If there is any better example of the Republican establishment’s dismay at Newt Gingrich’s surge in the presidential primary polls, I’d like to see it. Michael Gerson, the evangelical Christian and The Washington Post’s Republican faith & politics columnist, came out swinging Tuesday in an unusual fusillade calling into question Newt’s intellectualism, religious tolerance and judgement. If one didn’t know Gerson to be a former top official in the Bush White House, scribe of the infamous “axis of evil” reference in Bush’s 2002 State of the Union speech, reflexively dismissive of foreign policy “realism,” and promoter of regime change in Iran, you would think he was writing, at least on Tuesday, for the Democrats. Or Ron Paul.

But he wasn’t. He was writing as one of a growing number of alarmed Republicans who I’m guessing recognize Mitt Romney as the only safe bet to face President Obama in 2012, and see that chance slipping away every time Gingrich bests Romney at a debate or ticks up in the polls. So they go for Gingrich’s biggest weaknesses with the general electorate : his tendency to indulge in “shallow  ideas” and vacillating red meat gasbaggery at the expense of anyone deemed too small or politically gainless to be represented by a Big Voice in Washington (in other words, those who cannot afford Gingrich or advance his career). In this case, Muslims.

Gerson spends several paragraphs condemning Gingrich for assuming and proclaiming that Islamic Sharia law  “is inherently brutal,” “the heart of the enemy movement from which the terrorists spring forth,” and “totalitarianism.” He says for believing this, Newt actually has more in common with the “Iranian clerics, Taliban leaders and Salafists of various stripes” who believe Sharia should be interpreted that way and use it as a tool of oppression and punishment.

Wow. Though I cannot disagree with Gerson’s assessment of the former Speaker of the House (I wrote extensively about Gingrich’s Summer of 2010 crusade against the coming “tyranny” that is Sharia law in America, and Islamophobia as a campaign tool in that year’s congressional elections) it is amazing to hear this come from an evangelical Christian conservative. As a group, these Republicans typically flock to the same conveniently oversimplified and politically charged view of Sharia and of Muslims that Gingrich is  espousing for such Grand Effect. According to a Pew Research Poll in March 2011, 60 percent of White evangelical Protestants said Islam “is more likely than other religion to encourage violence.” This, compared to 42 White mainline Protestants and 39 percent White Catholics who said the same thing.

More importantly, Gerson seems to be willing to buck the overall thrust of the base on Islam to cast aspersions on Gingrich. According to Pew, 66 percent of self-described Republican conservatives think Islam encourages violence more than any other religion, compared to 38 percent of  independents, 41 percent of moderate/liberal Republicans and 40 percent of respondents overall.

Meanwhile, during the heat of the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy, of which Newt was no small part in fueling — at one point on FOX News he compared the organizers for the new Islamic center to Nazis after World War II — as many as 76 percent of Republicans polled said they would rather see a strip club built near the crater that once was the World Trade Center towers. Newt, as always, saw an opportunity to cash in politically. Interestingly, in the end, he backed out of an invitation to mix it up in the streets with the rabble he had roused.

Though he actually stopped short of calling Gingrich an Islamophobe, Gerson is still taking a risk with his loyal audience with this tack, but I think it’s fair to say he’s looking at the long game, for which Republican insiders, many albeit off-the-record, say Gingrich’s overall chances at winning are slim.

“Bigfoot dressed as a circus clown would have a better chance of beating President Obama than Newt Gingrich, a similarly farcical character,” quipped one Republican to National Journal nine days ago. Ouch.

Here’s a taste of what Gerson said  in The Washington Post:

…Gingrich insists: “Shariah in its natural form has principles and punishments totally abhorrent to the Western world.” With due respect to the speaker and his recent reading, what qualification does he have to identify Shariah’s “natural form”? In America, public officials respect the conscience of citizens while protecting them from violence. The proper role of government is to aggressively fight terrorism, not to engage in theological judgments.

The governing implications of Gingrich’s views are uncharted. Would President Gingrich reaffirm his belief that the most radical form of Islamic law is the most authentic? Would he tell American Muslims that to be good citizens they should renounce Shariah? Would he argue in his inaugural address, as he has argued before, that “America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization”? No strategy would be more likely to produce resentment, alienation and radicalism.

And how would President Gingrich deal with predominantly Muslim nations if the war against terrorism were transformed into a struggle against Shariah? Wouldn’t every Muslim friend and ally be discredited and undermined by having a relationship with the anti-Shariah superpower? Wouldn’t imams across the world feel compelled to condemn a Catholic president’s simplistic interpretation of Islamic theology? Wouldn’t Islamic radicals welcome the civilizational struggle that Gingrich offers? No strategy would be more likely to undermine the cause of America and the safety of its people.

Of course, none of this is possible. As president, Gingrich would be forced to repudiate his previous views out of strategic necessity. But those views demonstrate a disturbing tendency: the passionate embrace of shallow ideas.


*above image taken from ThyBlackMan.com