In late November, Newt Gingrich, the former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, surged in the polls to become the frontrunner in the race for the Republican nomination in the 2012 presidential election. In recent days Gingrich’s poll numbers have faltered, but he retains a slight lead over former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in national polls.
Having converted to Catholicism in 2009, Gingrich is one of two Catholics running for the nomination. He has not made his Catholicism an important part of his campaign rhetoric, although he has not hidden it, either. At many of his campaign stops, he shows the film Nine Days that Changed the World, a documentary on the role of Pope John Paul II in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe produced by Gingrich and his wife Callista.
So far, discussions of Gingrich’s faith have focused on his personal character, but less attention has been given to the influence of Catholicism on his political views. Although Gingrich’s basic political outlook was established long before his conversion, it has many resonances with recent Catholic social teaching. Gingrich’s views are perhaps best identified with the strand of American conservatism known as “compassionate conservatism.” Compassionate conservatism can be summarized as the belief that the traditionally liberal goals of justice and equality for all, including the poor and racial minorities, can be effectively pursued through traditionally conservative means, such as market mechanisms, families, and local communities. Compassionate conservatism, however, does see a more positive role for government in expanding opportunity than do other strands of conservatism. Compassionate conservatism was the governing philosophy of President George W. Bush on domestic policy, influencing such initiatives as faith-based initiatives, the No Child Left Behind Act, and the reform of Medicare, as well as the failed drives for comprehensive immigration reform and the privatization of Social Security.
Compassionate conservatism has many resonances with Catholic social teaching, particularly Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. For example, John Paul criticizes the modern welfare state that “leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending” (#48). His criticism is not aimed at the solidarity behind the welfare state, however, as government and private “intermediate communities” must together embody solidarity and provide for those in need. John Paul also writes that poverty is best defined as exclusion from full participation in the market (#33), echoing the compassionate conservative argument that government activism is necessary, not to counteract the market, but to provide the marginalized the same opportunities as others.
Many of the distinctive proposals put forward by Gingrich in the 2012 campaign also fit the mold of compassionate conservatism. He seeks to further reform welfare and unemployment programs along the lines of the welfare reform of 1996 by creating greater opportunities for re-entering the workplace, such as job re-training programs and health care and housing benefits to those who successfully find work. Gingrich has also long identified the need for extending health coverage to all through some form of individual mandate, but more recently has criticized aspects of Obama’s health care reform.
It is Gingrich’s compassionate conservatism which has led to attacks from his opponents and to his recent decline in the polls. Gingrich has been hammered on his receipt of $1.6 million in consulting fees from Freddie Mac, one of the two government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) responsible for the purchase of mortgages and sale of mortgage-backed securities, which Gingrich has defended as a way of promoting home ownership. Opponents also criticize Gingrich for appearing in a 2008 advertisement with then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi advocating for solutions to climate change. Finally, like Texas governor Rick Perry, Gingrich has been criticized for his support of comprehensive immigration reform.
Since the election of President Obama in 2008, American conservatism has swung in a more libertarian direction, embodied by the Tea Party movement. Many conservatives were already uneasy with President Bush’s more moderate policies and the level of government spending during his tenure. This shift has affected conservative Catholics, which is evident when looking at the other Catholic Republican candidate, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Santorum is identified as a social conservative, focusing on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Like Gingrich he supports lowering taxes and the reform of entitlement programs, but Santorum believes that immigration policy should be limited to securing the borders, and other signature issues of compassionate conservatism dealing with poverty and the environment are missing from his platform. Santorum represents the brand of conservative American Catholicism that in recent years has emphasized the “five non-negotiables”—abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, and same-sex marriage—at the expense of other aspects of Catholic social teaching.
Compassionate conservatism has the potential to appeal to the general public in a way that Tea Party conservatism does not. This is particularly true at a time when people are continuing to suffer from the unemployment and poverty caused by the economic crisis that require some form of governmental outreach, yet are also anxious about the increasing size and reach of government. The compassionate conservatism endorsed by Gingrich has the potential to bring the values of Catholic social teaching to government policy in a way suited to the issues faced by America today.
Matthew A. Shadle is Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Loras College, in Dubuque, Iowa. He is the author of The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011).