House Speaker Turns to God as Ally in Changing Country: Speeches Raise Alarms over Separation of Church , State

Article excerpt

House Speaker Newt Gingrich has been calling more and more often on God to help rescue the country from ruin.

In speeches to various groups around the country, he has rattled off references to the Almighty in the words of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to remind his listeners that he is in good company when he calls on God.

While he has made some of the same points in speeches for years, "I expand on it now because I think we're at a point where we can have an honest dialogue," Mr. Gingrich told The Washington Times on Friday.

"It all started in the fall of 1993 when I was teaching the class on renewing American civilization, and a student asked me why I thought it was important to be allowed to say a prayer in school," the Georgia Republican said. "I said because it went to the heart of how you define America."

Mr. Gingrich said he consistently notes that the Declaration of Independence says "we are endowed by our Creator - unlike the European model, where rights go from the God to the king."

From Mr. Gingrich's perspective, the infusion of God into public discourse is both good practice and good politics. In a nation where more than 90 percent of the people profess belief in God, and nearly as many voice frustration with an immoral society, calling on God seems a reach toward reason as Congress wrestles with social problems such as crime, drugs and teen pregnancy.

"There is in America a kind of hunger for people to address the morals and values vacuum that has existed in the public arena," said Sen. Tim Hutchinson, Arkansas Republican, who was once a Baptist preacher.

"I have noticed that the speaker has been speaking more frequently about the need for spiritual renewal and the need for faith in our public life," he said. "I am never reticent about expressing my own personal faith either. That is different than what we do in public policy to release rules or laws or regulations to eliminate the charitable sector from doing more."

The message also plays well within the GOP because more and more elected Republicans profess to be "people of faith," Mr. Hutchinson said.

Moreover, socially conservative Republicans have the backing of the Christian Coalition, which likes the sound of the speaker's religious rhetoric.

Some Democrats have suggested privately that the speaker is following in the footsteps of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and others who find God a help in rehabilitating themselves after falling on hard times.

But a House leadership source said senior members were "as surprised as you were" to hear Mr. Gingrich's more frequent and fervent mentions of God. He insisted the speaker is not motivated by political gain, but conceded that the message helps with conservative Christian members of the House, who think Mr. Gingrich is too moderate and are frustrated by his ethics problems.

Most members of the 105th Congress are active in some religion - the majority in Protestant denominations, such as Episcopal, Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian. There is also a large contingent of Roman Catholics. The rest profess to be Greek Orthodox, Jews, Mormons or Christian Scientists.

Partly because of the nation's religious diversity, as reflected in Congress, some are not comfortable with the speaker's new calls on God.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State fired off a letter this month reminding Mr. Gingrich that the Constitution gives public officials no right or duty to involve themselves in the religious life of this country. …