Another Irrelevant Conversion

by Jeremy Beer on March 30, 2009 · 25 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Economics & Empire,Philosophers & Saints


Many folks–including Rod and the guys at Plumb Lines, just to cite two from our own blogroll–have taken notice of Newt Gingrich’s impending conversion to Catholicism. For several months, I’ve encountered various people in social situations, conservative Catholic types, who have excitedly retailed the news (or rumors). The general idea conveyed implicitly in these conversations is that this conversion is of great importance–I mean, important for reasons beyond what it ostensibly means for Mr. Gingrich’s personal life and postmortal fortunes.

The idea seems to be that Gingrich’s becoming Catholic will make some kind of significant difference, somehow. The details are hazy. Some of it is just “chalk another one up for our team!” enthusiasm, which is perfectly fine and understandable. I want to win as much as the next guy. But clearly there is an underlying notion that a fellow considered to be potentially electable in a presidential contest will now undoubtedly carry the flag for orthodox Catholics, representing their interests and convictions with high principle and pure devotion.

The only problem is that there is no reason whatsoever to believe this. I mean, there is no reason to believe that future Newt will be anything but past Newt, considered publicly. It is unwarranted in the first place to think that serious, practicing Catholics will automatically agree on matters of social, economic, and political philosophy and policy. To state the thesis in a more moderate form, it is unwarranted to believe that they would agree if they were all pious enough or smart enough or understood the faith enough. That’s not how it works. The church doesn’t declaim authoritatively on anything that isn’t a matter of faith or morals because it can’t. Outside the quite small realm of faith and morals, there’s ample room for disagreement and debate even among Catholics of good will and well-formed consciences. (I am not claiming to be a Catholic of good will, and certainly not one with a well-formed conscience; I’m just laying out the theory here, as well as I understand it.)

But let me come to the interesting and in some ways opposite point. Gingrich is the latest in a steadily lengthening string of high-profile converts to Rome among political conservatives and neoconservatives. In the last few years, that list includes Sam Brownback and Robert Novak and Robert Bork and Larry Kudlow and a number of others.

Now, reflect, and let me know if I’m wrong. Did any of these men (or any other high-profile politician/journalist/muckety-muck convert not listed here) change his public opinions about any idea, policy, or other matter of public significance after his conversion? You might argue that Brownback has become more of an international crusader since becoming a Catholic, but I’m not sure that this is a departure from his previous stance; in any case, he supports Obama’s appointment of the deeply pro-abortion Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic, for the HHS secretary post (see Caleb’s post), a bit of realpolitik that one supposes wouldn’t impress the saints. I don’t recall Judge Bork altering or suppressing his views on the death penalty or the Iraq War out of deference to the Holy See’s articulation of its deep and weightily considered rejection of those positions. Not that he had to. My point here is simply that high-profile politico conversions such as Newt’s seldom if ever lead to . . . well, any change of public import whatsoever. They’re simply utterly irrelevant. The proper response should be: “Good for him. I hope that he’s a better Catholic than I am. Honey, can you pick up some milk on your way home tomorrow?”

A second point: Many of these men have come into the church having been in connection with Opus Dei. I wonder, do the Opus Dei sponsors challenge their catechumens to consider, or reconsider, the full teachings and doctrines of the church in light of their new status as Catholics? Do they review their policy convictions and public pronouncements and point out how some of them might be at odds or at least in tension with the faith?

Or, on the other hand, and as seems to the far-off casual observer might be the case, are they told that Catholicism is simply the religious expression of the conventionally conservative Republican political views that they now hold, and that thus the church offers no problem for the public profiles they have crafted? That it’s a perfect marriage, and no need to delve further? It’s hard not to notice that new Catholic converts of the Gingrich type seem never to change a single political opinion because they have converted. They do not begin quoting, favorably and honestly, the great social encyclicals of the last hundred years in ways that challenge the party line or might get them in trouble with the Club for Growth. That’s a matter of some curiosity to me. Whatever the reasons–and I am sure that they range from simple ignorance to callowness to a lust for power to the determined, heartfelt belief that they are right–they add up to this fact: these conversions don’t matter, politically. If you’re staking anything on them, you’re going to be disappointed–or misled.

