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The Mosque and Gingrich's Crusade Against Secularism

Albert R. Hunt takes a few swings at Newt Gingrich in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, suggesting the former House speaker is railing against the so-called Ground Zero mosque (a multi-story cultural center that Imam Feisal Rauf has pointed out is "not a mosque") in order to re-vamp his own moral image:

Secular politicians, led by President Barack Obama and the current House speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California, Gingrich charges, want to take God and religion out of the public square, are corrosively corrupt and oppose American values such as the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman. This is no idle fear, Gingrich warns in his book: "The secular-socialist machine represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did."

In his anti-mosque crusade and other critiques, Gingrich wraps himself in spirituality, castigating the morals and values of opponents. As in his long-ago celebration of civil rights, the clever Georgia Republican counts on a short attention span.

For this self-styled morality cop is on his third marriage, no big deal by itself. Except he handed his first wife -- his high school geometry teacher -- her walking papers while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery.

While Hunt imputes motives, it's worth pointing out that Gingrich has been on a crusade against "secularism" for some time now. He has delivered stump speeches on the Democratic "secular socialist machine" throughout 2010, both at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2010 and at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Louisiana. In May, he released his latest book, "To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular Socialist Machine."

It's a catch phrase that pushes all the right buttons with many conservatives but stops just short of being explicitly offensive to the mainstream. It's a system of rhetorical equivocations and broad associations that rests heavily on Gingrich's ability to explain each charge in articulate detail. Liberals have taken God out of politics and attacked religion, President Obama is a European-style socialist, and he runs a Chicago-style political machine. That's the explanation Gingrich gives, and he gives it persuasively.

Having listened to Gingrich give this speech at CPAC, it didn't seem to me that he was particularly worried about his marriages as political liabilities. He tours with his wife, Calista, and mentions her frequently on stage. Newt Gingrich does not seem like a man who is hiding from his past or his personal life.

The Park 51 community center and mosque reverses some of these political dynamics. Instead of opposing prayer, liberals are supporting it. Except it's Muslim prayer, and it's not in a public school, rather next to Ground Zero.

But the mosque falls well within the wheelhouse of Gingrich's current messaging operation, and his comparison to a theoretical Nazi sign outside the Holocaust Museum fits with the rhetorical style of his "secular socialist machine" theme: it's a generality that hits the right notes with Gingrich's intended audience and enrages the people who don't already like him, begging further explanation from Gingrich himself, explanation he is more than happy to give.