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. klarg

    He is tied with Osama bin Laden on the number of wives!

    May 11, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
  2. xlntcat

    This is the weak, cowardly man who is trying to hide behind the skirts of wife #3 and Mistress #? (the one he was bending over the desk at the same time he was condemning Clinton for doing the same thing) This is the man who made a plea agreement with his own party to pay back his ill gotten gains versus going to jail and to sneak out of town in the cover of night. But forget all of that. This is a man who proved that he was incapable of governing or of leadership in the House and now he wants you to let him fail at leading the country? You have got to be kidding me. This is the guy who recklessly harmed hundreds of thousands of American because "he didn't get the seat he wanted on the (bus) plane."

    Moreover, anyone paying attention which the media never does has seen that over the past two years, the old man is exhibiting symptoms associated with age related cognitive decline – reaching for and forgetting common words, memory lapses and misstatements, etc. He has spent most of his twitter time correcting his own misstatements and quit appearing anywhere other than Fox due to his questionable performances where he had to go back and disclaim his own statements.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
  3. tldixon

    just what we need...another repube-lickan hypocrite

    May 11, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
  4. mojobutta

    How does a big ugly bucket head like him even find a woman that would touch him without paying big?

    May 11, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
  5. kingaire

    Newt is a very brilliant man. Yes he has some baggage kinda like John Kennedy (dem), Clinton (dem), I am not voting for morality or race, I am voting for someone with some intelligence and who can shake up DC

    May 11, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
    • mitzie

      How much intellect does it take to blame your indiscretions on patriotism? Don't we want our President to be patriotic? If we believe the "brilliant" Mr. Gingrich, we can expect more of the same behavior due to his intense love of America.

      May 11, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
  6. Robert

    This is no surprise. Of course it not's not on the Democratice side either. The diferrence? The Republication speak the LOUDEST about how they are the one's with the family values. Truth is, they screw up just as often. Which means they have an extreme lack of self awareness when it comes to their own behavior. When a Democrat screws up he's a pervert, man without family values, etc. When a Republican does the same thing it's, "Oh he just going through a phase" or "He just made a mistake". The truth is that they will vote for him to ramain loyal to the party, no matter what his mistakes were.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
  7. Chuck in Alaska

    Newt won't have problems with just religious conservatives; he'll have problems with any sane voter in this country. The fact that he's even in the race points out the sad fact that there aren't nearly enough sane voters in this country.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
  8. hazmatsuits

    Gingrich cheated on both of his first wives, and he's probably cheating on this one as well. I don't judge people for having ONE affair(except john edwards who was essentially hoping his wife would die soon), but gingrich is a serial cheater and that's a lil different.
    Not to mention, how can you vote for a man who relentlessly attacked the president for having an affair at the EXACT TIME he was having an affair?!!

    May 11, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
  9. mojobutta

    How does a big ugly bucket head like him even get a woman? lol

    May 11, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
  10. Bob

    I not defending Gingrich but why are all of you trashing him for cheating on his wife (or wife's)? Didn't you all make it crystal clear after the Bill Clinton scandal that, that was his private life and none of our business and that this doesn't effect his job performance?..
    Liberals and their hypocrisy..

    May 11, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
    • Robert

      Your missing the point. Not many people are trashing him for cheating on his wife. What they are upset about is how he demanded a certain moral code from others while violating it himself. 'Hypocrisy' is actually the issue here.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
    • El Kababa

      Bill Clinton's first wife is now Secretary of State and was almost president.
      Newt Gingrich's first wife is rotting in her coffin.

      There's a difference.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
    • hazmatsuits

      Gingrich LEAD THE ATTACK on Clinton for the Lewinski scandal, who's the hypocrite?

      May 11, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
  11. Steve

    The Democratic Party is salivating at the (unlikely) prospect of The Newt becoming the Republican nominee.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
    • mitzie

      Newt, Trump, Palin. Any of them would be great for the Democratic Party.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
  12. Reality.....

    CNN....Doesn't take you long to go after the Republicans....knock'em down and villify'em....Good Play....

    May 11, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
    • mitzie

      Fox News never does so someone has to help us learn about the candidates no matter what the party affiliation.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
  13. Pj

    I can't imagine who would marry the guy, let alone have an affair with him in his later years. Happy involvement from his perspective,sure, but it had to have been grin-and-bear-it from hers. Yuck!

    May 11, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
  14. kenneth

    i think anyone who will convert to any religion for political gain is a spineless coward. just keep it real say i have made mistakes in my past and im moving forward dont try to score political points thats whats wrong with america today what ever happen to honest hard working people getting in to office maybe im naive to even think of a simpler time when u said something it was meaningfull and a hand shake stood for something. these officals dont have a clue!!!

    May 11, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
  15. JOHN IN AZ

    It is obvious that Newt Gingrich's ego has taken over. But that happened long ago and he's never gotten over it. Fortunately, Barack Obama will be easily re-elected, regardless of who runs against him.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
  16. Amanda

    Hilarious. We all struggle with whats right and "moral". Newt and the rest of the tight right wingy dingys just have a bigger scape goat. You dont need accountability when you love god. Brilliant. Do us a favor – stop now. IQ tests should be required with each voting ballot...

    May 11, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
  17. Republicans Are The American Taliban

    Newt lead a crusade to crucify President Clinton for his marital misgivings. Yet now, Newt says that God has forgiven him for the exact same transgressions. Funny that God only forgives Republicans.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
  18. Daniel

    Could anyone remind me what good Newt did for US? Is it correct to say, that the Welfare Queen was abolished by Newt?

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

      Studies show that the myth of the welfare queen never actually existed with the mean number of children per family receiving welfare at 1.4 and the median number at 1 per family.

      So I guess Newt enacted a law that got rid of something that never really was there, at least never was the norm.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
  19. Buddha

    Can't wait for the 2012 debates. On one side will be the President who killed Usama bin Laden, and on the other side will be somebody else.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • Mikey

      Obama killed Bin Ladin, he's never even been in the military. What party do you think those Navy Seals would belong to. Not yours!!!!!

      May 11, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
    • keylargo

      Mikey, I wasn't a Seal, but this ex sailor is a proud Democrat! I'd drink sewer water before voting for garbage like Gingrich.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
    • El Kababa

      What is the name of the Party whose President ordered bin Laden's execution?

      May 11, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
    • El Kababa

      What is the name of the Party whose President could not find bin Laden?

      May 11, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
  20. El Kababa

    Women – even Conservative women who are willing to vote for the most evil of candidates – will not vote for a man who dickered with his wife over alimony and property settlements as she lay dying in a hospital bed. Satan himself would have stayed with his wife until she died – then married his mistress.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:08 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.