, if not completely changed, by the expediency of the moment.
At the beginning of her Newsweek / Daily Beast article Ms. Goldberg states, “Like many evangelicals in Iowa, Steve Deace, an influential conservative radio host, is wrestling with the possibility that Newt Ginrich may be the most viable standard bearer for family values voters in the next election.”
Now, I live in Georgia. I was serving a parish in Newt Ginrich's district when he first was elected to Congress. While my political views have been usually is strong opposition to the Speaker's, I have been fascinated with his ability to manipulate. (I do not mean that in a negative sense. All of us try to manipulate things to our own self-interest. Newt Ginrich is just better at it than most.)
It was Newt Ginrich who first recognized the possibilities of C-Span having cameras in the Chamber of the House of Representatives. He also realized the cameras were trained on the person speaking. And for quite a while Newt arranged for various representatives from his party to speak on partisan issues. It was all for the benefit of the cameras. There was no one else in the chamber. But the camera didn't show that. It looked good for the folks back home, their representative was making a lot of speeches. He must be a rising star.
Speaker Ginrich also noted the value of using cameras, ostensibly for educational purposes, to further a partisan agenda by showing the speaker lecturing to a group of college students, at an actual college, but which lectures were not to educate but indoctrinate, using public airways and cable franchises.
For all of his power, influence and reach, however, the former Speaker of the House, was never embraced by the religious right element. There were those terrible stories of him presenting the divorce papers to his first wife at her bedside as she was being treated for cancer. There were the stories of his being involved in an affair with the woman who would become his current wife while insisting President Bill Clinton be impeached for sexual misconduct.
Newt Ginrich's moral, or lack of moral, baggage made him unacceptable to much of the religious right. But now, as Ms. Goldberg's article points out, those who before would have condemned his behavior as unacceptable are finding reasons to forgive and elevate him if he is the one who can best promote their agenda.
In the Newsweek / Daily Beast article Ms. Goldberg speaks of Steve Deace, comparing New Ginrich to King David. After all, King David did have that sordid affair with Bathsheba, and he had her husband killed, and there's that long, long, list of his indiscretions. But, as the evangelicals in Iowa are now pointing out, God did use King David.
Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, a religious and political right institution, is quoted by Ms. Goldberg as saying: “Under normal circumstances, Ginrich would have some real problems with the social-conservative community. But these aren't normal circumstances.”
Now having put forth more than one page above about the former Speaker of the House, let me state: This is not a writing about Newt Ginrich. But it is a writing that marvels at the ease with which religious folks can redefine their ethical positions. Maybe Tony Perkins would call it circumstantial ethics.
With just a few opinion polls and debate performances pushing Newt Ginrich to the top of the pack in Iowa, the conservative Christian bloc, now seeing him as electable, is saying, “Well, you know, old Newt, I mean I know he was a sinner, but he has repented of his sins and, you know, God loves the prodigal who comes home.” Newt the forgiven sinner easily becomes Newt the standard bearer of God blessed American virtue.
What bothers me most about what I recognize happening with the Christian right and their changing attitude toward New Ginrich is I am reminded of me.
There's an old story I often tell my like-minded liberal friends when I want to get a laugh. It concerned a true incident. Back in 1965, when I was serving my first church, there were racial demonstrations going on in that rural Georgia county. Some of the big names of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had come down to organize marches, demonstrations, and to generally make life difficult for the local sheriff and those who were resistant to the inevitable march of change. One day, I was at a meeting of local clergy where the general theme of the conversation centered around “Now, we need to be careful during these times that we don't do anything that might hurt our relationship with our people.” I was quiet during the meeting.
After a while one of the more prominent pastors in the community, a pastor of a big Southern Baptist church, said to me: “Well, Brother Kent, you haven't said anything. What's your take on this?”
I replied, “You know, I understand what you're saying about not harming your relationship with your people, but I have to tell you, this is a group of almost two dozen Christian clergymen, and not one person has said anything about setting a Christian example.”
“There you go,” yelled the prominent pastor. “All you Methodists do is talk about integration, integration, integration, and now one of you would let your daughter marry a black person.” (Now, it should be noted he used another word other than “black.”).
I looked at him a moment and then replied, “That may be true, but I wouldn't let her marry a Baptist either.”
(Here note my apology to my Baptist friends. But I was young then and I was mad.)
That story can elicit a laugh, as I say. But the truth of the matter is that prominent pastor had my number. Because I left that meeting and I went back to my church and I wrote my sermon and I delivered that sermon the next Sunday and nothing in that sermon said anything that would harm my influence with my people.
There have been countless of times in my ministry when I've chosen not to notice, when I've chosen to not say to a lay person, “Stop it! That's a sin and you should be ashamed.” There have been a number of times when I've not said to a church superior, “There's no way I'm going to be part of that.”
I suppose in my present position I'm more prone to speak up and draw the line in the sand. I can do that now because I'm retired and I'm serving that church because I want to. But even now there are times when I don't point to the moral line drawn in the sand and say “Don't cross this line.” Truth is, I'm more prone to moving the line to suit my own particular circumstance.
So, where does this leave us? It leaves me in the exact position as my those on the opposite side of the spectrum from me. We're both experts at moving the moral line to suit our purposes.
Am I wrong in thinking that in that kingdom Jesus talked about we'll all know where the immovable line is drawn?