Keeping the True Faith: Rediscovering America on the National Mall

Newt Gingrich – the leader of the 1994 “Gingrich Revolution” that gave Republicans control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years, Former Speaker of the House, occasional Republican presidential candidate, and, quite possibly, Donald Trump’s running mate – has just issued a third edition, a 10th Anniversary edition you might say, of his 2006 best-seller, “Rediscovering God in America: Reflections on the Role of Faith in Our Nation’s History and Future.” Understandably, progressives have generally ignored the work. But I have followed it from the very beginning, both for personal reasons and, even more critically, because I think we have things to learn from Gingrich’s work, though not necessarily the things he intended.

A dozen summers ago my younger daughter had the good fortune of serving as a college intern in the Washington office of U.S. Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin (whom we progressive Wisconsinites hope to send back to Washington this coming year). I distinctly recall her telephone call asking me if I thought she should attend a lecture for the congressional interns that evening by Newt Gingrich. She was of a mixed mind about going. But I told her she definitely ought to, not just because he was smart (a Ph.D. in History) and an entertaining speaker (though not of the House!), but also because she really ought to find out what our political antagonists had to say to young people in that presidential election year.

I also clearly recall that she rang again later that night to report that, while she obviously didn’t agree with him, it was worth going for Gingrich had given a most curious speech. Specifically, he had spoken of having “discovered God on the National Mall” – by which he did not mean he had been “born (once) again” or that God herself had spoken to him, but, rather, that he had come to see all the more clearly by way of the words and texts inscribed on the walls of the Mall’s buildings and monuments both how important God had been in American history and how Americans’ belief in and embrace of God and his gifts had helped to make America exceptional.

My daughter’s report stuck with me, not just because it was sweet of her to ask my advice, and because I have loved the National Mall ever since my very first visit to the nation’s capital as a boy in 1959, but also because, based on what she said, I was terribly impressed by Gingrich’s latest project (which actually led me to consider what I would say to young people about the National Mall and its monuments).

I figured that Gingrich more than anyone knew what it took to transform American public discourse. He had proved that in 1994 with his reactionary manifesto, Contract On America, oops, I mean Contract With America. And he apparently had learned from the right’s own idol Ronald Reagan how important it was to engage and reshape American historical memory and imagination in favor of propagating a sense of past, present, and future that would encourage political action – which was exactly what Gingrich was trying to do with his walking tour talk of the National Mall. Ignoring, appropriating, and/or suppressing the revolutionary, radical, and progressive agencies, aspirations, and experiences expressed and memorialized there, he had laid hold of America’s foremost “sacred space” and “official public memory” and rendered a decidedly conservative narrative of American history.

My fascination for Gingrich’s 2004 talk intensified when, two years later, it appeared in print as “Rediscovering God in America,” a little volume of 160 pages of text and black-and-white photos. I immediately bought a copy. And I wasn’t the only one who did. The first two editions sold 100,000 copies. Plus, a handsomely produced film version of the walking tour was to sell 300,000 copies. But I didn’t just read the book. Along with Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” (1776), Max Lerner’s “It Is Later Than You Think: The Need for a Militant Democracy” (1939), and a collection of Bill Moyers’ speeches, I placed it bedside to serve, not as a source of religious inspiration or historiographical insights, but as a constant reminder of what we progressives need to do to – in a decidedly more critical and honest fashion – to more effectively engage our fellow citizens in a politics of building a more democratic America.

The latest edition of “Rediscovering God in America” is aesthetically far more impressive than the earlier ones. The book is now not only larger in scale but also replete with color photographs and pictures, as well as a new Foreword and a chapter on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. And yet, nothing really has changed. The text affords the same basic walking tour, the same lecture/sermon on God and Faith in American history, and the same assault on liberals and progressives who rightly believe that the words of the First Amendment – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” – demands vigilance and firm adherence to “the separation of church and state.” The opening words of Gingrich’s introduction, and the right-wing polemic that runs throughout, remain: “There is no attack on American culture more destructive and more historically dishonest than the secular left’s relentless effort to drive God out of the public square.”

