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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. Vicky Cook

    OK. This would be so cool to see and I'm not kidding. Can't you just see a Gingrich/Trump ticket? Standing on platform after nomination, hands clasped and raised together to the wild cheers of GOP delegates. Serial adulteror and serial adulteror standing as an example for the GOP platform or moral integrity and family values. I honestly think it could happen. ROFLMAO

    May 11, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
    • Mikey

      You forgot to include Clinton the adulterer and you can add FDR, adulterer, Gary Hart and lets don't forget good old John Edwards. I think your the hypocrite.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      Sorry, Vicky, but a Gingrich/Trump ticket is out of the question. The Donald doesn't take a back seat to anyone. His ego is bigger than Texas.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
  2. Underwelmed

    Newt is so irrelevant he's off the scale at the low end. Yes, he is a brilliant man, but he is also an incorrigible egotist and an unrepentant sociopath, who broke rules and the law. If the world was fair, he would be working on getting paroled instead of nominated.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
  3. JR

    A Newt for a President? LOL
    Are you kidding me?

    May 11, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
  4. Vivek

    The late night comedy shows are going to have blast with the GOP nominees. This is once in a life time opportunity, all of them are freaking clowns

    May 11, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
  5. chris

    Newt couldn't possibly be a bigger hypocrite than Obama.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
    • jim

      Ummm, yep, he is. And he cheats on his many wives.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
  6. Richard

    Gingrich must not read his own press.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
  7. JT

    Sad day in America when this is what we get to "lead" us. We are all human, we have flaws and we make mistakes, but come on now, some of these politicians are in the worst position to stand up on the box and tell us how they are gonna fix anything when their own lives are in such bad shape. I am disgusted with many things in this country right now and they all seem to have one thing in common, politics.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
  8. Jimbo

    Newt, you already have a horrible reputation don't make it worse by losing a GOP primary in a huge way.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
  9. John Kaufman, Oceanside, CA

    Newt is not a tell it like it is candidate, he speakes from both sides of his mouth and most of the time switches his opinion as to votes. As far as his affairs, that has not much to do with now for it was in the past and hopefully he is old enough NOW to listen to the big head and not the little head. I would perfer a candidate who was very business savy, not a politician, a very tough negotiator, understood finance, and told the cold hard facts as they now exist, with our enomic condition with a clear focused plan that was spelled out candidly to right the sinking monitary ship. But alas most people can't handle the truth for most are in total denial like a drug addict! Good luck America!

    May 11, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • chris

      that's something you liberal hypocrites can relate to.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
  10. ash

    no chance.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
  11. WestMI

    I'm one of those evangelical women who would have a VERY difficult time EVER voting for Newt. I don't care how brilliant, etc. he might be, character counts. If he's done such a poor job of handing his own personal life, why on earth would I ever trust him to lead this country? If he showed such lack of integrity and practiced such deceit with not one but TWO former wives (whom he'd promised to be faithful to), why would I believe he would show integrity and honesty in the White House. I certainly believe in forgiveness and redemption – that's what Jesus Christ offers to anyone who receives Him as Savior – there are still consequences to the choices we make and repeated bad behavior reveals a fundamental lack of integrity. He will not have my vote!

    May 11, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • jim

      Well said.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
  12. Frank Rzzo

    He has my Vote

    May 11, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • jim

      That's because republicans are like sheep, they just walk blindly and do what they are told without hesitation. They listen to Fox News and take it as word without question. Jesus was a Democrat, but that doesn't matter to the GOP because they are evil.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      Frank: Why?

      Jim: Jesus was a Democrat? The GOP is evil? Put the bong down before you hurt yourself.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
  13. Marc

    Egad's another Republican sinner. Who would have guessed? What a T.U.R.D.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
    • Frank Rzzo

      if thats all you have then you have nothing

      May 11, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
  14. David, CA

    Save your (and mostly other people's) money Newt. Donate to public education or cancer research. You know, where it will actually do some GOOD instead of stroking your inflated ego in this run to nowhere.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
  15. Denizen Kate

    And Newt is considered the brainy one in the GOP. That explains a lot.

    Does anyone believe he's "a changed man"? If so, please familiarize yourself with the story of the frog and the scorpion.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
  16. Craig

    Hmmm... how many presidents have had multiple marriages? In recent history even? This is not a well known fact, although many presidents have had affairs, Clinton and Obama included.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • David, CA

      How many have had affairs while hypocritically trying to hang some one else out to dry for the same thing? You know- what Newt did to Clinton while he was having affairs of his own.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • Underwelmed

      You DO understand that not everything on the internet is true, right?

      May 11, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • Robert

      If we just go back 30 years;

      Affairs: Clinton
      Multiple Marriages: Reagan

      That sums it up as far as credible sources.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • Craig

      I found out. According to Wikipedia, Ronald Reagan was the only president who had ever been divorced. And that was 30 years before he became president.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
  17. Mikey

    Newt has no chance of winning. He burned too many bridges as speaker of the house and he also has too many person issues. He is extremely intelligent and well spoken and will verbally damage obama in the campaign. The liberal media fears gingrich like no other candidate and is unable to stand up to him one on one..

    May 11, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • Underwelmed

      FEAR Gingrich?!?!?!? hahahahahahahahahahaha He'll be TKO'd in the first couple of rounds. He's got so many skeletons in his closet he can't get the door shut. Republicans would NEVER put him up as their candidate. EVER.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      Oh, please. I could debate Newt right out of town, and I'm a college dropout.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
  18. Carlos

    BIG WHOOOP!!

    May 11, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
  19. Erik

    zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz – he has no chance

    May 11, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
  20. Fred

    This is the best the Teapublicans have to offer? It brings new nuances to the phrase "scraping the bottom of the barrel."

    May 11, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      I thought I heard a scraping sound. Is that what it was?

      May 11, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
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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.