Politician Newt Gingrich grabbed for preacher Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority mantle Saturday, hoping it might give him power to win the blessing of the Christian Right in his quest for the Republican Party's presidential nomination.
Gingrich's masterful and manipulative message made four claims:
1. Falwell asked Gingrich to "bear witness" to the nation's need to recover God.
2. As God's "servant leader," Falwell "bore witness to the Truth."
3. The Bible "requires Christians to bear witness to the Truth." So does the Declaration of Independence.
4. "As a Christian to fellow Christians, we must bear witness" to truths of the Bible and the nation's founding documents.
With Falwell now passed from the scene, Gingrich wants America to believe the Moral Majority founder entrusted him to bear this witness, just as Falwell bore it before him.
By conflating the Bible and Declaration of Independence, the former House Speaker fashions a civil religion, which is an inauthentic religion, in the search for power.
In Gingrich, the witness becomes the politician. The Christian God becomes national deity. The Christian faith becomes the prevailing cultural ideology. The people of God become synonymous with the messianic American community.
That is a false faith, and dangerous.
Authentic religion from the best of the Christian tradition transcends every nation and sits in judgment of every culture.
Authentic religion advances the delivery of justice to the poor and marginalized over rallies to appoint conservative judges. It pursues peacemaking over self-righteous patriotism. It seeks the welfare of the minority neighbor over false claims of religious persecution of the majority.
Gingrich offered no such sense of authentic religion as articulated in the biblical witness. Instead he modeled a civil religion, invoking the name of God some 30 times in his commencement address at Liberty University.
He threw in multiple references to the "Creator," "the Lord," the "Almighty," the "Divine" and "to the Truth," using more terms referring to God more times than a standard Sunday morning sermon.
It was as if Gingrich thought that by referring often enough to the Deity, he could establish his spiritual authority to inherit Falwell's mantle.
But Gingrich didn't stop with quotes from Habakkuk, Matthew and Revelation--or with religious references to "serve Christ," "serve God" and "servant leader of God." He went on to play to the deepest fears of his desired congregants, invoking storm clouds of evil building as they did in the days of Nazism and Communism.
"Darkness is again falling across the earth," he warned. "It is again the calling of America to light her moral lamps, and place them out, for all the nations to see."
According to Gingrich, things are even worse now than before the Nazis and Iron Curtain fell.
For "the first time in our history," he claims, forces threatening America come not just from "without" but also from "within." The "culture of radical secularism" denies the truths of our faith. Public schools can't pray to God. "Radical secularists" are excluding religion and stripping it from the public square. The legal establishment is anti-God. There is an anti-religious bias against believers.
Yet salvation awaits, with the rediscovery of God in America.
"Let us resolve to follow the charge of the Gospels and the example of Dr. Jerry Falwell," Gingrich concluded, "to light our lamps, and place them upon a stand, that all the world may see."
Gingrich's message to his fundamentalist Christian choir is flawed. Contrary to both his articulated vision and his audience's aspiration, America is not a Christian nation where Christians are now persecuted. The Constitution did not establish a theocracy.
Gingrich appeals to a specific congregation of voters with a religious altar call he hopes will be powerful enough for them to look beyond the flawed messenger toward a message of reclaiming a new Moral Majority.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.