It is easy to scoff at and debunk the “history” Gingrich offers on his walking tour. For a start, he makes no mention of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and how it turned Americans’ colonial rebellion into “the Revolution” in no small part by offering a vision of a free America liberated from state churches – a vision that mobilized Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists (not to mention many a Catholic and Jew) to enlist in the struggle in hopes of overcoming Anglican authority in the South and Congregational domination in New England.

Outlining a constitution for the nation-to-be, Paine not only wrote that it should include something of a Bill of Rights to guarantee “above all things, the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” He also insisted that “As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensable duty of government to protect all conscientious professors thereof, and I know of no other business which government has to do therewith.” In short, six months before independence was declared, and thirteen years before the Constitution was agreed upon, strict separation of church and state was fundamental to the cause.

Furthermore, while Gingrich stresses the religiosity of the “Founding Fathers,” he refuses to acknowledge just how many of them had turned from Christianity to Deism – not only Thomas Paine, whom he utterly ignores, and not just Thomas Jefferson, whom he begrudgingly recognizes as one, but also Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and a host of others. The foremost proof is in the very document, the Declaration of Independence, which Gingrich himself posits as the fountainhead of American liberty. He repeatedly cites Jefferson’s words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But he spends no time considering the words in the very first sentence of the Declaration: “When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” (My italics.)

And Gingrich pays almost no attention to the Constitution itself – which is only right, I suppose, for the Founders, however conservative many of them were becoming, smartly saw fit to draft, and advance to the states for their approval, a most radical “Godless Constitution.”

Lastly (for I could go on and on in that fashion), Gingrich confuses faith and God. Undeniably, Americans have been a religious people of diverse faiths – and we should never fail to remember that and, yes, teach it as part our history. But to say that most Americans have been believers is one thing. To assert, as Gingrich often seems to do, that God Himself has made American history is another thing. He and everyone else are fully entitled to believe that…and to say it in the public square. But they are not entitled to make that belief a doctrine of the federal or state governments or to make of it an idea to be taught in our public schools, for to do so is to deny the First Amendment. And having said that, we should not fail to teach our children that securing the true meaning of religious liberty has taken generations of struggle by Americans both of diverse faiths and of no faith whatsoever.

Suffice it to say that for all of the evidence that Gingrich cites that the Founders and later figures who are memorialized on the Mall may well have been serious believers – and as much as so many Americans have been God-fearing people – Washington and his comrades created a secular government and then appended a First Amendment to the new Constitution that has saved us at many a crucial moment from suffering the likes of Gingrich and his ilk from turning us into an officially “Christian nation.”

Well, then, you might well ask: Why do I think we have things to learn from Gingrich and his “Rediscovering God in America”? Because the struggle continues. As a recent report by People for the American Way registers, the Religious Right is not simply turning “religious liberty” upside down, but also into a “weapon” to be wielded against freedom and equality. And around the country social conservatives are doing their damnedest to blow new holes in the wall separating church and state. In Iowa, they actually succeeded in having the Republican governor endorse a Christian Bible-reading marathon with an official proclamation calling upon citizens of the state to “read the Bible on a daily basis…until the Lord comes.”

But we need to attend to Gingrich’s work not simply because it offers a rendition of history that bolsters such reactionary campaigns, but also because it reminds us of the imperative of speaking to American historical memory and imagination. We have mastered the art of debunking. We now need to make good use of all the good critical historical studies that left academics have produced on popular struggles for freedom, equality, and democracy. We need to articulate a narrative that reminds Americans who they are and what that demands. Without forgetting the exploitation and oppression that has marked American life, we might also want to take a walk on the Mall to remind ourselves of our revolutionary, radical and progressive past.

Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of “Thomas Paine and the Promise of America” (FSG, 2005) and “The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great” (Simon & Schuster, 2014). Follow him on Twitter: This article originally appeared in The Progressive Brief.

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