Sorry to write so much about Newt Gingrich today, but I don’t know exactly how long we will have him to kick around, and he made some remarks near the end of last night’s debate that really call for a non-Kabuki response.

When an audience member asked the candidates how their religious beliefs would affect the decisions they made as president, Newt’s answer included this:

[O]ne of the reasons I am running is there has been an increasingly aggressive war against religion and in particular against Christianity in this country, largely by…


… largely by a secular elite and the academic news media and judicial areas. And I frankly believe it’s important to have some leadership that stands up and says, enough; we are truly guaranteed the right of religious freedom, not religious suppression by the state.

Now when a politician says something like this, they are obviously not being literal. No one is keeping Christians from attending church. No one is censoring sermons. No one is being jailed for espousing their faith. This is worth remembering, of course, because there have been more than a few times in history when Christians were persecuted actively for their faith–often by each other–and it is happening today in some parts of the world.

At the other extreme, some religious conservatives seem to feel that anything anyone says or does to offend their sensibilities qualifies as persecution. That is the idiotic essence of the annual “War on Christmas” brouhaha, in which some Christians profess martyrdom at the hands of department stores displaying “Happy Holidays” signs. (Ah, the saints weep!).

Sometimes “war on Christians” rhetoric means conservative Christians who oppose same-sex relationships, abortion or contraception, or full rights for women, feel entitled to receive government funds, or government jobs, or judicial appointments, without anyone questioning the impact of those beliefs on the discharge of the official duties that justify the grant or the job or the appointment. According to this twisted point of view, the right of religious expression carries with it the right to disobey uncongenial laws or even oaths of office, even while enjoying public support. So if there is a “war” going on, such Christians are definitely active combatants, not innocent victims.

And sometimes, especially during the last couple of years, the “war on Christians” involves the complex idea whereby the “Christian” foundations of the nation are being denied by secularists, in turn denying Christians–or more specifically, a particular brand of Christians–their natural dominion over public policy. This is a particular rich vein of delusion in the Christian Right wing of the Tea Party movement, which often argues that the Declaration of Independence–frequently conflated with the Constitution–enthrones not only Christianity but such “divine” and “natural” laws as the Right to Life for the Unborn, the Right to Discriminate Against the Ungodly, or even the Right to Enjoy Private Property Without Taxation or Regulation. These, it is asserted, are all part of the Founders’ design which cannot be abrogated by Congress or courts or any popular majority. You will note that in answering the debate question, both Romney and Santorum made elaborate references to the Declaration, which has become a major dog-whistle to the Christian Right for Republican politicians.

Now everything I know about Newt Gingrich suggests he subscribes to a considerable degree to all three of the above meanings of the “war on Christians.” He has fulminated against the imaginary “War on Christmas,” he has denounced enforcement of non-descrimination laws as religious persecution, and he has made a virtual cottage industry out of Christian-nationalist attacks on the very idea of church-state separation, up to and including his 2011 book pledging to stop Obama and his “secular-socialist machine.”

So when Newt Gingrich tosses out a term like “war on Christians,” he is packing an awful lot of ideological dynamite, much of it of a nature that an awful lot of Christians–myself included–find abhorrent. Since Newt is just one of the most proficient of many conservative pols who are deploying this sort of language, it will not go away even if he retires from the campaign trail and returns to his various money-making ventures.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.