Frame Game

My Favorite Martin

Gingrich says it’s wrong to identify with victimized blacks. But it’s fine to identify with victimized Christians.

Republican presidential candidate, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich in Pennsylvania on March 24.

Photograph by Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images.

Read Slate’s complete coverage of the Trayvon Martin case.

Newt Gingrich says it’s disgraceful of President Obama to express a feeling of kinship with Trayvon Martin. It’s wrong, according to Gingrich, because it divides Americans into groups and implies that Obama would be less sympathetic to a white victim. An argument for impartiality in the Martin case can legitimately be made. But it can’t be made by Gingrich, because he’s an enthusiastic practitioner of identity politics. It’s just that the victim group with whom he chooses to identify is Christians, not blacks.

Martin, a young, unarmed black man in Florida, was shot to death four weeks ago while walking home by a crime-watch volunteer who claimed, in the face of contrary evidence, that he had had reason to fear for his life. On Friday, Obama was asked about the case and “allegations of lingering racism within our society.” He replied:

When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids. And I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this, and that everybody pulls together—federal, state, and local—to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened. … But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. And I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and that we’re going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened. 

Gingrich, speaking on Sean Hannity’s radio show a day later, condemned Obama’s remarks:

What the president said, in a sense, is disgraceful. It’s not a question of who that young man looked like. Any young American of any ethnic background should be safe, period. We should all be horrified no matter what the ethnic background. Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be OK because it didn’t look like him? That’s just nonsense dividing this country up.

So Gingrich is against dividing us into groups and identifying with victims who belong to one group. Right?

Wrong. Watch Gingrich’s performance at a town hall meeting in South Carolina on Jan. 17. A man in the audience tells him that 60 percent of South Carolinians are evangelical Christians. The man asks: “Would you, as Newt Gingrich, support a Muslim-American running for president?  Would you endorse at one point in the future … that a Muslim-American could possibly be running for president?” Gingrich replies, “It would depend entirely on whether they would commit in public to give up Sharia.” He explains:

If they’re the Saudis, who demand that we respect them, while they refuse to allow either a Jew or a Christian to worship in Saudi Arabia, that’s something different. And I think we need a president who stands up, tells the truth, and rejects any kind of effort to impose on us a sense of guilt because we believe in our religion and we’re prepared to tell the truth.

Note the we/them/us/they/our language, culminating in the Christianist slip, “our religion.” A week later, Gingrich goes on the Salem Radio Network, a self-described alliance of “Christian-formatted” affiliates, and is asked about radical Islamists. He answers:

From my perspective, you don’t have an issue of religious tolerance. You have an elite which favors radical Islam over Christianity and Judaism. You have constant pressure by secular judges and by religious bigots to drive Christianity out of public life and to establish a secular state—except when it comes to radical Islam, where all of a sudden they start making excuses for Sharia, they start making excuses that we really shouldn’t use certain language.

The key shift here is the segue from foreign to domestic matters. When Gingrich talks about judges imposing a secular state, he’s not talking about Saudi Arabia. He’s talking about the United States. He’s telling Christian listeners that the government is persecuting them while favoring Muslims.

That’s Jan. 25. A week later, at a rally in Tampa, Fla., Gingrich brings up “the challenge of radical Islam.” “We are up against opponents who are religiously motivated … who are sincerely dedicated to trying to impose their civilization on ours,” he tells the crowd. “The Obama administration refuses to talk honestly about the threat. … We know that there are people conspiring to kill us across the planet. We know what they have in common.” He continues: “I am comfortable with legal immigrants of every background, including Islam, who want to become American. I have no confusion in my mind about our background, our laws, our civilization. If they wish to join us, that’s fine. We are not going to accept Sharia.”

Notice how Gingrich slides from talking about “radical Islam” to talking more broadly about Muslim “immigrants,” while underscoring his their/ours/they/us juxtaposition. And here’s Gingrich on Feb. 26, speaking at a church in Milner, Ga., where he addresses pupils from the Rock Springs Christian Academy:

When churches are burned in Nigeria, do we get an apology? No. When churches are burned in Malaysia, do we get an apology? No. When churches are burned in Egypt, do we get an apology? When the Saudis refuse to allow a church or a synagogue in the entire country, do we complain about religious bigotry?

