Newt Gingrich, To Renew America, Harper Collins, 260 pp., $24.00.
Newt Gingrich is one of the most accomplished politicians of our day and, more to the point, the one most evidently aware of the possibilities of genuine statesmanship. Indeed, the series of speeches he gave in the aftermath of last November’s election, in which he put forth his fundamental challenge to the administrative state, showed evidence of those statesmanlike qualities.
Although his new book is by and large a potpourri of excerpts from familiar speeches and a summary of key points from his provocative and inspiring course on Renewing American Civilization, conservative admirers will appreciate the opportunity to read and reflect on the arguments that proved so effective in leading Republicans to an historic electoral victory in the 1994 elections.
Americans owe Speaker Gingrich a true debt of gratitude for his tremendous achievement in blazing the trail to that victory. But it is fitting, both because of the subject of the Gingrich book and because we stand, potentially, at the threshold of a new conservative governing era, to consider the election of 1994 in light of 1776, and to continue with even greater urgency a discussion over the meaning of American conservatism. For only by refining and enlarging our understanding can we refine and enlarge public opinion in ways that will indeed "renew America." My personal experience with Speaker Gingrich testifies that he is willing and able to engage this discussion.
Thus I raise the question here of whether, when all is said and done, Gingrich succeeds in the book in penetrating to the core of the present crisis in the American regime; and further, whether he shows a sure enough grasp of the American founding principles, which he himself claims are the keys to a true renewal of American civilization. It seems to me he does not fully focus in on that core, and that his prescription for renewed health misses the mark.
I have two points to make on Gingrich’s book as compared to the original conservatism of the American founding. One is theoretical and concerns the source of morality and human happiness. The second is more practical and concerns the sort of political religion that is required to lead us back to morality and true happiness.
At some places in the book, it seems that Gingrich well understands that the root of our present crisis is moral. For example, at one point he summarizes the challenges we face by saying we are the first generation in American history "to confront moral decay from within." But when it comes to actually describing "the spiritual and moral dimension" of American civilization to which we should resort, he only mentions "personal responsibility as much as individual rights." At other places he makes mention of "middle class values" or the work ethic. Can one be more precise?
In the section of the book specifically devoted to the spiritual dimension of America, after lengthy quotations from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and FDR’s radio prayer on D-Day morning, Gingrich draws what seems the inappropriate conclusion that religion in America has served primarily to relativize differences between groups by showing that "there is something larger than ourselves and our petty concerns." But do not his own examples show instead that religion in America has served to advance the cause of righteousness in the war against slavery and the war against Nazism? And that we have been united precisely by an agreement about that righteousness? Certainly the goal of today’s religious revival is not to establish a spurious peace between the warring faiths of new age paganism and our ancient faith, but rather to achieve victory, even if by means characteristic of democratic peoples.
What is missing, it seems to me, is an appreciation of the significance of the Declaration of Independence in speaking of "the laws of nature and nature’s God" as the source of our rights and duties. According to the Declaration, all men are subject to the authority of God and nature. Our obligation to obey these laws thus defines our human nature and is the key to the pursuit of happiness. The American people are legislators, but under God’s law, which is why some laws may be legitimately framed but still wrong.
It is the rejection of the idea of nature and natural law that is the root of our current crisis. From the elites of the Progressive Era to today, this nihilism has trickled down into popular culture resulting in our current selfishness and character deformation. Gingrich’s failure to think through the teaching of the Declaration may also account in part for his going easy on the New Deal, which transformed the natural rights of the founding into economic rights that are fabricated by the state.
Gingrich seems to believe that the growing recognition of the practical failure of the welfare state along with scientific progress will chiefly suffice to turn America around. But the dismantling of the welfare state will not be enough to renew America when the loss of character is as massive as it is today. Occasionally, Gingrich does acknowledge the need for a renewal of character for self-government, usually under the rubric of volunteerism, but the overwhelming impression left by his rhetoric is that the technological developments of the "third wave" will grease the way into the new world left by the collapse of the welfare state.
In this reliance on an admittedly old-fashioned optimism about the benefits of technological improvement, I believe he prescribes the wrong sort of political religion. By political religion, I mean the civic faith that directs and attaches the passions of a people to those things that are essential to the maintenance of the way of life unique to that community. While a healthy America would be an America confident in its future, moral reformation must come first. In fact, I do not believe that faith in science as a goad to political achievement will work in the midst of a profound pessimism over moral decline.
A better guide to political renewal than Alvin and Heidi Toffler’s prophecies of the third wave information society would be Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum and Temperance Speeches, which are the deepest reflections in the American political tradition on preserving political regimes. According to Lincoln, moral reformation precedes technology in the order of preserving and renewing because, as Aristotle teaches, a moral politics is the architectonic or master art at what Newt calls "the vision level," the highest level of political understanding.
The two parts of moral reformation are a rededication to the rule of law established through the American founding and a revival of belief in the commandments of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Although statesmanship can tend directly to the former, the latter can only be encouraged indirectly, and depends on the continuation of the current religious revival, perhaps a new great awakening. The fact remains that this sort of education, a common education in the moral and political prerequisites for republicanism, must be the basis for what I have termed American political religion, and is intrinsically prior in importance to the "lifetime learning" in a succession of third wave skills, to which Gingrich devotes a good portion of his book.
Newt Gingrich is a great gift to the American people and the cause of liberty, and his career testifies to the persistence of the western tradition of principled partisanship and thoughtful statesmanship. To Renew America, as his whole career, shows that thoughtfulness and action can combine to achieve both salutary political victories and a renewal of political discussion worthy of America.
Robert C. Jeffrey teaches political science at Dalton College, in Georgia, where he is a consultant for the Georgia State Republican Party and a constituent of Speaker Gingrich.