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar ben March 30, 2009 at 6:36 pm

As a catholic and a christian, I’m always happy to receive the newly converted. That said, I wish Newt Gingrich’s conversion was not news. What concerns me is the appearance of scandal that might arise by the reception of a man who has been married and divorced multiple times into full communion with the church. While I have some confidence that the appropriate authorities have investigated his prior marriages and declared them null, I worry that what this looks like is that the church will bend her teaching on the indissolubility of marriage for famous and important people.

avatar Roberto March 30, 2009 at 6:46 pm

What Ben said plus this: I am put off by an implicit triumphalism that seems to believe that “catching a big fish” is somehow more significant than thousands of people in, say, Africa or Asia coming to the faith.

This reached its grotesque nadir when I was about the reaction to a prominent neocon’s conversion: it went something like “evangelicals can keep the Guatemalans, we got so-and-so.” I’m not Guatemalan, but screw you anyway. And besides the Guatemalan’s didn’t cheer lead for the most unjust war of my lifetime.

avatar Political Dreamland March 30, 2009 at 7:32 pm

This is great news! Newt is going to repudiate his former neoconservative views and replace them with positions rooted firmly in the Catholic intellectual tradition. In fact, he is a decent enough speaker and debater that this new found conversion will actually make him a very capable candidate in 2012. Newt is the new Pat Buchanan.

avatar Will March 30, 2009 at 9:25 pm

So it WAS him at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception yesterday. I thought I was losing it.

avatar Patrick Ford March 30, 2009 at 10:47 pm

“Or, on the other hand, and as seems to the far-off casual observer might be the case, are they told that Catholicism is simply the religious expression of the conventionally conservative Republican political views that they now hold, and that thus the church offers no problem for the public profiles they have crafted? That it’s a perfect marriage, and no need to delve further? It’s hard not to notice that new Catholic converts of the Gingrich type seem never to change a single political opinion because they have converted. They do not begin quoting, favorably and honestly, the great social encyclicals of the last hundred years in ways that challenge the party line or might get them in trouble with the Club for Growth.”

A theology professor of mine called these folks “country club Catholics,” meaning, as I interpret it, those who allow their conservative political platforms to be the lens through which they view their faith, rather than the opposite.

It goes without saying that this backwards situation obtains on both sides of the political spectrum. Many who would rightly criticize these “country club Catholics”–or Christians, to be ecumenical–themselves have a faith which I find nearly impossible to distinguish from a standard liberal Democratic platform.

Why is this situation so common? Why are political/ideological affiliations so often more powerful than religious ones? Why, in other words, have I yet to see a car with bumper stickers opposing both abortion and the Iraq War? I wouldn’t argue that those two issues allow equal room for competing viewpoints, but I think the point remains. Curious.

avatar Casey Khan March 30, 2009 at 11:08 pm

I agree with this article’s assesment, with the exception of Robert Novak, who I think has changed his general views of life and politics from entering the Church. I think he takes Church teaching seriously, and strikes me as a man with a conscience. Maybe his imminent mortality has something to do with it. God bless him anyway.

avatar Kevin Carson March 31, 2009 at 1:00 am

The first thing that came to mind, for some reason, was Churchill’s (perhaps apocryphal) quip about Italy’s membership in the Axis: “It’s only fair–we had them last time.”

avatar Caleb Stegall March 31, 2009 at 5:45 am

“The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.”
– Edward Gibbon (1776)

avatar Steve K. March 31, 2009 at 7:27 am

I’m just happy to see another soul come home to the Catholic Church. I don’t care about his politics as far as this goes, as I’ve never much cared for them, nor do I expect anything further from him beyond his being a faithful Catholic. I hope he remains one. There’s been an unseemly amount of second guessing his conversion. Long after his politics will cease to matter, long after there is a United States, long after even this material world has passed away, Newt Gingrich’s soul will endure, so the health of it is rather more important than how this conversion fits into the rough and tumble of American politics, circa 2009.

avatar Matt Stokes March 31, 2009 at 7:50 am

Yeah, God forbid a sinner find grace in the Church.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 31, 2009 at 10:24 am

Best of luck to Mr. Gingrich in his new expression of faith but it is extraordinarily likely that it will have little bearing upon his political future beyond providing another means to his political aims. The New Ottomans on the Potomac have been playing religion for decades and generally , it is simply part of the production values with which they run their ongoing bait and switch. Our recently departed President and his scheming handlers used the Fundamentalist and Evangelical sects to create a compliant and efficiently mobilized critical mass useful in maintaining party discipline and capturing rapt media attention. They then embarked upon an overall program that actually punished their religious base through policy actions both planned and inadvertent. It rarely matters whether the President or any other politician is authentic in their Faith because the general trends deteriorate apace.

