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Eboo Patel: Newt Gingrich: A Catholic Running Against Islam?

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and high-profile conservative intellectual, announced yesterday that he is officially in the running for the Republican nomination for president. Along the way he’s been playing the politics of religion.

In the speeches and media appearances he did in preparation for his run, he has emphasized two things. The first is the importance of God and morality in the public square, referencing his own conversion to Catholicism to give him credibility. The second is to rail against the dangers of Islam in America.

This two-pronged approach underscores just how far we have come in America on issues of religious tolerance, and also how far we have to go.

Just a half-century ago, John F. Kennedy’s Catholic faith was widely viewed as a significant liability to his presidential aspirations. Kennedy had to do the opposite of what Gingrich appears to be doing: effectively de-emphasize his faith, and say that it would play no role whatsoever in informing his public acts. “I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” he told the American Association of Newspaper Editors in April 1960. “I am the Democratic party’s candidate for president who happens to be Catholic. I do not speak for the Catholic Church on issues of public policy, and no one in that church speaks for me.”

The irony, of course, is that many of the same slanders leveled at the Catholic Church are now leveled at Islam in America. Catholicism was considered incompatible with liberty, democracy and pluralism. Any inroads made by Catholics into the corridors of power was considered a threat to the American way of life. Catholics were considered loyal to the autocratic Pope, not the American flag. Catholic politicians would enact policies to advantage their Church and hurt American values, everything from appointing an Ambassador to the Vatican to sending public funds to parochial schools.

The ‘No Popery‘ signs of previous eras feel remarkably like the ‘No Sharia’ signs of today. The view of the Catholic faith as inherently incompatible with American values mimics today’s view of Islam. And the hysteria about the effects of increasing Catholic influence on American culture sound precisely like today’s fears about Muslims. Norman Vincent Peale, a powerful Protestant minister and a leading anti-Catholic anti-Kennedy voice, put the matter of Kennedy’s possible election in stark terms to a Who’s Who group of conservative Protestant leaders: “Our American culture is at stake.”

The same is said, frequently, about Islam in America. And one of the leading voices in raising such fears is none other than Gingrich. He compared the Muslim group seeking to start an interfaith center near Ground Zero to Nazis putting a plaque near a Holocaust memorial. His film ‘America at Risk‘ raises fears of Muslim domination. In some of his statements, it feels as if Gingrich is channeling Peale: “America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.”

The historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. wrote that anti-Catholicism was the “deepest bias in the history of the American people.” The fact that Gingrich can proudly advertise his conversion to Catholicism as a personal and presidential asset is a sign of how much progress we’ve made. But it is profoundly un-American to replace one bias with another, and even more troubling that a manwhose Catholic forbears experienced discrimination because of their religion should turn around and peddle such prejudice himself.

The forces of inclusiveness in America always turn back the forces of intolerance — we’ve seen it in the defeat of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism and segregation. Gingrich, who has a PhD in history, is well aware of this. Which makes it all the more surprising that he is willing to risk being remembered on the wrong side of that divide.

This piece originally appeared on the Washington Post, “On Faith.”

Follow Eboo Patel on Twitter:

Original post: Newt Gingrich: A Catholic Running Against Islam?


  1. well, what is interesting about this article, is can the canidate seperate their religion from their politics/public service? so could some learned muslim please explain how islam is not both a political system and a religion? perhaps i’m misinformed, but that is what i’ve heard, that islam is an all encompassing way of life, a guidence for marraiage, finance, politics, etc. etc…? by it’s very nature does not islam want to impose its law on all society? i was raised catholic and i would be very much against the catholic church having any political power in america.

  2. @Mike — Since there is no Muslim Church, so it cannot have any political power. Whereas there is indeed a Catholic Church, and Mormon Church, and Unification Church, so a question of them having political power could arise.

    However, a true Muslim would be guided by the values if Islam (peace, love, justice, equity, fairness) in his political arena, in the same way that a good Christian would be guided by similar values.