The curious connection Gingrich draws here is between churches and we. The Christians who lost their churches in Nigeria, Malaysia, and Egypt weren’t American. Why, then, should “we” get the apology? Who, in Gingrich’s view, is “we”? Is it Americans? Or is it Christians?

Two days later, Gingrich sits for an interview on CNN. Wolf Blitzer asks him why he has criticized Obama “for apologizing for the mistaken burning of the Qurans in Afghanistan.” Gingrich replies:

The U.S. Army destroyed Bibles in 2009. I find it reprehensible that we have this double standard. … I’m tired of American presidents thinking that they have to kowtow to whatever the Islamic frame is. … Why was it OK for the U.S. Army to burn Bibles? I mean, I don’t understand this one-sided nature that is always apologizing for Islam while it is dissing Christianity. … One of the reasons that I’m running for president is that I’m tired of the elite view in this country. You can do anything you want to to Judaism and Christianity, but you have to apologize for Islam as often as necessary …

What’s telling here is Gingrich’s abandonment of the “radical Islam” formulation for a franker attack on “the Islamic frame” and “apologizing for Islam.” That, combined with the allegation that Muslim-lovers are “dissing Christianity,” sets up an explicit conflict between Muslims and Christians.

Move ahead another week. At a March 9 campaign appearance in Gulfport, Miss., Gingrich brings up GCB, the ABC show based on the novel Good Christian Bitches. Here’s how Gingrich chooses to address this slur:

Look at the new show that’s on that has the word “Christian” in it, and I want you to take the exact name, drop out “Christian,” and put in “Muslim.” And ask yourself: Is there any network that would have dared to run a show like that? And you know the answer is not a one, because anti-Christian bigotry is just fine in the entertainment industry, but they have to be very protective of Islam.

Gingrich has a point about the show’s offensiveness to many Christians. But why bring Islam into it? Why complain that the media are so “protective of Islam”? It’s hard to explain this without seeing in Gingrich’s comments an attempt to bond with fellow Christians in resentment at an alien faith.

Finally, here’s Gingrich on March 21, less than 24 hours before Obama’s comments about Trayvon Martin. Greta Van Susteren of Fox News points out that earlier in the day, a Louisiana voter told Gingrich that Obama was a Muslim. She asks Gingrich: “I take it you don’t think that President Obama’s a Muslim. And number two, why didn’t you correct him [the voter]?” Gingrich replies:

Let’s accept that he’s [Obama] a Christian. He’s a Christian whose policies are to apologize to Muslim extremists while they’re killing Americans, at the same time that he’s waging war against the Catholic church and against every right-to-life institution in this country. I just went today to Louisiana College, which is a Baptist college, which is very right-to-life. The president said publicly they will close the university before they will give in to Obamacare because they’re not going to provide abortifacients to their students or their employees. Now, you tell me. Let’s accept he’s a Christian in his own light. He went to a Christian church for over 20 years. Why is it he’s more sensitive to radical Islamists who are killing young Americans than he is to the Catholic Church, to Baptists, to fundamentalists?

Let’s recap Gingrich’s statements about Muslims over the last three months. We’re entitled to defend “our religion” against hostile Muslims. American judges are favoring “radical Islam over Christianity and Judaism.” Muslim immigrants are OK as long as they aren’t trying “to impose their civilization on ours.” Whenever and wherever churches are burned, “we” are owed an apology. Presidents should stop “apologizing for Islam” while “dissing Christianity.” The entertainment industry is hostile to Christianity but “protective of Islam.” And Obama is “more sensitive to radical Islamists who are killing young Americans than he is to the Catholic Church, to Baptists, to fundamentalists.”

And yet, after all these statements, Gingrich calls Obama disgracefully divisive for remarking on his resemblance to Trayvon Martin. He asks whether Obama is “suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be OK.”

In Gingrich’s world, it’s fine to divide the country into groups, identify yourself with one group, and complain that your group is being persecuted. But only if you’re in the majority.

William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: