December 20th, 2011
04:25 PM ET
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
(CNN) - When Newt Gingrich’s campaign announced Tuesday morning that it had won an endorsement from Don Wildmon, president of the evangelical American Family Association, it seemed like one more bit of evidence that the former House speaker has become the unlikely favorite of conservative Christian activists.
But a few hours later, Bob Vander Plaats, president of an influential Iowa evangelical organization called the Family Leader, announced he was throwing his personal support behind Rick Santorum.
The day of split Republican endorsements reflects a Republican religious base that is largely fractured just two weeks before the first-in-the-nation Republican caucuses.
The dynamic could portend trouble for the eventual Republican nominee, raising the prospect of a less than enthusiastic evangelical base in the general election, like Sen. John McCain faced in 2008. It could also mean a diluted evangelical role in choosing a nominee.
“There is certainly a difference among Christian and pro-family leaders in terms of who they will endorse,” says Mat Staver, who leads the Liberty Counsel, a faith-based law and advocacy group. “There hasn’t been any one candidate that a majority of Christian leaders have settled upon.”
“It looked for a while like Rick Perry would be that individual, but as the debates progressed, that’s seemed less likely,” says Staver, who is also dean of the Liberty University School of Law. “I think it’s cause for concern.”
A late November/early December CNN poll of likely Republican caucusgoers found that 31% of born-again Christians in Iowa supported Gingrich, while 19% backed Ron Paul, 12% backed Mitt Romney and 12% backed Perry.
The fractured Christian Right vote seems to echo the 2008 presidential race, when the movement’s leaders split their support among candidates, from McCain to Mike Huckabee to Rudy Giuliani, who won a surprise endorsement from televangelist Pat Robertson.
Since the presidency of George W. Bush, the GOP has struggled to find a national leader who could unite the evangelical and more establishment wings of the party.
Much of the recent evangelical enthusiasm for Gingrich, expressed by leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr. and Staver (Staver is not yet endorsing anyone) is partly a reflection of evangelical angst over Mitt Romney.
Many evangelicals are cool to the former Massachusetts governor because of his past social liberalism on issues like abortion. Some rank-and-file evangelicals also take issue with Romney’s Mormonism, though few evangelical leaders admit to such bias.
Last weekend, an influential California preacher named Jim Garlow e-mailed a 9,000-word letter that praised Gingrich to evangelical pastors across the country.
“A part of my motivation in writing stems from the fact that I have spent much time with him over the past two years,” wrote Garlow, who helped lead the campaign to ban same-sex marriage in California in 2008. “I am particularly concerned hearing people discuss some aspects regarding him about which they know very little.”
The Gingrich-centered letter included sections subtitled “personal issues,” “forgiveness” and “fit for the presidency.”
“I fully acknowledge his marital failures and sins and do not defend them in any way,” Garlow writes in the letter, which he says was sent to 28,000 pastors across the country. “I understand the steps of forgiveness and restoration and believe that Mr. Gingrich has walked, and continues to walk, in them.”
But other evangelical leaders have voiced skepticism of Gingrich, largely over his previous two marriages and his admission of carrying on an affair with his current wife in the late 1990s, when he was still married to his second wife.
Last month, Southern Baptist Convention public policy chief Richard Land wrote an open letter to the former House speaker calling on him to publicly address evangelical concerns.
“Evangelical men are willing to cut you some slack over your turbulent marital history,” Land wrote. “The bad news is that Evangelical women are far less willing to forgive and let bygones be bygones.”
Other evangelical leaders insist that Gingrich has already repented enough. “He’s a different Newt Gingrich than he was in the early 1990s,” says Staver.
Staver says Christian endorsements like the one for Santorum on Tuesday morning from Vander Plaats weaken the evangelical hand in shaping the Gingrich-Romney showdown.
“I like Rick Santorum, but everybody knows he’s not going to win the primary,” Staver says. “It’s an ideological endorsement that throws pragmatism out the window.”
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