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Published: Wednesday, 5/23/2007

A robe of hypocrisy

OF ALL the commencement speakers this year, Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, may have had the most delicate task. He appeared before 17,000 people at Liberty University still grieving the death four days earlier of the Rev. Jerry Falwell. As anyone would have done in his place, Mr. Gingrich paid rich tribute to the university's founder.

But hold the sympathy for Mr. Gingrich's predicament. While comforting the mourning Americans at Liberty University, Newt Gingrich, true to form, couldn't resist afflicting other Americans who in his mind support "radical secularism." Perhaps this was just a matter of preaching to the choir in that arena, but his chip-on-the-shoulder comments were outrageous on a couple of levels.

"A growing culture of radical secularism," he said, "declares that the nation cannot profess the truths on which it was founded."

He also alluded to public schools that "can no longer invoke the creator nor proclaim the natural law nor profess the God-given quality of human rights.

"In hostility to American history, the radical secularists insist that religious belief is inherently divisive and that public debate can only proceed on secular terms."

A reasonable person, not in thrall of Mr. Gingrich's inflated sense of cultural grievance, might ask: Who are these radical secularists anyway?

America is a nation largely of believers. It remains political death for anyone seeking public office to declare himself an atheist or agnostic, which is why we never hear of it. As for a supposed insistence on a secular-only debate of public issues, that would confound more than 200 years of U.S. history. The historical record is full of religious references made by presidents and others.

A better question is this: Who is Newt Gingrich to lecture the rest of us on the place of religion in public life?

He is someone who left the job of speaker under an ethical cloud. He is someone who has been divorced twice and married three times. (His first wife has said he discussed divorce terms with her while she was recuperating from cancer surgery.) He is someone who recently admitted that he was having an extramarital affair even as he was flaying President Bill Clinton over Monica Lewinsky (that was different, he said, because the president lied under oath).

To be sure, many Americans get divorced and not everything said by ex-spouses is reliable. Many Americans also sincerely repent of their sins, but not all of them take the podium at Liberty University and castigate others while oblivious to the fact that they have no moral standing.

Mr. Gingrich, still a potential presidential candidate in 2008, thinks radical secularists are the problem. Maybe radical hypocrites are a bigger threat.

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