When Newt Gingrich said that the Muslims seeking to build the Islamic center in New York were radical Islamists, he was bearing false witness and dramatizing what will become a great battle for the Republican soul.

This battle is steeped in the lineage of modern Republican and conservative history, with leading roles played by transcendent figures such as William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.

There is an enormous contest under way in American politics, not only between Democrats and Republicans, but between Republicans who favor the politics of inclusion, such as Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Republicans who favor the politics of division, such as former Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich.

President George W. Bush did in fact praise as helping in America's battle against terror one of the Muslims involved in the New York project — but in the politics of fear and division championed in Newt Gingrich's vision of the Republican future, that equanimity and honesty has no place.

By contrast, Gov. Christie walks in the footsteps of William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan, promoting conservative values through his real-time acts as governor, and promoting Republican interests through his big-tent politics of ideas.

Personally I believe these Muslims in the New York project have the right to pursue it. I believe they sincerely think it promotes reconciliation. I also believe their judgment is incorrect and that this project would be better placed elsewhere. And I believe this matter is best resolved by the community in New York and not by politicians in Washington, talking heads on television or demagogues playing the politics of fear.

Sometimes controversial issues bring out the best in some and the worst in others, and draw major lines of distinction that dramatize profound fault lines in national politics. The difference in this matter between the reaction of Gingrich and the reaction of Christie is one such moment, which may well be remembered for raising far larger issues than the talking-head subject of the moment.

Gov. Christie of New Jersey is one of those Republicans who believes in respect, honor, dignity and truth in our national political discourse. I may disagree with Christie often, but I admire his integrity and respect his belief that the power of ideas serves larger purposes than the politics of division for conservatives, liberals, Republicans, Democrats and the nation as a whole.

What is beginning is another Lincoln-Douglas debate, not only between Democrats and Republicans, but between Republicans such as Christie and Republicans such as Gingrich.

This is a debate that is both old and long overdue.

Decades ago Buckley, one of the fathers of modern conservatism, devoted an entire issue of the National Review to this debate about the spirit of conservatism and the soul of the Republican Party.

Barry Goldwater began his national career saying that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, but grew into a Republican and conservative statesman who became a voice of respect for those he disagreed with, and a voice of tolerance for those who were different from him.

It is no coincidence that what began with Buckley and Goldwater came to fruition in the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who believed in a big-tent Republican Party with a vigorous debate about ideas with a mutual respect of fellow Americans.

Perhaps Chris Christie will be the next Republican Reagan. Perhaps not. That is a decision for Republicans, of whom I am not one.

But make no mistake. There is a battle for the future and soul of the Republican Party that is every bit as important as the battle between Republicans and Democrats.

There is the Republican vision of Christie, and the Republican vision of Gingrich. To paraphrase John Paul Jones, they have barely begun to fight the great battle for the future of the conservative movement and the soul of the Republican Party.