As he prepares campaign, Gingrich faces hurdles with religious conservatives
Newt Gingrich on Capitol Hill on Wednesday after addressing a Hispanic prayer breakfast.
May 11th, 2011
02:53 PM ET

As he prepares campaign, Gingrich faces hurdles with religious conservatives

Editor's Note: CNN’s Joe Johns will explore the relationship between Newt Gingrich and social conservatives Thursday on The Situation Room at 5 p.m. ET.

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor

(CNN) - How big a stumbling block will Newt Gingrich’s three marriages and admission of an affair pose to his efforts to win so-called values voters?

“It’s a huge hurdle,” said Richard Land, the public policy chief for the Southern Baptist Convention, the county’s largest evangelical denomination.

“I must have asked 500 Southern Baptists about this in individual conversations,” Land said. “Evangelical men are likely to give him the benefit of the doubt. I find an implacable wall of resistance among evangelical women.”

As he announced Wednesday that he'll seek the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, it's clear that Gingrich is aware of the huge role religious conservatives play in the GOP primaries. But he also knows that his past presents challenges to winning them over.

“In meetings with pastors, the issue always comes up,” said Rick Tyler, Gingrich’s spokesman.

“And he answers it straightforwardly, courageously, without making excuses,” Tyler said. “Once they understand that he, like them, relies on his faith to get him through every day, they can get beyond it and hear his message. It turns out that pastors really are in the business of forgiveness.”

In recent years, Tyler has spearheaded Gingrich’s stepped-up campaign to organize evangelicals and Catholics at the grass roots - and to bring them closer to fiscal conservatives through efforts like the Tea Party movement. Tyler says that campaign will be especially important in early caucus and primary states like Iowa and South Carolina, where evangelicals represent huge voting blocs.

“I’ve been with Newt as he’s met with literally thousands of pastors; he’s made it an ongoing part of our travel agenda,” Tyler said.

On Wednesday morning, hours before he announced his campaign for the presidency via Twitter, Gingrich addressed the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast on Capitol Hill.

In recent years, Gingrich has also made promoting religion in public life a central part of his message. He says a 2002 federal court ruling against reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools because of its “under God” clause was a wake-up call.

At a speech to a Texas megachurch in March, Gingrich said that the United States will be a “secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists,” in a matter of generations unless Americans fight back against secularization.

Although religious conservatives are likely to respond to that message, the question for Gingrich is whether they’ll accept the messenger.

Gingrich's first marriage ended after he discussed the details of the divorce with his wife while she was recovering from cancer surgery. He married again in 1981 and was divorced in 2000, when he married the young congressional aide with whom he had had an affair.

Some accused Gingrich of hypocrisy for cheating on his wife around the time the House was impeaching President Bill Clinton for lying about his White House affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Many religious Americans may be apt to forgive him.

“Among evangelicals, the drama of sin and redemption is well understood,” said John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron. “The question is how effectively he can explain that he’s not the same person he was back then.”

Gingrich would not be the first presidential candidate to overcome doubts among religious conservatives because of perceived personal transgressions.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan became the first divorced person to win the White House, with lots of help from evangelicals who’d supported Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist, four years earlier.

“Newt simply needs to address the past in an authentic way that makes it clear he is a changed man,” said Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, “and I believe the overwhelming majority of social conservative voters will be fair-minded and forgiving.

“Most important, he needs to talk about how he has found peace and meaning through a personal relationship with Christ, that his marriage has never been stronger and that he has never been closer to his children and grandchildren,” said Reed, who once led the Christian Coalition.

Gingrich has apologized for his past behavior in interviews and usually appears in public with his wife, Callista. Gingrich has also spoken about how Callista helped lead him to convert from Protestantism to Catholicism in 2009.

“What evangelicals see in that (conversion) story is God at work,” Tyler said. “He went to Mass with Callista as a supportive spouse, and evangelicals have told me they think that’s right where God wanted him. Over time, it had a powerful effect.”

Still, some top religious conservatives say Gingrich still has a lot of work to do to win the votes of many conservative evangelicals and Catholics. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Land said he told Gingrich late last year that he needs to address his personal behavior in a major address.

“The only chance of clearing this hurdle is to give a major speech in some pro-family forum," Land said, "in which he imagines himself to be sitting directly across from an evangelical woman and convinces them that he deeply regrets his behaviors.

