Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Religious and Racial Rhetoric of Newt Gingrich

By Andre E. Johnson
Cross-posted with Rhetoric Race and Religion

Throughout the blogosphere and the Twitterverse, many have decried the racial rhetoric employed by Newt Gingrich on the campaign trail. Whether he is calling for “black kids” to learn the value of work or calling the President of the United States a “food stamp president,” many have critiqued Gingrich, and rightfully so, for invoking images and rhetoric of America’s racial past into the campaign. This shift in campaign discourse also coincided with Gingrich’s rise in the polls—especially with conservative, “value voters,” evangelicals. In a recent Pew Forum Research poll taken after the South Carolina Primary, Gingrinch “received strong support from born-again/evangelical Christians and from voters who said that it is important to them that a candidate shares their religious beliefs” and was “the clear winner among the two-thirds of South Carolina primary voters who described themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians.”

Many originally thought that Gingrich would have trouble wooing these voters. However, Gingrich effectively played the evangelical card of “sinner saved by grace,” to win over these voters. For many evangelicals, some who have had trouble in their marriages, or some other struggles, Gingrich did the right thing—he admitted that he could not save himself from his troubles, he then submitted to Jesus, accepted him as Lord and Savior and he was instantly forgiven of his sins. Gingrich is now a born again believer—a sinner saved by grace because he knows Jesus in the “pardon of his sins.”

As a “person of faith,” Gingrich tells his audiences that his faith and religion will play a major role in his campaign. He preaches that president Obama and the “secular elites” are coordinating an attack of religion that he promises to stop. He feels that religion (read Christian) is under attack (read my post on Tebow for a response on this) and a major part of his platform is to bring religion back to the forefront (as if it ever left) and to do this, he promises to go after secularist judges who make rulings about religion he does not like. But there has been one thing left out of the conversation of Gingrich’s faith—how does he reconcile his faith (in Jesus) with the overt racial rhetoric he deploys? In short, how does his racial animus against people of color line up with his “person of faith claim?

Outside of two religious groups, the Delaware Annual Conference Ministerial Institute of the AME Church and 40 Catholic church leaders, who have written open letters asking Gingrich (and Santorum) to tone down their racial rhetoric, there has not been much on this issue. When some bring up Gingrich’s faith and try to charge him with hypocrisy, they mention and focus on the three marriages, his infidelity, and maybe the House ethics charges when he serve as Speaker. What we do not tend to focus on, at least through the lens of faith, is his racial rhetoric. This is to be expected because race and racism has never factored in to what it meant to have faith, and what it meant to be faithful. In short, one can be a racist and still be seen as a faithful person.

This is especially true with Gingrich’s own faith tradition—Christianity. James Cone brought this glaring omission to our collective consciousnesses over 40 years ago when he wrote that “American Theology (read Christian) is racist.” This is hard for many to accept because the rhetoric of theology is one that argues for universality, ultimate Truth and that this Truth encompasses all people at all times. “True theology,” some argue, it is not focused on individual groups, but the whole of humankind.

Now add to this mix that theology is God language—meaning that theological discourse somehow fell out of the sky and landing with humans, then one can see the problem when one tries to convey the problems with theological rhetoric. In short, since theology is God language and God is not and cannot be racist, theology is then not racist. Of course the next step in this twisted logic is that since I am invoking theological God language from a non-racist God who loves all people at all times, then I cannot be racist when I affirm my belief in God and the values I hold that are universal and true, but yet believe poor blacks prefer food stamps over jobs or that black youth do not have any positive role models.

The problem with this analysis of course is that theology and God language is not “from God” but constructed by humans—within different contexts. What we believe to be orthodox, traditional, God-centered and God-blessed theology derived from humans in a particular context, arguing over the meaning of God. Typically, the winner of that argument became the faith tradition’s hero or shrero and the losers became heretics. Theology is language from humans that attempt to describe God and how God works and acts. It is profoundly rhetorical because it attempts to construct truth from an unknown—not that God is or is not real—people of faith assumed that God is real—but the actions of God and discerning God’s move in this particular context at this particular time.

If race and racism is not part of the theological landscape, then it is always okay to say racist things, do racist acts, and believe that you have the blessing of God when you do them. However, when theology, faith, and more importantly, what it means to be faithful addresses race, racism, and for that matter all that tends to separate and divide, then horizons can expand and dialogue can happen.
Rev. Andre E. Johnson, PhD is the Dr. James L. Netters Professor of Rhetoric & Religion and African American Studies t Memphis Theological Seminary and Senior Pastor at Gifts of Life Ministries in Memphis, Tennessee. He is also the editor of the Rhetoric Race and Religion blog.

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