Gingrich, the Courts and a Lesson From 1930s Germany

12/19/2011 12:38 pm ET | Updated Feb 18, 2012

Newt Gingrich might not be the GOP nominee for president -- though who knows in this out of the ordinary nominating contest? -- but his recent comments about federal courts deserve further consideration because those views have strong support in conservative circles and have for years.

As the former House Speaker has noted, he does not believe that U.S. presidents are bound by federal court decisions they dislike. On the campaign trail he's talked about impeaching judges whose decisions he disagrees with, and he's even advocated abolishing or defunding courts to stop their work.

The LA Times reports:

In recent weeks, the Republican presidential contender has been telling conservative audiences he is determined to expose the myth of "judicial supremacy" and restrain judges to a more limited role in American government. "The courts have become grotesquely dictatorial and far too powerful," he said in Thursday's Iowa debate.

Talk of impeaching judges and abolishing courts isn't new. Gingrich argues there is historical precedence for his views in statements made by Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. But those analogies don't hold water.

During the presidency of George W. Bush, as then-President Bush sent increasingly conservative nominees to the U.S. Senate for consideration and debate, religious conservatives in the United States, including James Dobson of the Focus on the Family, sponsored "Justice Sunday" events to rally support for the Bush nominations.

At those rallies, speakers routinely called for courts to be abolished and judges removed not for malfeasance but for political reasons. The religious right was upset the courts had extended rights to women to make their own health care decisions and extended civil rights protections to gays and lesbians, for example. Today, these same conservatives are fuming that the U.S. Department of Justice is promising to use the Civil Rights Act to enforce voting rights and other measures to protect immigrants.

At the time, the editors of The Christian Century noted in a 2005 editorial:

After listening to James Dobson and his evangelical Christian colleagues talk about controlling the federal judiciary through the Republican majority in Congress -- to the extent of punishing judges and defunding courts -- one can't help recalling the events in 1930s Germany. The National Socialists removed judges who didn't go along with the party program. Law became what they party said it would.

Voices like Gingrich and Dobson articulate a vision of America that would damage our democracy and undermine basic freedoms, including religious liberty. "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act," said the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who left his teaching position at New York City's Union Theological Seminary to oppose the Nazi regime in his homeland that would ultimately put him to death.

All people of faith -- all Americans, regardless of faith -- must speak out to defend the institutions that keep us free in this election and in those that follow. We cannot allow our courts, civil rights, religious liberties or basic freedoms to be sacrificed. This is not a partisan political issue -- some Republicans disagree with Gingrich and too many democrats fail to champion civil liberties (though no prominent ones have endorsed Gingrich's radical views) -- but a moral one that will define us as a people for generations to come.