BRANDON, Miss.—“There’s a show,” says Newt Gingrich, “that uses the word Christian in a deliberately hostile way.”
There’s no chance that anyone in Gingrich’s crowd—several hundred people gathered in the chilly storage area of Brandon’s city hall—will end up watching or DVRing the show in question. GCB, a midseason replacement on ABC the past two weeks, started life as a novel titled Good Christian Bitches. When the network adapted the book, it softened the name to Good Christian Belles, then to the acronym. Not good enough. ABC hadn’t fooled Gingrich, and he wouldn’t let the network fool his base.
“To show you how sick the system is,” says Gingrich, “try to put the word Muslim in, instead of Christian. It is inconceivable that anybody in our elites would tolerate a program that was that defiling of Islam. But it’s fine to defile Christianity? That’s how sick the system is.”
You want more examples of how sick it is? Gingrich has got ‘em. “We have a president who apologizes to religious fanatics in Afghanistan, while he’s attacking the Catholic Church and every pro-life group in America,” he says. “He says we’re going to respect the sacred objects of every religion? Fine. Put up all the crosses the courts have torn down!”
In my section of the crowd, I hear “Amens” and shouts of “Yes, yes, yes!” Hearing a national politician talk about this stuff is exhilarating for the crowd. Rick Santorum emotes when he talks about a war on Christians. Mitt Romney doesn’t talk about it at all. Gingrich just states it, with the same measured tone he’d bring to a talk about gas prices or (less frequently these days) some panel about education reform.
And it works. Gingrich has appeared on the ballot in 20 states so far, and lost in all but two of them—both in the Deep South. The final pre-election polls in Mississippi and Alabama show Gingrich either winning or coming in second, with a pack of delegates in tow. Dig into the polls and you find Southern voters basically favorable toward Gingrich by a 2-1 margin. The campaign now says it erred in sending the candidate to campaign in Washington’s caucuses, where Gingrich crawled into fourth place, instead of trying to win Oklahoma and Tennessee and clipping Rick Santorum’s wings in the South. Gingrich has collapsed in other states. He’s resilient here.
Gingrich pulls it off with one of the acts he’s honed since the 1970s—the happy culture warrior, offended by liberal bigotry, with no grand agenda of his own. Ask him about birth control and he’ll say it’s a distraction from a better question about why “Barack Obama supported infanticide.” Gingrich doesn’t get trapped in wedge issue cul de sacs. Rick Santorum will buy up acreage in those cul de sacs. Both men try to segue to an argument over first principles; Gingrich typically succeeds.
Mississippi Republicans have an ear for this stuff. Brandon is one of the places where it works. It’s a suburb of Jackson, a classic white-flight town with residents who don’t mind talking about why they flew. “I moved here in 1996 from Jackson,” says Buddy Davis, a retired Army veteran who “isn’t crazy” about his candidate choices, “because the other race was taking over. It wasn’t safe. There was a shooting just about every day.” Mississippi is 37 percent black, and Jackson is 79 percent black; in Brandon, it’s only 17 percent. The black Republicans I meet in Brandon, like Newt supporter Keith Hall, still talk about Jackson as an example of how society stops working when the government’s swollen and people lose their values.
At his best, Gingrich can switch between optimistic politics and gut-check politics like he’s flipping a circuit breaker. His city hall speech spends plenty of time on gas prices, congratulating the crowd when they’re aware that the president has talked about developing fuel from algae. What an ideal choice: “$10 a gallon gas with President Algae, or $2.50 a gallon gas with President Drilling.” (He says he’s also bullish about algae-for-fuel research, but it wouldn’t help right now.)
But the speech goes into hotter places. Gingrich demands a resignation from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, whom he worked with when he was speaker of the House and Panetta was President Clinton’s chief of staff. Panetta’s crime: Saying that the United States would seek U.N. approval before a strike on Iran. “He’s not the secretary of defense for the United Nations!” says Gingrich.
This is a killer line. Loss of sovereignty, attacks on faith, fear of people being lulled into poverty and crime by big government—all of that plays. Before Gingrich gave this speech, he’d attended late service at the First Baptist Church, four minutes down the road. It was brief, heavy on hymns, with a fairly succinct sermon from the Rev. Scott Thomas. He compared the contract signed in the Book of Nehemiah to the Declaration of Independence. He talked about personal morality and looked directly at Gingrich as he explained the origins of marriage. God had designed a contract; He had not merely told men and women to have sex. Nobody could have missed the hint. When Gingrich held the microphone after the sermon, he took his medicine.
“I was the kind of kid who got the book on Lucifer descending to Hell,” said Gingrich. He’d sinned. “I come to you as a citizen who has sought redemption. I know that you have to shelter under the cross to have any hope of having a full life.”
Thomas respected the answer, and let Gingrich continue to talk about how “the secularists” were wrong about Jefferson. When I catch up with Thomas, in the hallway outside the city hall speech, he’s ready to vote for Gingrich. “I’ll support someone who asks to come to our house—the church—and to speak honestly.” And Gingrich had spoken honestly about faith, in a way that impressed people.
But Gingrich didn’t go as far as Thomas. In his sermon, the pastor had compared the son of man to some unnamed nonsavior. “Jesus is not just someone who had multiple wives and claimed he ascended into heaven!” After the speech, I want to check in: Was he talking about Mohammed?
“No,” he says, “that was specifically about Joseph Smith. My point was that we’re in election time. You need to know what people believe. Mitt Romney doesn’t believe Jesus is God. From a spiritual perspective, he might as well be Muslim.”
Gingrich, the happy culture warrior—the Fox News defender of the faith—would never say what Thomas is saying. He’ll say enough.