A Case For Religious History Classes, Take 2 : Newt Gingrich On “The Mosque”

Earlier this month, in the wake of the Prop8 ruling, I learned that the linkage of “marriage” and religious norms is an artifact of the Catholic Church’s fight for its life in the 16th century.

I had no idea that I would soon be plunged into another politico-religious controversy where understanding history would be essential. If I were a student of former history professor Newt Gingrich, I would think that the proposed Islamic community center in NY City is “deliberately insulting,” as he argued in July:

[Most] don’t understand that “Cordoba House” is a deliberately insulting term. It refers to Cordoba, Spain – the capital of Muslim conquerors who symbolized their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world’s third-largest mosque complex.

Today, some of the Mosque’s backers insist this term is being used to “symbolize interfaith cooperation” when, in fact, every Islamist in the world recognizes Cordoba as a symbol of Islamic conquest. It is a sign of their contempt for Americans and their confidence in our historic ignorance that they would deliberately insult us this way.

The problem with this scenario is that Gingrich has cherry-picked his history. It is Gingrich who is relying on “confidence in our historic ignorance” coupled with his ability to dispense “rhetorical napalm” to fabricate a controversy that seems to have tapped a deep reservoir of hate and intolerance.

From Sacred Places (Sweet Brier College, VA):

  • When Córdoba was a provincial capital in the Roman Empire, the site was occupied by a temple dedicated to Janus, the double-headed god of doorways and gates.
  • The Visigoths built a Christian church dedicated to Saint Vincent there around 500 CE. (Who remembers the Visigoths?)
  • The Great Mosque of Córdoba was founded 785 CE. Over a 200-year period it became the third largest structure in the Islamic world.
  • In the 13th century, Córdoba was captured by the Christian Spanish king of Castile, Ferdinand III; the mosque reverted to a Christian sanctuary.
  • In 1523, the local clergy, with the support of Emperor Charles V, built a cathedral in the middle of the mosque.

Thus, rather than being a symbol of Islamic conquest, a comprehensive review suggests Córdoba is a symbol of Christian conquest: approximately 300 500 years* as Islamic versus approximately a millennium as Christian.

The soundbite is vintage Gingrich.

And it reflects this 1997 this indictment of his history course, “Renewing American Civilization:”

I am troubled by the chapter. Perhaps I don’t understand the purpose of the course, but if it is to be a course rather than a series of sermons, this chapter won’t do. It is bland, vague, hortatory and lacking in substance. But this chapter does not strike me as a thoughtful examination of the sources or importance of character in American life. Philosophically, it is a mishmash of undefined terms (“the universal immune power”), misleading claims (“principles are natural laws”), and unclear distinctions (e.g., between principles and values). Scientifically, it is filled with questionable or unsupported generalizations (e.g., standards of acceptable conduct are influenced more by the media than by the family, broadcasting cannot continue to live by the numbers, since World War I Americans have lost sight of right and wrong in favor of “quick-fix mentality,” etc.)

Historically, it does not represent Adam Smith correctly. . . . The Founders are also treated somewhat cavalierly. It is true that George Washington spoke often of the importance of virtue, but he didn’t write the Constitution; Madison and a few others did. In the Federalist papers, Madison defends that Constitution by saying that it does not require virtue for its operation: ambition will be made to counteract ambition.

I could go on, but I dare not for fear I have misunderstood what this enterprise is all about. I am a professor, and so I bring the perspectives (and limitations) of a professor to bear on this matter. If this is not to be a course but instead a sermon, then you should get a preacher to comment on it.

— Conservative scholar James Q. Wilson

This critique was commissioned by a Congressional Ethics Committee because the course would “lie at the heart of the controversy over his use of tax-exempt funds.” In 1997, the House of Representative endorsed (395-to-28) the “most severe penalty ($300,000) ever imposed on a Speaker.”

So why are we listening to this man about anything remotely political, particularly history?

A Brief Bio Of Gingrich
After obtaining a PhD in modern European history from Tulane University, from 1970 to 1978 Gingrich taught history at West Georgia College (now the University of West Georgia) in Carrollton. He left reportedly because he was denied tenure. He became Speaker of the House and crafted the GOP “Contract With America.” Esquire has an interview with Marianne Gingrich, wife number two, in its September issue. Read it: this is a man, after all, with his eye on the White House.

At a moment of doctrinal crisis in the Republican party, Newt Gingrich is the only major figure in his party who is both insurgent and gray eminence. That is why twelve years after his career ended — twelve years after any other man in his position would have disappeared from view — he is ascendant.

“Will he run?” Marianne asks. “Possibly. Because he doesn’t connect things like normal people. There’s a vacancy — kind of scary, isn’t it?”

One thing is certain — Newt Gingrich loves the question. “That’s up to God and the American people,” he tells you, in the serene tone of a man who already knows what God thinks.

Learn how Gingrich has recovered from his $300,000 fine from the Congressional Ethics Committee for misusing tax-exempt funds for partisan purposes — it’s not pretty (“he’s ‘making more money than he ever thought possible, and doesn’t have to tell everybody where it’s coming from’) — and how he has maneuvered his way into such prominence that his false history lesson, the one that opened this essay, has successfully driven our increasingly hateful and divisive political rhetoric.

Read it and don’t weep: speak up instead.

* Math corrected at 2.56 pm