Thursday, September 17, 2009

Paganism: Gingrich still worried

A few months ago, I criticized -- not without some mocking -- Newt Gingrich's warning that "We are living in a period where we are surrounded by paganism." Yet I harbored some vague hope that Gingrich might have been indulging in some transient (and expedient) rhetorical excess. Not so. He's still talking about the purported paganism problem:
I think our country is in a great struggle, and it’s something that Paul wrote about frequently. Paul wrote about a world where there was paganism. That’s where we are. A number of people with great social prestige think that paganism is a reasonable way of life. They like to think that they’re unique, but they’re not.
Now let's turn to the Merriam Webster online dictionary:

Main Entry: pa·gan
Pronunciation: \ˈpā-gən\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Late Latin paganus, from Latin, civilian, country dweller, from pagus country district; akin to Latin pangere to fix —more at pact Date: 14th century
1 : heathen 1; especially : a follower of a polytheistic religion (as in ancient Rome)
2 : one who has little or no religion and who delights in sensual pleasures and material goods : an irreligious or hedonistic person
3 : neo-pagan

So, let's be clear -- Paul was talking about pagans of definition 1 (who were often quite devout followers of their own religions); Gingrich is talking about the pagans of definition 2; and the neo-pagans of definition 3 are a rather small part of the current-day population. It seems that Gingrich is trying to capitalize on this ambiguity -- to stoke anxieties of current-day Christian conservatives that they are being persecuted by the government, as the early Christians were in pagan (definition 1) Rome.

If Gingrich wants to denounce people for being hedonistic or irreligious, let him do so. I don't generally share his concerns, but at least I'll respect his terminology. But using "paganism" as an expansive and slippery term of abuse (as I suggested in comments on my earlier post) is not in keeping with the classical heritage that inspired the American founding fathers. And considering that Gingrich has a PhD in history, he should (and does) know better.

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