Mr. Gingrich is a longstanding and dexterously maneuvering partisan of the only religion that is truly relevant in Washington D.C. : Power and Influence Peddling. Mammon is the deity. Principles are regularly sacrificed in elaborate public display. What else could possibly be expected of a Government whose annual budget is dominated by debt service and military adventurism charmingly referred to as “defense”?

When a Federal politician says “let us pray”, look out because when both your hands are occupied, the government is freed to rifle your pockets at will.

avatar Rimshot March 31, 2009 at 12:33 pm

I don’t care for his politics.

That being said, charity demands that we not assume this is anything more than it appears to be, a sincere late conversion.

I still wouldn’t vote for him.

avatar Patrick Ford March 31, 2009 at 1:52 pm

After re-reading my comment and some others, I should like to make clarification about my own. I pulled a quote out of context from J.’s post and used it as a point of reflection. My musings were not directed at the Newt; others are quite right to point out that charity demands we assume the best until proven otherwise. God bless him.

avatar Kevin Carson March 31, 2009 at 1:59 pm

Gingrich’s autobiography recounts a time, in his teens, when his father took him to the Verdun battlefield and showed him the scarred landscape that persisted decades after WWI had killed most of a generation. “Politicians did this,” his father said–or something like it–aiming to impart some sort of moral about the moral culpability of those who had launched such a genocidal project. What did Newt get out of it? A desire to go into politics.

avatar Jeremy Beer March 31, 2009 at 2:23 pm

I appreciate all these comments. As a whole, I think they have made clear how tricky it is to talk about something like this in a responsible and charitable way. My point, again, wasn’t to question the authenticity of Gingrich’s or anyone else’s conversion. It wasn’t even my desire to ask how Gingrich’s politics line up vis-a-vis Catholicism. It was simply this: that when such a conversion is presented (and to be fair, it hasn’t been so presented by Newt, but I do think that others have thought of it this way) as an act of political significance, recent history teaches us to regard that assumption as completely unfounded.

That is so, I think, because the system is set up such that no national politician has any incentive whatsoever to write outside the narrow lines within which party orthodoxy confines him. It is much easier, and therefore much more common, to read Catholic teaching in terms of one’s partisan commitments rather than the other way around, as Patrick pointed out. That’s a very fair point, and while it is perfectly maddening, there’s no warrant for expecting Gingrich or Brownback or anyone on the national stage to act differently.

A further point I raised was whether newbie Catholic politicians are even *challenged* to reverse these priorities. I really don’t know the answer to that question.

I do grant, by the way, that it is arguably true that Robert Novak’s public/political views altered somewhat after his conversion.

In any case, everyone’s welcome in the church, thank God; we’re all sinners; I make no claim to being a better Catholic than Gingrich will be or anyone else is, etc.

Finally, apropros of allowing the expression of one’s Christian commitments to be confined by one’s partisan commitments, see the controversy re. Obama’s giving the commencement speech at, and getting an honorary law degree from, Notre Dame. However one comes down on that, I do think it a fair point (raised by Sullivan: http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/03/the-double-stan.html) that those who are up in arms about it say nary a word when a Republican politician with views that contradict Catholic teaching is similarly honored.

avatar Josh Cooney March 31, 2009 at 4:17 pm

Mr. Beer,

I don’t think Catholic politicians are challenged much at all. The U.S. Bishops are useless and Rome is too distant to have any significant effect at reigning them in. Moreover, EWTN and the neo-orthodox Catholic magazines will only attack far left/socialist Catholic politicians like Nancy Pelosi, whereas neoconservative liberals such as George Weigel and the late Fr. Neuhaus are held up as defenders of orthodoxy. And since most Catholic lay people know little about their religion, who is left to challenge them?

avatar Msgr. Eric R. Barr March 31, 2009 at 11:40 pm

Mr. Beer,

Thanks for the op-ed, but lI have to take issue with you and with some of those who commented. A scandal for Newt to convert? You have to be kidding! That’s like going up to Jesus and saying, “You sure you want that tax collector guy to be your apostle, or that vacillating doubting Thomas person, or that on again off again blowhard Peter whom you seem to think can run the place in your absence? The whole point of conversion is to have a second chance. Let’s not judge Newt till he gets a chance to live a Catholic life.

Secondly, why the negativity? Gingrich is not being public about his conversion–why would anyone begrudge him a chance to improve his own spirituality.

