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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. opinion8it

    I may not be a Republican, but I can relate to Gingrich much better than many of the other Republican choices. I decided to hear him speak one day as I was surfing cable TV. He was speaking on energy and presented an in-depth variety of information on the subject. The whole thing lasted about an hour and from the beginning I was taken aback by his command of the English language and his ability to express ideas to his audience. Though I didn't agree on every single issue, he did manage to open my eyes on a few things. Jumping on the band wagon to ridicule him is an easy thing to do and I can't say that I haven't done it myself, but if you ever had a chance to hear him as I did, you'd know that he's no dummy.

    May 11, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
    • Carl, Secaucus, NJ

      He *is* a smart guy, there's no doubt about it. But he's not trying to win on his brains and ideas, but on fear and sanctimoniousness–that's the problem.

      May 11, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
    • Ron

      He is a great self promoter I grant you but not so sure he is all that intelligent. Jon Stewart has kicked his butt on more than one occasion on the Daily Show. Then again when your supporters consider Regan, GW, Palin, Bachman, Limbaugh, Hannity and Beck to be among the "stars" of your party Newt would is freakin Einstein in comparison!

      May 12, 2011 at 1:23 am |
  2. Larry S

    I am amazed by the comments on here all focused about his "new found" religion and hypocrasy. This is nothing more than marketing himself for money by using a fake campaign and his book. The Ralph Reed quote demostrates the same MO: use religion to make money. It has been done for thousands of years.

    May 11, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
  3. hobbes

    So I always ask, hoping for an intelligent response. Republicans, are you actively trying to lose the 2012 election like you threw the 2008 election? If so, why? I can't figure it out. Everything I've seen out of the republicans for the past 2+ years appears to be geared to put Obama back in office in 2012, and then Clinton in 2016. It's driving me crazy.

    May 11, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
  4. Iain T

    I bet John Boehner is having a little cry to himself with joy at this news.

    May 11, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
  5. central illinois

    The real thing is not the number of times married, but the number of times cheating on the current wife while looking for another?

    May 11, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
  6. Seenen

    Doesn't redemption imply some sort of self awareness, a realization that you have done something wrong and have asked for and received forgiveness? I'm not sure Newt has a shred of humility in his bloated body.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
  7. DaveinSC

    Glad to see ole newt join the party. So he has made a few mistakes, who hasn't? How are we to hold these people to a level higher than we are willing to live to ourselves.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
  8. Tom Carter

    He'a a sophist.

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

      He's a lesbian.

      May 11, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
    • Carole Clarke

      More like a sofa – overstuffed and shabby!!! He may think he's got one over on us but we are wise to him. He's a loser.

      May 11, 2011 at 11:37 pm |
  9. milesg

    Racist hypocritical bigot hungry for power do as I say not as I do trashy good ole boy with money

    May 11, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
  10. FastBoat

    I wouldn't worry. You'll see a Martian spacecraft land in your back yard before that fat tub Newt gets elected president.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
  11. SB

    "Gingrich faces hurdles with religious conservatives"

    Why? If religious conservatives have taught us anything it's that you can murder, steal, cheat, lie but as long as you take Jesus as your lord and savior and ask for forgiveness from God then everything is OK. If anything Gingrinch is a champion of religious values. The people he'll truly faces hurdles with is the rational majority.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
    • Sean

      Haha, so true!!!

      May 11, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
  12. Jan Brewer

    Why can't everyone climb down off Newt's back? Yes, his first wife was terribly ill when he dumped her. But, he learned his lesson. His second wife was not sick when he left her. And, his third wife seems to be healthy too. Ok, he forgot about morality while he pursued the Clinton impeachment but, his mistress was distracting him and he couldn't concentrate. Yes, the Teabaggers are bigots but so is he. It's all good. Maybe Michele or Sarah will sign up to be wives 4 & 6....or better yet, maybe one of the Palin daughters could step in. Not Bristol though.....that out of wedlock child would be something his religious beliefs could not tolerate.

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

      Why are the teabaggers bigots. How close-minded you are.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
  13. Trisha

    Why is it all these dried up old politicians need to try to make a comeback. Newt a little advice go home to your bimbo blonde wife and stay out of politics, because you're a hasbeen and you we don't care if you have redeemed yourself. Once a cheater always a cheater.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
  14. Me

    Wow what a bunch of.....winners who are throwing-or want to throw-their hat in the ring for the Republican side. I REFUSE to say GOP. Cuz they're not.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
  15. Carole Clarke

    Oh please, not Newtie again! When he gets tired of one wife he has affairs, finds a chick he likes better and divorces the old wife – repeat over and over. The guy is all ego and no sense. WE DON'T WANT HIM!!!!

    May 11, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
    • (required)

      But you've got him. He is a republican. He is as stupid as most of you appear to be. And that's pretty stupid.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
  16. Ty

    LOL! Donald Trump has more of a chance than this hipocritical d-bag! Obama has got 2012 in the bag! Another Republican Joke-Candidate.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
  17. Mott the Hoople

    Even worse than being an adulterer, he is a hypocrite: he was having and affair at the same time he was impeaching Clinton.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
  18. Wildone

    Newt Gingrich represents everything that's wrong with the Republican Party: Greedy Old Politicians..... That's why they love him.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
    • Irene Miscione

      Instead of sin and redemption, I would have a caption that reads: greed and corruption – another attempt to continue the games of the republican party. If anyone believes this man is capable of leading this country, then we are in far worse shape than most of us realize. Tell Newt to crawl back under the rock he came from. We don't want his ideas and we certainly don't want to set this man up as our moral compass. Are they kidding? i hope they are.

      May 11, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
    • Frank

      Let me give you a few democrat names Bill Clinton (chronic adulterer), Hilary Clinton (shady land deals), Maxine Waters (under investigation, rated most corrupt member of congress), Charles Rangel (Tax evasion, corruption), Timothy Geitner (Failure to pay taxes), Ted Kennedy (chronic adulterer), Rod Blagiovich (attempting to trade political favor for money), Chris Dodd (retired under a cloud due to questionable ethics), Alcee Hastings (soliciting a bribe)....do I need to go one or have got the message?

      May 11, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
  19. jamyang

    Newt hasn't a chance in 2012. The question is not what will the evangelicals think. The question is what will average Americans think. As an average American, I think we can do much better. His erratic personal history plus his on-going loose mouth show that he does not have what it takes to be president. Tons of average Joes on the street are more qualified that Newt.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
  20. Carl, Secaucus, NJ

    The tragedy is that Newt has brains, but he couldn't control his personal life. We all know the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery–Newt's the guy who cast the first stone. Now he's trying to win on piety. Whatever happened to conservative Republicans like the late Jack Kemp? They'd probably call him a RINO now. Heck, they'd call Reagan a RINO now.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
    • Mj

      The only reason he says that he is a Christian is to get the Christian vote. Much like the rest of the GOP. It seems Christians are the most easily manipulated amongst us.

      May 11, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
    • Texan

      Well said. Nasty Newt sanctimoniously berated President Clinton over an affair with an intern, while he was happily cheating away behind the back of his wife at the time with his own staffer. This two-faced nincompoop needs to crawl back under his rock.

      May 11, 2011 at 8:06 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.