The GOP presidential candidates have been asked to sign a number of pledges opposing taxes, gay marriage, and supporting the Tea Party’s Contract from America while they campaign for their party’s nomination. Bob Vander Plaats, a conservative who ran for election to the state house in Iowa and lost, and who has since become something of a conservative gatekeeper has also drafted a pledge for the GOP presidential candidates to sign, titled “The Marriage Vow: A Declaration of Dependence upon MARRIAGE and FAMILY.”
Well, those all sound like really nice words. You can read the entire pledge on Vander Plaats’ “The Family Leader” website here. Michele Bachman was the first to sign it. Rick Santorum and Rick Perry also signed. Mitt Romney did not sign it, telling the Associated Press that the pledge “contained references and provisions that were undignified and inappropriate for a presidential campaign.” John Huntsman has also refused to sign because as a matter of principle he is not signing any pledges at all.
Newt Gingrich has also not signed the pledge. There were pretty obvious reasons why, given his past infidelities and the way he conducted himself in his divorces. But today, Newt found a way to get The Family Leader to acknowledge that he has after all conformed to the Spirit of the pledge if not the letter of the original. Mr. Gingrich did so by writing a long letter putting things on his own terms. His letter is here. At the bottom, Mr. Vander Plaats writes:
“We are pleased that Speaker Gingrich has affirmed our pledge and are thankful we have on record his statements regarding DOMA, support of a federal marriage amendment, defending the unborn, pledging fidelity to his spouse, defending religious liberty and freedom, supporting sound pro-family economic issues, and defending the right of the people to rule themselves.”
So while the media and talking heads discuss the meaning and nuance of Newt’s promises and what he is actually pledging with regard to this institution of marriage and the family, DOMA, the military and gay rights, this little gem (emphasis added) seems to have slipped by unnoticed so far:
Defending Religious Liberty. As President, I will vigorously defend the First Amendment’s rights of religious liberty and freedom of speech against anyone who would try to stifle the free expression of believers. I will also promote legislation that protects the right to conscience for healthcare workers so they are not compelled to perform abortions and other procedures that violate their religious teachings.
Now I understand that The Family Leader is a religious organization. I understand they are the ones who asked for the pledge to begin with and that its purpose was for their own conservative religious agenda. But is this the kind of statement we want from someone perched atop the GOP polls and leading the race for their presidential nominee? What about the free speech rights of unbelievers? What about those who try to stifle the free expression of atheists, agnostics and what the NY Times calls “nones?” And does he mean only Christian believers? If so, what about those who would try to stifle the free speech rights of Jews and other non-Christian believers? Imagine the size of the vein Bill O’Reilly, to name just one, might have popped if a presidential candidate had written “unbelievers” instead of “believers.”
This is not really news for those who pay attention to such things. Newt has previously warned against unbelief and secularism and how that would all be the end of what it means to be an American. Pandering is to be expected in campaigns. No party or person holds the high ground here (John Huntsman, the only GOP adult voice in the room in many ways ought to be commended for flatly refusing to get pulled in to pledge mania). But this goes way beyond gaffe, way beyond pandering to a codified and explicit endorsement of government preference for believers over unbelievers. He is telling us in writing that this is the action he would take as president of the United States.
Lest we think this simply politics as usual, consider that someone who as president would hope to extend Constitutional freedoms only to believers can just as easily hope to deny them to believers. I simply wish he had said it thus: “I will vigorously defend the First Amendment’s rights of religious liberty and freedom of speech against anyone who would try to stifle the free expression of ALL PEOPLE.” We have been duly warned.