Catholicism as a Diploma

I’m late to this, I know, but I just caught Christopher Buckley’s post on Newt Gingrich’s recent conversion to Catholicism:

Mr. Gingrich’s brain is a 24/7 phenomenon: Half the time, you sit there just dazzled, the other half you want to stuff a baguette-end in his mouth to make him shut up. In the old days, the church would have assigned their best man to the case—a Fulton Sheen. When Clare Boothe Luce, one of the notable Catholic converts of her day, was asked whom she wanted to hear her first confession, she replied, “Bring me someone who has seen the rise and fall of empires!” They don’t make converts like that anymore. Or maybe they do.

Gingrich’s intellectual pretensions have been amply documented elsewhere, but I’m not particularly interested in assessing the man’s policy-making acumen. Suffice it to say that Gingrich clearly considers himself a leading public thinker and seems to want the rest of us to share in that opinion (fat chance, Mr. Speaker – I suffered through one of your interminable commencement addresses!). So I wonder if Gingrich’s assimilation into a rich and venerable religious tradition is a bit of intellectual signaling – another attempt to bolster his ideological street cred by tying himself to the branch of Christianity most closely associated with intellectual conservatism.

If so, it’s an odd role reversal. A few decades ago, a devout Quaker (Dick Nixon) enjoyed a decisive religious advantage over JFK’s casual Catholicism. Now, however, Catholics are firmly entrenched at the top of America’s socio-economic hierarchy, and it’s evangelical Protestants like Mike Huckabee that scare off mainstream voters.

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