"That he understands how hurtful and destructive it was and that he has apologized to the people involved and is happily married and devoted to his wife," Land continued. "And that, whatever happens, there will be no sexual scandal in the Gingrich White House.”

Land says Gingrich told him he’d think about it.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Catholic Church • Christianity • Newt Gingrich • Politics

soundoff (928 Responses)
  1. darrel

    Considering the quality of current candidates, much will be forgiven Newt in order to produce a candidate with a "chance" of gaining the white hours. Judge him by what he did as a Congressman, not his personal life. That isn't ANYONE's busines. He however is a hippo-crite(spelling intentional) and caters to the religious right. therefore I'll once again vote for Mickey Mouse.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Darrel wrote: "I'll once again vote for Mickey Mouse."

      Sorry... W can't run again...

      May 11, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  2. Mark

    He converted to the Catholic religion and has been divorced twice? He cannot receive the sacrament of Holy Communion which is part of the conversion into that faith. I also do not approve of someone who believes that it is okay to criticize President Clinton over his affairs while he himself was doing the same thing. That is being a hypcrit. He will never get the nomination and he is wasting valuable money on a campaign that will fail. I can forgive him for his sins. I just can't forget his double standards.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  3. ted

    is that guy to Newt's left HOLDING his nose while Newt passes or just picking and flicking? Come on CNN, do some investigative reporting on this breaking news.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  4. Stephanie Palmer

    It all comes down to whether the American people want a pig for a president or not.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  5. ReddCatt

    Excuse me while I go hurl. He is so sorry, he is a changed man, blah blah blah.
    Anyone who believes this BS needs to have their head examined.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  6. NeilSeattle

    Muslims make up barely one percent of our population...how could we possibly end up "dominated by radical Islamists", let alone "lose America to Islam"? Such blatantly obvious, non-reality based, fear-mongering. Or, in some cases, blindly parroting right-fringe nonsense talking points.

    A small sample of Obama's accomplishments in his first two years one would think all Americans would support:

    Ended major military operations in Iraq

    Signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, giving the FDA the authority to regulate the manufacturing, marketing, and sale of tobacco for the first time

    Signed New START Treaty – nuclear arms reduction pact with Russia

    Increased average fuel economy standards from 27.5mpg to 35.5mpg, starting in 2016

    Signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, restoring basic protections against pay discrimination for women and other workers

    Signed the Children's Health Insurance Reauthorization Act, which provides health care to 11 million kids - 4 million of whom were previously uninsured

    Signed the Weapons Systems Acquisition Reform Act to stop fraud and wasteful spending in the defense procurement and contracting system

    May 11, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • Sally

      The Roman Empire became christian because christianity able to fill a void left by the decline of the pagan religion. With the decline of christianity in this country, Islam might fill that void. Religions come and go. Sometimes it's about timing.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
  7. Henry

    Please, these fake Christians with all their hate for their fellow man will all line up behind Newt. They won't even hold their noses because they and the birthers and the "fiscal" conservatives and the gun nuts, and the racists and the tea partiers and the anti hispanic are all the same people. It doesn't take being a genius to figure this out. They are all the same and call themselves by different names just to throw people off. Hey Independents, you are responsible for electing these crazies in 2010.

    May 11, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • tommas

      If there were any true christians the republican party, as it is today would not exist

      May 11, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  8. Guy Left Broke


    May 11, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  9. PraiseTheLard

    "Secular Atheist country, dominated by radical Islamists"

    As opposed to a "Frightened, God-fearing country dominated by radical Evangelicals"

    May 11, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      If this were 50 years ago, he'd talk of a communist america dominated by papists.

      May 11, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  10. Zil Zerimar


    May 11, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
  11. LoneZero

    Gingrich faces hurdles not just from religious conservatives but pretty much anyone else with a memory from well over over ten years ago remembers his affairs, being a poor speaker, being kicked out by his own peers. Like he thinks we forgot or something, I hope he wins the primary so all his "misspokes", lies, and ignorant behavior comes out in debates with Obama.

    "Secular Atheist country, dominated by radical Islamists" Really Newt? Typical GOP fear mongering , I miss the old GOP and what they stood for (funny since conservative pretty much means wanting things the way it was), This new GOP are crazy, ignorant, greedy, and selfish, 2012 can't come soon enough.

