This slender volume by Newt Gingrich recalls an evocative metaphor coined by James A. Garfield 10 years before he became president. Addressing the Williams College alumni in 1871 in the presence of Mark Hopkins, president of Williams, Garfield said that the essence of education was “Mark Hopkins at one end of a log and I on the other.”
In a real sense this book places Mr. Gingrich at one end of the log and a willing American pupil at the other. Not literally, of course, but Mr. Gingrich here introduces the great symbols and shrines of American democracy and explains them to willing students.
The pre-eminent American symbol is the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The many other American symbols include the words of our greatest presidents and the three-dimensional shrines that proclaim them.
In producing the book, Mr. Gingrich acknowledges the “great effort and dedication” by others who join him in hoping it will help all Americans better understand the role of God in our history. He doesn’t attempt to define the place of God precisely. But he deplores efforts to excommunicate God from the public square.
Specifically, he opposes eliminating “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and those who want to “write God out of American history.” Oddly perhaps, he invokes Justice William O. Douglas as an authority: “We are a religious people and our institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”
He cites references to God by Washington and other Founders, but doesn’t address the Deist-personal God differences among them. In the Declaration they found language that satisfied both Calvinists and Unitarians. Mr. Gingrich then quotes the pro forma references to God by subsequent presidents.
Fortunately, he deals at some length with Lincoln who, more than any other president, understood the depth and nuances of a belief in a righteous supreme being. Mr. Gingrich cites Lincoln’s familiar reference to “this nation under God” and his anguish over slavery and the Civil War. Noting that each side prayed to the same God and read the same Bible, Lincoln acknowledged that “The prayers of both could not be answered … The Almighty has his purposes.” He did not claim to know the precise purposes and ways of God.
After reviewing presidential utterances, Mr. Gingrich takes the reader on a “walking tour” of the nation’s capital, including 12 national monuments and Arlington National Cemetery. Following the Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, he visits the Supreme Court, White House and U.S. Capitol, and less-likely shrines such as the Library of Congress and Ronald Reagan Office Building.
At each stop, his explanatory words are to the point. Like any good tour guide, he provides a map of Washington and other details. When visiting Arlington Cemetery, he writes: “Cross Memorial Bridge and go straight through the circle. The visitor’s parking lot is on the left; the cost is $1.59 per hour.”
Mr. Gingrich says his book “is written from an historical perspective. Its purpose is neither theological, nor an effort to proselytize on behalf of any religious worldview. All Americans — both those who believe in God and those who do not share this belief — are equal in rights and duties under our Constitution and equal in deserving the respect of their fellow citizens.” My purpose is to “rediscover the founding generation’s understanding of what is required to sustain liberty in a free society.”
Finally, to underscore the pedagogical mission of the book, Mr. Gingrich includes a map of D.C. and 15 pages of black-and-white photos. All in all a sophisticated but readable primer.
“Discovering God in America” is a small book with a big message. It is informative without being pedantic. It should be pondered in homes and schools throughout the land. And in every study where the scribblers scribble.
In this lively book, Newt Gingrich is the teacher at one end of the log. But who knows, he may become the contemporary Garfield at the other end — destined to be president in a world far more complex than Garfield could have imagined. Should this happen, I hope he would serve longer than the short 200 days given the ill-fated 20th president of the United States.
Ernest W. Lefever is founding president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.