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Newt Gingrich and the Great Republican God Swap

March 26, 2009

Nothing, it would seem, defines the modern Republican Party more than belief in free markets and God. So it is only natural that leading lights of the GOP would find rapture at the intersection of the two. Following in the footsteps of John McCain, Sam Brownback and Bobby Jindal, with his looming conversion to Catholicism Newt Gingrich is just the latest Republican presidential hopeful past and future to enter the marketplace of faith and exchange his religion for another.
As the New York Times, the Washington Post, Media Matters and other outlets reported, on Saturday Gingrich will officially move from the Baptist column to the ranks of Catholics this weekend:

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich will officially convert to Catholicism this Saturday at St. Joseph's in Washington, D.C. The move has long been planned -- the New York Times Matt Bai mentioned it in a profile of Gingrich last month -- and will allow Gingrich and his wife, Calista, to practice the same faith.

As it turns out, Gingrich is just the latest faith-based free agent among the stable of GOP White House wannabes. John McCain, for example, was raised an Episcopalian but announced his switch to Baptism just in time for the 2008 Republican primaries. A teenager, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal made a leap of faith from Hindu to exorcism-performing Catholic. In the 1990's, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, too, joined the Catholic Church, leaving his evangelical past behind.
And it is Brownback who offers Newt Gingrich a cautionary tale of the perils and pitfalls of religious conversion among the hard line voters of the Republican primaries. In the run-up to the Iowa caucus, Brownback got into faith-based fisticuffs with former Arkansas Governor and Baptist Minister Mike Huckabee. As Iowa Huckabee backer the Reverend Tim Rude put it:

"I know Senator Brownback converted to Roman Catholicism in 2002. Frankly, as a recovering Catholic myself, that is all I need to know about his discernment when compared to the Governor's. I don't if this fact is widely known among evangelicals who are supporting Brownback."

Although Rude eventually apologized, the Christian fratricide between the Huckabee and Brownback camps continues. When Brownback demanded an apology from the Arkansas governor, Huckabee campaign manager Chip Saltsman (the same Chip Saltsman of "Barack the Magic Negro" infamy) offered this distinctly un-Christ-like response:

"It's time for Sam Brownback to stop whining and start showing some of the Christian character he always seems to find lacking in others."

For his part, Gingrich is undaunted. (And consistent: before he swapped religions, he swapped wives, twice.) As ThinkProgress noted on March 6th, Gingrich he is looking "seriously" at a run for president in 2012. In preparation, Newt has launched a group called Renewing American Leadership, which US News described as "an organization devoted to bringing conservative evangelicals and Catholics into the political process and to strengthening the frayed alliance between economic and religious conservatives." And a show of commitment to his new church and the anti-abortion movement, Gingrich on Tuesday launched a preemptive, pre-conversion strike against President Obama's scheduled commencement address at Notre Dame.
None of the above is meant in any way to question either the sincerity or the depth of the religious beliefs of Newt Gingrich, John McCain, Sam Brownback, Bobby Jindal or the millions of other Americans whose quest for spiritual fulfillment and meaning has led them to embrace a different faith. (As a 2007 study from Pew Research showed, while 84% of adults in the United States claim a religious affiliation, fully 44% have left their childhood religions. The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey suggests the fastest growing group consists of the 15% of Americans who now claim no religion at all.) It is to suggest that they - and we - should be more tolerant of and less dogmatic about other's transformations of faith.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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