The New Birth of Newt

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newt.jpgIf you’re interested, Christian Century has finally posted my wrap-up of religion and the election. Pastordan uses it as a springboard for a cheery tour of GOP politicians angling for the social conservative vote next time around. This includes an extended look at Newt Gingrich and his attempted makeover as a Man of God.
Twenty years ago, when I was was writing editorials and columns for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Newt was a regular and always entertaining visitor to our conference room. Then a humble congressman from Clayton County–well, never humble, but not the exalted figure he later became–he’d make his pitch for whatever policy he was hawking that day, and then settle in to talk politics. Then as now, he wasn’t much of a politician on the stump–he’d run three times for his House seat before finally getting elected, as I recall–but he knew all the gossip; and being without any ideological principles, he was able to do business with anyone and everyone.
For a while, the trait served him perfectly in putting together the varied assemblage that took over the House from the Democrats in 1994. He’d started out as a kind of Rockefeller Republican, then drifted towards libertarianism, and I remember once asking him why, as a libertarian, he supported the religious right’s position on abortion and gay rights. “They’re part of our coalition,” he primly replied. Now they pretty much hold the whip hand.
Newt’s an intellectual dabbler who, once upon a time, threw himself into the futurological world of the Tofflers. But his childhood love, thanks to his name, was herpetology, and the Atlanta Zoo’s impressive reptile house had–and presumably still has–some eponymous specimens donated by him. His new-found devotion to religion may manifest a long-standing identification with another of their kind: the chameleon.