  3. irshad alam

    so what is “equity”? i know that may take a lifetime to define but can you post your reader’s digest version?

    funny i had this discussion with a friend of mine 29 years ago. he said the founding fathers were worried about the roman catholic church. but is not seperation of church interpreted as seperation of religion and state. i always love the “true muslim” caveat. if you’re right as to what a true muslim is than how many “true muslims” are there in your opinion? i don’t think anyone is worried about people who have love, fairness, and peace as their guidence being in power. my concern is what is someone’s idea of justice. again that could take a lifetime to define. but do you think the opening of the 24th surah is “justice”?

    who was the afghan poet? khan? he was sufi? it’s been 15 years since i read some of his poems. very uplifting.

    btw don’t worry about me that storm blew right through. wasn’t struck by lightning….go bolts.!!!!

  4. [2.56] Then We raised you up after your death that you may give thanks.
    [2.57] And We made the clouds to give shade over you and We sent to you manna and quails: Eat of the good things that We have given you; and they did not do Us any harm, but they made their own souls suffer the loss.
    [2.58] And when We said: Enter this city, then eat from it a plenteous (food) wherever you wish, and enter the gate making obeisance, and say, forgiveness. We will forgive you your wrongs and give more to those who do good (to others).
    [2.59] But those who were unjust changed it for a saying other than that which had been spoken to them, so We sent upon those who were unjust a pestilence from heaven, because they transgressed.
    [2.60] And when Musa prayed for drink for his people, We said: Strike the rock with your staff So there gushed from it twelve springs; each tribe knew its drinking place: Eat and drink of the provisions of Allah and do not act corruptly in the land, making mischief.
    [2.61] And when you said: O Musa! we cannot bear with one food, therefore pray Lord on our behalf to bring forth for us out of what the earth grows, of its herbs and its cucumbers and its garlic and its lentils and its onions. He said: Will you exchange that which is better for that which is worse? Enter a city, so you will have what you ask for. And abasement and humiliation were brought down upon them, and they became deserving of Allah’s wrath; this was so because they disbelieved in the communications of Allah and killed the prophets unjustly; this was so because they disobeyed and exceeded the limits.
    [2.62] Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve.

    criley: the sabians seem to have been a monotheistic religious group intermediate between judaism and christianity. their name (probably derived from the aramaic verb tsebha “he immersed himself [in water]”) would indicate that they were followers of john the baptist – in which case they could be identified with the mandaeans, a community which to this day is to be foubd in iraq. they are not to be confused with the so-called “sabians of harran” a gnostic sect which still existed in the early centuries os islam, and which mat have deliberatly adopted the name of the true sabians in order to obtain the advangates accorded by the muslims to the followers of every monotheistic faith.

  5. Gingrich is a politician running for office. No more & no less.

    He may be discussing his “conversion” to Catholicism but he does not speak for the Catholic Faith or the Catholic Church as a whole.

    Certainly there are many in the Catholic Church who would disagree on many levels with the views of Mr Gingrich.

    Wait for the Pope or other Catholic clergy to trash you before you blame anything on the Catholic Church.

  6. Ordinary(common) People of all religions have important issues like job, unemployment, rent expenses etc etc, they neither have resources nor time to voice their opinion on issues let alone learn the real cause and effect, But a very vocal minute minority with vested intrest hijacks the mandate of majority, by raising bogey against real or percieved adversary. this minority poses as ultra puritan and appeals to common people as a savior and unfortunately majority does not resist such usury of leadership. after reach a critical mass the majority completely abdicates the power of dissent and will be branded as traitors or stooges of enemy. Newt is indulging in Muslim bashing like Saddam used hatred of christian countries to consolidate his power

  7. “J Patrick – Gingrich is a politician running for office…. Wait for the Pope or other Catholic clergy to trash you…”
    Do not think politicians are stupid or careless when they raise religious issue during their campaign. These high level politicians exactly know that such issue can be converted into votes and campaign fund contribution. Like negative campaign advertizes, such hot religious issue helps to unite Christians and be his political supporters.
    Religion always played big role in politics. But I surprise when so called “mature” democracy of the USA tolerate the same evil tactics in public medias. May be the majority US voters are not better than Iran, India, Israel or Italian voters.

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