There's a very well-done piece in today's Times about Newt Gingrich's conversion to and relationship with Roman Catholicism, a topic that's been on my mind this election season. Why? Because we are witnessing a historically unprecedented moment in our nation's history: politicized evangelical Protestants throwing their support behind a member of a religion they have traditionally seen as the handmaid of the Antichrist. As in all things related to the past, Americans have a short historical memory when it comes to the longstanding and deep historical currents of anti-Catholicism in this country, and so fail to notice how odd the current situation truly is. In early America, Catholics were banned from voting and holding public office in several colonies (and later states). Irish immigrants met a great deal of xenophobia in the mid-nineteenth century, much of it related to their faith. During the 1920s, the KKK emphasized anti-Catholicism along with racism, and Al Smith's presidency of 1928 inspired all kinds of paranoia about having a "papist" in the White House. (The rhetoric employed against him, depicting Smith as a kind of anti-American alien, is eerily similar to the paranoid rantings about the current president.)
These days such anti-Catholicism is rather rare outside of isolated pockets of backwoods America and among a certain brand of overly zealous atheist. Muslims have become the acceptable religious group to hate, evidenced by attacks on mosques, local efforts to ban shariah law (reminiscent of the paranoid rantings against papal domination of the 1920s), and the recent pulling of advertisements from All American Muslim, a show that dares to depict adherents of Islam as human beings. Gingrich's politically successful conversion to the church of Rome indicates that the old combination of religious bigotry and anti-immigrant "Americanism" has found a new target, even if the substance and rhetoric of the base hatred involved has changed very little. The formula is pretty much the same: a foreign people with foreign, apostate ways supposedly want to impose their alien way of life and will eventually keep America from staying American.
Basically, the evangelical types supporting the Catholic Gingrich are more concerned about beating back Islam and "secularism" than with the pope. I should add that this change of emphasis has as much to do with changes in the Catholic Church itself as it does with changes among evangelicals and American society at large. American Catholicism has always been as much -or even more- about ethnic identity as it is about religious belief. Being Catholic is part of being Irish, Italian, Mexican, Cuban, Polish etc. As the descendants of many of these ethnic groups are further and further removed from their immigrant origins and progressively "whitened," ethnic identities fade, and with them adherence to the church. ("Former Catholic" is the second biggest Christian denomination in America today.) The church has abetted this process by becoming increasingly ideologically narrow and militant in the last forty years since the great and brief window opened by Vatican II. To be a Catholic means not being a member of a community, but to be a zealot in an army to roll back the modern world. It's hardly a surprise that many born into the Church would abandon it, or that many outsiders who share an inability to reconcile with the modern world would become converts. In their unhinged obsession with abortion and their persecution complex regarding "secularism," many of today's devout Catholics have plenty in common with evangelicals, hence their current, and strange, political alliance in the form of Newt.
Gingrich is a perfect fit for the nouveau Catholicism, as the Times articles points out, because he was attracted from the outside by its reactionaryism and its recent political stances. As one of the numerous ex-Catholics in this country, I would also say he must be attracted by the Church's manifest hypocrisy and arrogance, two of Gingrich's defining traits. In regards to hypocrisy, Gingrich has famously attacked liberals for bringing about moral decay and Bill Clinton for his infidelity, all the while engaging in extramarital affairs in the midst of his fulminating. The Church's hypocrisy, evident through much of its history, has been made glaringly obvious in the wake of the innumerable abuse scandals, horrific revelations enabled by that institution's tendency to judge others but to retain its moral authority by covering up the heinous crimes of its clerics. In regards to arrogance, Gingrich never misses an opportunity to puff up his supposed credentials, calling his paid lobbying for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac historical consulting, and expecting others to view him as a "definer of civilization." The Church's arrogance has been even more flagrant, as it screams about "secularism" and tries to browbeat lapsed Catholics back into the pews while doing absolutely nothing to make the Church more welcoming to and reflective of the needs and desires of Catholics, lapsed or not. The recent changes in the English language liturgy, which supposedly make it more literally faithful to the Latin but clunky and, in places, non-sensical in English despite the objections of Catholics to the changes is just the most recent example of the Vatican's arrogance.
All that being said, I know a lot of good people who are also deeply Catholic (or evangelical), and we shouldn't confuse all rank and file parishoners and priests with the more reactionary members of the current hierarchy. I only hope that those wonderful people have the courage to resist the Catholic church's alliance with people who have traditionally treated Catholics with contempt and intolerance, and who are currently heaping infamy on Christianity through their inflexibility, bitterness, and bigotry.