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. Ssssssteve

    I cant Newt getting elected, he has too much baggage, the fact he resigned due to ethics charges will give him an big disadvantage

    May 11, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
  2. mike

    "In 1980, Ronald Reagan became the first divorced person to win the White House"....ummm huge difference between Regan and gingrich

    May 11, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • mitzie

      Reagan had the decency to get a divorce first.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
  3. Nuke the Newt

    Can you say H-Y-P-O-C-R-I-T-E?

    Rump/Stalin 2012

    May 11, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
  4. rhymeskeema

    The Republicans now have their own John Kerry.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
  5. Gray

    YEAH GOP...The hits just keep on coming. He's the best you got. Disgusting.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
  6. FedUpInSeattle

    As a Republican leaning Independent. I have to wonder if people like Gingrich know anything outside their own bubble of their life. #1 he has way too much baggage from his time as speaker. He would be slaughtered by Democrats in the Left Leaning MSM. #2 even if he came out as reborn as someone new and more centered, he is too polarizing. The same things that make me dislike Obama are the same things I dislike about Gingrich. I hope the Republican’s can put their Ballot with their mouth is now. The next president I hope is someone of all the people. This I know sounds impossible but you can differ politically and still lead and protect all the citizens. As much as Bush was hated and not exactly what I would call a great president. The one thing I liked about him is that he never personally came out and attacked anyone personally. This is one thing that drives me crazy about Obama and one of many reasons I hope the Republicans can find a good candidate. The president should be above name calling and insults. It’s not like he does not have a full crew of staff to name call on the MSM Sunday shows. But when a president lowers himself to direct insult to his political rivals, it cheapens the office of the President. I’m afraid Gingrich would have this same problem and only be a leader of the Right and not of all the people.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • Mary

      Who did Obama name call?

      May 11, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
  7. Pat

    Just what we need in the White House, another person who can't keep his pants zipped, (aka) Clinton, LBJ, JFK, etc....

    May 11, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
  8. Pete Beck

    Gingrich may be one of the more qualified candidates, but the moral issue will prove unpalatable to voters. He was the pot calling the kettle black when he went after Clinton. He will also do the humiliating but mandatory suck-up-to-Israel speech at AIPAC, which is a requirement for Democrats as well as Republicans. In a perfect world, Ron Paul is our next President.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
  9. clarke

    He can do what he wants, but he won't make to the WH. You just can't teach an old dog new tricks. I don't respect him nor do I trust his smirk smile and beady eyes.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
  10. Jeff

    Please, Please Please, nominate him or Palin or Bachman or ...well it really isn't gonna matter, it will only determine the margin of victory for Obama in 2012. The Repugs have no one suitable for doing the job of POTUS and they know it. This is why they turn to bashing anything and everything...it is a classical sign of desperation from desperate people.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
    • Gray

      True, the Rethuglicans are sticking to their roots. I LOVE IT.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • Nuke the Newt

      Rump/Stalin 2012

      May 11, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
    • retluoc

      Then no need for you to vote in 2012, is there? Stupid and arrogant are two good reasons, too.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  11. TripleA

    Newt running against Obama in’12 !? Teehee, chuckle chuckle. Oh please, let that happen. If Newt’s God really exists, that will happen. Teehee, chuckle.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
  12. Mary

    Gingrich said that the United States will be a “secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists"

    Huh? Is he stupid or what?
    You can be a secular atheist or a radical islamist but NOT both. They are mutually exclusive of each other.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
    • pullstart

      Maybe he is saying all other religions will pass away and Allah will align Satan against himself in one final battle between the great aitheist and we Allah praising muslims. PBUH.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
    • retluoc

      Actually, I believe "secular atheist" is an oxymoron.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
  13. Chalupa

    No worse than Clinton.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
    • mitzie

      Really? Clinton is still married to his first wife and is supportive of her. He and his wife raised a child who is considered to be a brilliant and caring person. Somehow they were able to work it out. Unlike Mr. Gingrich and his family.

      May 11, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
    • Terre08

      Wouldn't his conversion to Catholicism hurt him more with southern baptist men than keeping his d*ck in the stable?

      May 11, 2011 at 9:14 pm |

    , Gingrich faces hurdles with religious conservatives............

    If that phony IDIOT is having problems with the people on his side...why is he even bothering except to keep his name in the spotlight so as to keep his speaking fees high...... they all do that.....but Palin's become an expert at fleecing the suckers.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
    • pullstart

      Snookie landed 50k at Rutgers University... so much for the speaking tour 🙁

      May 11, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
  15. pullstart

    And so the character assinations begin. It's a good thing we have the Redeemer in the oval office. Barry walks above and over the sespool of Washington DC. God bless Barack Hussein Obama... if we could only clone him the world would be perferct.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
    • Jake

      Did you think that up all by yourself, or did your mother help?

      May 11, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
  16. robin in hawaii

    newt...he should be neutered!...what a creep and hypocrite...none to pleasant on the eyes either...yuck.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
  17. Roland Garcia

    Open note to the GOP. Palin, Trump, Romney, Paul and Newt? You may as well wrap up Obama's second term with a bow and ribbon and hand it to him. Newt? I mean........ seriously?

    May 11, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
  18. Jackie Treehorn

    Forgiving is one thing, but trusting someone with a history of serial betrayal is foolish. It's all well and good that he speaks about his deceitful and dishonorable behavior "straightforwardly and courageously," but so what? That doesn't automatically bestow integrity on someone who until now has shown an utter lack thereof.

    And on top of all that, he's now revealed himself as a shameless demagogue. An "atheist country...dominated by radical Islamists?" How is that possible, even in Newtworld? He's obviously just tossing out random bogeymen that religious conservatives hate without even bothering to stop and think about whether it makes sense.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
    • clarke

      good post – thanks

      May 11, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
  19. nina

    Please tell me it ain't so! I'm soooo embarrassed to even tell people I'm from Georgia. Think I'll move to Canada.. . . .

    May 11, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
    • mitzie

      I feel the same way! Look at it this way...other states have embarrasments as well. NY has Trump and Alaska has Palin. I think we can ignore the fact that Newt is from GA and just laugh at the others.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      nina wrote: "Think I'll move to Canada."

      At least then you'll have a decent health care system, unlike the useless fraud congress came up with...

      May 11, 2011 at 7:55 pm |

    With Newt, GOP throws in the towel, looks forward to 2016, probably 2020.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
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