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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. kren

    this guy is a complete retrd i don't care what anyone says

    May 11, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
  2. Michelle

    Wait. wait...wasn't "April fool's day" last month?

    May 11, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
  3. fernace

    Why are we concentrating on these losers? Because they are so hilarious & entertaining! People think Gingrich is intelligent? Right!Only an "intelligent" person would spew forth such madness as the US is in danger of becoming "secular & Islamic" at the same time.Remember when he said women shouldn't serve in the military because we couldn't stay in the trenches or hunt giraffs. The repubs actually have some viable candidates, it's just that the jokers (insert the Donalds name here) take centerstage because they're so kneeslappingly funny! I cant believe this nation would vote for such folly, or support candidates who blatantly back Big Oil & other subsidised billion$ companies, before the American people. It is an entertainig "reality show" though!

    May 11, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
  4. Harry

    Newt fails to realize that this isn't about "sin" and "redemption." The vast majority of Americans recognize that Newt simply has bad judgement. Not once, or twice, but multiple times. Bad judgement does not belong in White House. Newt is the classic case of a highly educated, likely very intelligent man who lacks wisdom and judgement. Newt is unfit for the White House.

    May 11, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  5. Voiceinthewind

    This idiot has a chance for the presidency as much as Mubarak has a chance to be relected to be Egypt's president.

    May 11, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  6. Aaron

    I'll consider voting for the first republican honest enough to admit that we're gonna have to raise taxes to get things under control. Spending cuts alone won't do it. From what I understand, Newt actually wants MORE tax cuts. I don't relish the idea of more taxes, but the reality is $14 TRILLION + worth of debt and counting. The government's only source of income is taxes. When your bills have stacked up sky high, you can't get away with making even less money! You have to raise money AND cut spending. That's being fiscally responsible. Thinking you can take care of your bills while giving all your income away is NOT fiscally responsible. It's gonna take someone completely honest to fix this, and that ain't Newt.

    May 11, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
    • Iain T

      WAY TO GO, AARON. You have put it in a nutshell. Now resend that message to Congress.

      May 11, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
    • Delagrace

      FIRST IN, FIRST OUT.

      May 11, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
  7. Robert

    Newt is a joke, finding a new wife while his current one lays on her deathbed. He's a large moron full of lies and is consistently proven wrong on any front. I am by no means a dem; but having Newt and Trump being the fore-runners, this is preparing America for an idiotic future, one guaranteed with failure. It will be funny to watch though, that's for sure.

    May 11, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
  8. TheyNeverLearn

    Hey Newt, shrug your shoulders, do you hear a sucking noise? You have found your forth point of contact. Pull your head out Newt. You had your 15 mins. Not only do you not stand a chance in hell of winning, people are just plain tired of seeing your mug and hearing you flap your gums. Dont go away mad.. JUST GO AWAY

    May 11, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
  9. Chet

    I am so fed up with all of them. If they are in or have been in I will vote against them. Just my own little way of protest

    May 11, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
  10. retire_already

    Newt...you are a hypocrite and the epitome of what is bad for our government and Americans.

    We heard your lies before, we've heard your religion and we've seen your ways...Do everyone a favor..stay home...retire.

    What is wrong with our country? Can we not get any new blood in DC? The rinse, lather and repeat people of politics are running the country into the ground and still walking away muliti millionares...enuff.

    May 11, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
  11. joe the plumber

    Sorry but newt is too much of a slow learner to get my vote. It took him 3 marriages to get it right – and that is if you take him at his word. That reptile hasn't changed his spots.

    May 11, 2011 at 8:08 pm |
    • Chet

      Amen Joe

      May 11, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
  12. Chet

    lain T. Have you forgotton so soon how the dems., were so soon ago

    May 11, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
    • Iain T

      Oh, they are no angels, but they aren't nearly so hypocritical. And as I said in an earlier posting the Evangelicals will be coming out with some spin.

      May 11, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
    • Chet

      Seems like only Reps lose their jobs after their little flings lain T

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

      If you recall John Edwards (D) was replaced after his affair became public.

      May 11, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
    • SB

      Extramarital affairs...
      John Ensign (R) – resigned
      John Edwards (D) – replaced
      Bill Clinton (D) – continued as president
      Newt Gingrich (R) – continued as senator

      May 11, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
  13. Chet

    Not that I am for him and would not vote for him.

    May 11, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
  14. Iain T

    I think Republican voters need to vote for anything but the Rebublican party to send a message to them saying 'represent us' and quit this partisan politics. I know if I was a Republican that is what I'd do. It seems that Republicans have lost sight of the fact that the two party sytem is meant to debate and reach a consensus on issues. Not simply block the other party.

    May 11, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
  15. Ichi

    Scuse me, but "Newt Gringrich"? LOL

    May 11, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
  16. Chet

    If he was a liberal he would have no problem with his background. LOL

    May 11, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
    • Iain T

      If he was a Liberal he'd have brains enough not to even run on such a flawed moral background.

      May 11, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
  17. george in texas

    i don't know about gingrich. no doubt, he is a man of great ideas, and liven up a debate. but can he hold his ground? i mean he is so easy to convert.

    May 11, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
    • marco60

      "no doubt he is a man of great ideas...."...........Name one.

      May 11, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
    • george in texas

      @marco60, contract with america was brilliant. but he, as i said, is easy convert; it may take affection of woman or a book guarantee. gingrich lacks courage of conviction. he is not a strong deal maker like donald trump. although trump may not be the right man, a new president needs that kinda skill which the chinese leaders have in great abundance.

      May 11, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
  18. carla

    "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." I would love for the conservatives to talk through this one without saying it's ok for any candidate to have former transgressions. How come it only seems to work for the republicans and not for the dems. I'll take a gay married couple over Newts discussion with his wife while recovering from cancer surgery anyday. Jerks.

    May 11, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
    • molly devlin

      You are so right. Gingrich is a Democratic candidate's dream.......what a joke. He is delusional. He is simply so in love with himself......he is such an ego-maniacal pig. The comedy shows are going to go nuts! I can't wait....

      May 11, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
  19. GA Mom

    Surely he knows there is NO WAY he carries the female voting block. His has repeatedly demonstrated a complete lack of character and respect for women. To parade his current wife around looking like something that stepped out of the 50s is nauseating. He may be forgiven, but his prior actions are not forgotten.

    May 11, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
  20. kutje bang

    who would vote for this ego centric hypocrit who is full of himself and himself and himself

    May 11, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
    • molly devlin

      He is a liar and un-Christian. He is an unbelievable egocentric hypocrite. There is a God after all.......if he runs, the Democrats have a chance. Perhaps we'll elect someone who will stop catering to the wealthiest Americans.........someone with balls who will do away with the tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, and stop the tax-exemptions for the oil companies.

      May 11, 2011 at 8:20 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.