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. kevin walcott;

    Newt, you could never be my president, too many poor individual values, another dumb person running for office.

    May 12, 2011 at 1:42 am |
  2. Observer

    Gingrich fits in fine for Republicans. Their last nominee for president was no more loyal to his wife who waited 5 years for him to return from the war.

    May 12, 2011 at 1:42 am |
  3. Raphael

    I suggest a good strategy for those like me who do not like Gingrich nor his positions: Let us be polite, stay quiet and pray he DOES become the GOP candidate. Great things will happen: (1) Obama will have an easy time scoring countless points as he trounces him. (2) Whether it deserves it or not, the Republican party will have branded itself as hypocritical. It may take many years to live down the embarrassment. (3) Those who align with Gingrich will suffer guilt-by-association the next time *they* are up for re-election.

    May 12, 2011 at 1:38 am |
  4. sim

    A "changed man"? Hahaha. Righto. Changed to what? Look. Newt is a louse. He was a louse and he will always be a louse.

    May 12, 2011 at 1:31 am |
  5. Observer

    Gingrich said he was so patriotic that he cheated on his wife. All-time classic. Apparently Republicans like him for it.

    May 12, 2011 at 1:13 am |
  6. california99

    Gingrich has NO morals, he cheated on his wifes.....he can not claim to have any family values when he, himself has not been a moral man....he is and has been a corrupted man...if he thinks that we have short term memories??? He has another thing coming!!!

    May 12, 2011 at 1:12 am |
  7. Andrew

    Let it be said! Anyone who cheats on his cancer stricken wife and going on a third marriage has no right to claim to fight for family values. He does not get to peddle over a hundred thousand dollars to the "American Family Association", he does not get to raise money to unseat judges who ruled in favor of gay marriage, he does not get to pretend that he has any sort of values which should be inst-tuted as policy. Gingrich does not stand for family values, and cannot pretend to.

    May 12, 2011 at 12:59 am |
  8. Marty Perlman

    Newt Gingrich Running for President.. . .That concept seems surreal. I guess Gingrich himself thinks he's going to hit the campaign trail. It may turn out to be very weedy and rocky and a path into the wilderness for him.

    So, lots of headlines seem unreal these days.

    Well, if that's the case, we might as well add fuel to the fire and see what we can come up with.

    It took several minutes of work, but I can now present "Headlines we'd prefer not to see."

    For example:

    China celebrates 10th anniversary of Heavenly City Moon base

    Disco Revival Stuns Music World

    Hugh Hefner Engaged to Great-granddaughter's Best Friend

    There are more thoughtless headlines at Thinking Out Loud, http://marperl.blogspot.com/2011/05/headlines-wed-prefer-not-to-see.html

    May 12, 2011 at 12:57 am |
  9. Reality

    With respect to "nutty Newt":

    Jesus was a bit "touched" (as is Newt). After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospels being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today's followers of Paul ("nutty Newt") et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European, white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices.----–

    May 12, 2011 at 12:55 am |
  10. Flaming Moderate Wacko

    I have four phrases for Noot --
    Con Man.

    May 12, 2011 at 12:50 am |
  11. Tom

    Whew!! My brain hurts. Costa Rica's looking better and better!!

    May 12, 2011 at 12:49 am |
  12. Frank

    The Southern Baptist Convention is the closest thing that the U.S. has to the Taliban. If the support a candidate, if you have any decency at all, don't vote for that candidate.

    May 12, 2011 at 12:43 am |
    • db_cooper


      May 12, 2011 at 12:48 am |
    • Flaming Moderate Wacko

      Hey...DB....you're proving Frank's point.

      May 12, 2011 at 12:57 am |
  13. Betty Boop

    This poor excuse for an American citizen is a pathetic, double-barreled a$$ whole who is strangely deluded into thinking the public is unaware of, and/or has forgotten, what an incredible lying and manipulative slime wad he is and always has been.
    Amoral comes to mind.

    May 12, 2011 at 12:42 am |
    • db_cooper

      and you're a shining example of a$$ whole -some goodness yourself there, are you betty boop?

      May 12, 2011 at 12:48 am |
  14. Sherri

    A man who has changed 'faiths' as often as he changed ties. A man who castigated a sitting President for the very same acts he was engaged in. A man who is a serial spouse, along with being a serial philanderer. Feels that as long as he crafts his rhetoric correctly, his behavior matters not. Wrong. Actions do speak louder than words. He is not trust worthy, nor doe he have any motive other than to remain in the spotlight.

    May 12, 2011 at 12:42 am |
    • db_cooper

      this is just getting tiresome... some people are just so stupid.


      is it that difficult? really?