    May 11, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  12. ja

    Newt you need to stay in the back room, your marital antics make you unfit for the presidency, you can head thother secular organization though, i can't believe the evangelica christiians haven't shut you down, jesse jackson can't run, then niether can you

    May 11, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  13. Glenda

    Well Religweous conservatives need to get over themselves. We have to have a man who can take Obama out. if it is Ginrich then get behind him or lose America to Islam before another term of Obama the fraud.

    May 11, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • Bill

      Been drinking too much of the Faux News kool-aid again, I see Glenda.

      May 11, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Before you vote the rascals out, you'd better take a long look at the rascal you're voting in.
      Better the devil you know, right?

      May 11, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • EJ in Metro Houston

      "GINRICH", " "RELIGWEOUS"? people like you want Obama out of office and you can't even SPELL? Typical right wing nonsense. ROFLMAO!!

      May 11, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • steven harnack

      Glen or Glenda?

      May 11, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
  14. Jacob Isenberger

    he's a disgusting human being, that's a pretty big hurdle to get over!

    May 11, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  15. Doc Vestibule

    His official excuse for being a callous, lying, cheater?
    "There's no question at times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate."

    So really, the Christian thing to do is to ensure that he does NOT get into office since he freely admits that his moral character fails when he is doing his patriotic duty to America.

    When confronted by his wife on how he could give a speech on family values after asking her to tolerate his affair, he said “It doesn’t matter what I do. People need to hear what I have to say. There’s no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn’t matter what I live.“

    I hope the "moral majority" in the U.S. aren't so gullible as to believe Gingrich is in any way repentant.

    May 11, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Barry Marson

      Well said, and you are so right. If Newt has repent, then open up all prisons. All convicts have repent too.. What a has been and a joke..

      May 12, 2011 at 12:23 pm |

    Hope springs eternal Lizard. He'll average 6% of voters in the primaries.

    May 11, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
  17. Reality

    With respect to "nutty Newt":

    Jesus was a bit "touched" (as is Newt). After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospels being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today's followers of Paul ("nutty Newt") et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European, white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices.

    May 11, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  18. twgloege

    Newtie has a whole lot more going against him than religious conservatives, anyone with half a brain knows his story and wouldn't vote for him on a bet.

    May 11, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  19. cecilia

    the Right Religious won't give ole Newt any trouble – they are in the forgiving business – they just don't want to feed the hungry, shelter those without a home, pay unemployment to a person who lost their job or provide health care insurance especially to seniors

    May 11, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • How about the flaming Libs that live on this Board

      What a bunch of Liberal schills! CNN is bloated with Liberal dou che bag and unrepenting chumps. 50% of the Americano taxpayers pay no tax - wonder who they vote for.....gee, let's see.....LMAO!!!!

      May 11, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
    • Josh

      50% of American taxpayers paid no taxes? And you found this information where?

      May 12, 2011 at 12:08 am |
    • civiloutside

      Apparently, 100% of ignorant trilled don't know the definition of the word "taxpayer." Nor are they able to do the 5 minutes worth of research it takes to discover that this myth is based on the fact that 47% of American workers owe no Federal Income Tax because their incomes are too low (and that all but 10% end up actually paying some tax anyway). It kind of ignores that most of these people still pay payroll tax, sales tax (out of proportion to their income because they spend almost all of their money since they don't make enough to put any into savings), and state and local taxes.

      May 12, 2011 at 7:42 am |
  20. civiloutside

    Is he aware that you cannot simultaneously have a "secular atheist country," and that same country "dominated by radical Islamists." They are polar opposites. The man is just throwing out scary buzzwords to frighten an Evangelical audience into turning to him for protection.

    May 11, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • Funny how CNN doesn't censor Liberal comments on this Board....

      Very funny indeed!

      May 11, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
    • Obama -- Worst President in History

      Wonder is Michelle is proud of her country? LOL!!!

      May 11, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
    • Thank God for Fox News!

      Where else would you get the truth????? Certainly not from the Lame Stream Media - includes CNN.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
    • Irene

      The conservative replies are so boiler-plate you can almost see them wearing their tin foil hats.
      Gingrich is a little bit crazy, you know that fine line between genius and nuts – he's there. The whole bunch of candidates is a little bit nuts, some really nuts.

      President Obama is looking better and better all the time. He does compromise too much and the Repubs don't compromise at all. But I trust Obama to have my back while I know the GOP will stab me in it (you too, for those who are so blinded by partisanship and Fox demogoguery). 🙂

      May 13, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.