Also, abortion, death penalty, and nuclear weapons are not equivalent moral issues, they are apples and oranges. Conservatives who convert to Catholicism can still support the death penalty in some circumstances–that’s Catholic teaching. Abortion is never permissable. Might I hazard the opinion that conservatives are more drawn to Catholicism because each shares a belief in natural law, objective truth and the existence of the Divine–all things that may be present but are not necessary to those who style themselves liberal.

Instead of checking the hypocrisy thermometer everytime a conservative converts, perhaps those of a liberal persuasion should ask why so few liberals feel moved to embrace this ancient faith. The rigid and unflexible monikers so often placed on conservatives are now the walls with which liberals surround themselves. Open mindedness may now be the province–horror of horrors–of those who look towards the right. Just a though.

avatar Josh Cooney April 1, 2009 at 8:56 am

Msgr.

I don’t think anyone said it was a “scandal.” I just don’t think we should expect any big changes. I would love it if Newt actually did make a transformation and move away from the wicked ideology of neoconservatism. But it just doesn’t seem to work that way in the real world. See the above examples. After witnessing a decade of ignorance and lies from neoconservative Catholics such as Weigel and Fr. Neuhaus, I think it reasonable to be a skeptic.

avatar Typical Whitey April 4, 2009 at 7:46 pm

Jeremy – good insights. I welcome Newt into the Church. He is brilliant and unlike most politicians (BO comes to mind) answers questions in a straight forward manner. Plus he has many ideas on how to improve our economy. His Contract with America was groundbreaking.

Newt/Palin in 2012.

avatar jjv April 6, 2009 at 4:59 pm

I think Larry Kudlow muted support for the death penalty upon conversion and has put economic growth arguments in a more socially constructive way. I also think Brownback moves more easily in internationalist circles because of Catholicism. Similiarly, Judge Bork, I think, is a bit more merry in some ways than previously.

Also Tony Blair is a liberal and recently converted. Is he now some kind of pro-lifer?

But the thrust of the opinion is correct on whether they matter in the larger sense.

In fact, conversions that matter would be (not in order) 1. Chrisopher Hitchens-I think the God he does not believe in is Rome’s and if, as some say, he is a Muggeridge in the making it would be tectonic; 2. Mullah Omar, or Rafsanjani 3) The Queen of England or any monarch of Great Britain 4) the Arch-Bishop of Canterbury; 5)Dan Brown.

Anyone bigger than these?

avatar Kevin Carson April 6, 2009 at 6:07 pm

I believe Tony Blair started from a Christian Socialist background, with heavy influences from mutualism and distributism, and then seriously watered it down into a sort of Anglo-Clintonism (Nulab=DLC) when he became a successful politician. Some vestiges of that Christian Socialist orientation remained in the form of “New Mutualism.” When Blair was in power, the old Owenites at the Cooperative Party kept his leering visage a the head of their website–pathetic, really.

avatar Esmeralda_Pearl May 2, 2009 at 3:59 pm

God Bless Mr. Gingrich.:)

And yes, I believe that he plans to attempt to run for president in 2012. Does that have anything to do with his conversion? I don’t know.

“By their fruits ye shall know them” –Matt. 7:17

The above quote is good enough guideline for me. :)

avatar Mseo June 24, 2009 at 3:21 pm

It takes true courage for him to convert. I believe he gain nothing politically by Catholic conversion. He has found Truth finally and surely.

avatar Mark E. Rondeau May 4, 2010 at 9:25 pm

Did you see the shameless interview of Newt and his wife on EWTN – the Republo-Catholic Television Network? Ray Arroyo shoud have Glenn Beck on next. Even though he is not a Catholic, he hates Catholic social teaching, which puts him right at home with such EWTN favorites as George Weigel and the Acton Institute.

avatar Emery November 28, 2011 at 9:17 pm

I have called Gingrich a CFR conservative. While he is still a family values hypocrite – what is really troubling is his allegiance to the CFR ideas of a one world government. This was clear when he embraced the CFR inspired NAFTA plan and pushed it through Congress for Clinton. So where are the jobs and prosperity then – Newt? Newt shows himself to an adherent to a “world without borders” crowd as well. Nationalism is a new dirty word for the elite.

His forward and glowing endorsement of Alvin and Heidi Toffler’s NWO volume “Creating a New Civilization”, shows just how embedded he is in concepts of a one world government, the New World Order and Zionist ideas of how to control the world.

In the volume is this troubling statement about dismantling the Constitution and creating a new third wave civilization – A New World Order. Here we see the real Newt Gingrich. He is a chameleon player in the CFR masquerading as a ‘conservative’.

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