      May 12, 2011 at 12:45 am |
    • db_cooper

      ...and he converted to a different faith only once, so this hyperbole about changing ties makes you look like an idiot... well, at least you're being honest. kudos to you, i guess.

      May 12, 2011 at 12:46 am |
  15. ibrad

    The man that will honor his bond of matrimony for at least one time. I`ll bet my left nut he`s got lots of little goodies going on there. Maybe on the Down low ? A little crack with Marion Barry ? Picked up a few working girls only to give them a ride out of the dangerous area (of course)? Tried to help a few illegals with some part time work around the yard? I am sure of one thing...I`m sure a stand up guy like that Has always paid his fair share in taxes (never forgot anything)????

    May 12, 2011 at 12:06 am |
  16. che-3

    GOP Sinner of all history.

    May 11, 2011 at 11:50 pm |
    • db_cooper

      are you 11 years old?

      May 12, 2011 at 12:43 am |
  17. Archangel07

    Now that he open the door. I hope all of his dirty secrets come out, I could believe it when he said the past is the past. After all the grandstanding he did with Clinton. He is such a hypocrite. But now the shoe is on the other foot and let's see how he like it. I guess that old sayings are true. Don't throw stones at other when you too are living in a glass house. What goes around comes around.

    May 11, 2011 at 11:46 pm |
    • db_cooper

      for the last time: gingrich didn't lie under oath! your boy clinton did! the hypocrisy is with the clintonite sicophants.

      come on people... this isn't that difficult.

      May 12, 2011 at 12:43 am |
    • Andrew

      So it's fine for gingrich to be a hypocrite so long as he doesn't lie under oath? He is fine to champion "family values" while denying rights so long as he never lied under oath? We should just kinda ignore his affairs?

      May 12, 2011 at 12:52 am |
    • Observer

      This is great news for Democrats. Gingrich is the poster child for "Moral Majority, family values" right wing religious HYPOCRITES.

      May 12, 2011 at 1:05 am |
  18. Mike

    Has nothing to do with religion. Has to do with character. The man that will not honor his bonds of matrimony cannot be trusted. He might be smart, he might say the right thing, he might be fiscally conservative. It doesn't matter. He isn't getting my vote. IF I have to choose between him and Obama, I find the nearest toilet and throw up.

    May 11, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
  19. David

    If he wins is his wife the first lady or the third lady?

    May 11, 2011 at 11:38 pm |
    • sylvia saenz

      U have to wait until he runs to know the answer. He might be divorced and remarried by then. And once again he'll try the "I repent" bit. NO NO NO NO NO NO NO. IF WE COULD IMPEACH BILL CLINTON, LET'S JUST NOT VOTE FOR NUTE.

      May 11, 2011 at 11:42 pm |
  20. Mike

    that's right dems focus on personal issues...not on policy lol u can't what has the community organizer accomplished so far? nothing but sending this country in debt by the trillions its not going to be hard to beat him NEWT MIGHT DESTROY HIM...with baggage ask bill clinton about newt he was the one who signed the bills that balanced the budget.. clintons best years were when newt was speaker of the house

    May 11, 2011 at 11:36 pm |
    • Observer

      Guess you missed the news: President Obama's effort to go after bin Laden has worked, unlike Bush who didn't care.

      More news: the stock market is UP 54% since Bush left it plummeting.

      May 12, 2011 at 12:01 am |
    • Lenny Pincus

      Newt's second wife asked him how he could live with himself going out and preaching about fiscal and personal responsibility while he himself was corrupt and immoral. Newt said it only matter what he said, not what he did. If you find this sort of twisted individual presidential, then you deserve him.

      May 12, 2011 at 12:10 am |
    • Big AL


      May 12, 2011 at 12:23 am |
    • Andrew

      Personal issues? I think those are rather relevant when a person tries to appeal to the conservative base by opposing things like gay marriage on the pretence of "family values" and then goes around cheating on his wife. We're supposed to ignore his blatant hypocrisy as he campaigns to limit the rights of other human beings? I'm sorry, if someone wants to argue against gay marriage, or go claiming to represent any form of "family values", they damn well better not be so mired in muck themselves. (Not actually sorry, the hypocrite can go f himself.)

      May 12, 2011 at 12:44 am |
    • Andrew

      Oh, and Mike, don't forget that as he was trying to skewer Clinton, he was doing the exact same thing. The guy is honestly a world class hypocrite. You really have no problem putting a guy like that in office just because he hits a bunch of standard conservative talking points?

      May 12, 2011 at 12:46 am |
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About this blog

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.