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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. heresjanedoe

    Well, of course the evangelical men "are likely to give him the benefit of the doubt."

    May 11, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  2. Bob

    Gingrich should struggle with voters with brains.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  3. scmaize

    I read that his current wife has always been very religious. I also read that the affair lasted SIX YEARS before he left his second wife and married Calista. Everybody makes mistakes (though not infidelity), but six years is a long time. Why didn't he divorce sooner if Calista is his soul mate, and why did she accept such a long relationship with a married man? Gingrich has always been egotistical, calculating and hypocritical. We'll see if he has really changed.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • Archangel07

      Don't believe the hype. You can't be all that religious and still lay up with a married man for all those year. I was taught that that once a man or woman got married. They were off the market. And since Newt is catholic he should know it a sin to commit adulery. And unless his other wives are dead he is still living in sin. So much for finding Jesus and becoming a changed man.

      May 11, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
  4. Oldie in TampaBay

    KEEP digging! There is ALOT more than the 3 marriages & the affair ....ALOT more! Doesn't get much better than the GOP turning on each other:-)

    May 11, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  5. dc

    ALL of the past politicians' sins make no difference here. Neuter chose to stick his head into this foray and now must bear the consequences. He will never get my vote...not even the other side ran a Hitler or some other idiotic character. Neuter is exactly that - he neutered himself by his behaviors of the past.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
  6. Paul

    Please, oh, please run with Trump as VP!!

    May 11, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
  7. Robert

    Wikileaks has a copy of his true birth certificate. Do not believe the hype; he was truly born in Germany. They are going to release the real copy closer to the election.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  8. Missy

    Frankly I don't care if a politician is religious. IMO anyone who goes about grandstanding about how deeply religious they are is most likely a huge hypocrite. I put Newt in that catagory. I don't want him to run, I don't think he can win.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  9. GrandmaT

    I hope he doesn't get the Republican nomination....Barack Obama will definitely be a shoe-in for his 2nd term. Definitely. And I am NOT voting for Obama (unless, of course, Newt is running against him).

    May 11, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
  10. Jim AR

    He has to say he is a changed man and then all the evangelicals will embrace him? Wow! That's an awfully high bar!

    May 11, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
    • tommas

      "I have found Jesus"... Isnt that what got bush elected

      May 11, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  11. Paul Willson

    He is unelectable . That is unless the GOP is abandoning family values . Nominate him and the Chreistian right will abandon the GOP.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  12. Jim AR

    And didn't he quit his Congressional seat during his term? Americans don't elect quitters.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • Kroc

      Didn't Obama quit also??

      May 11, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • Hitch

      Kork

      'Didn't Obama quit also??'

      No, he was elected to a higher office, the one he's still in.

      May 11, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
  13. johnmccain

    The guy on the right, is he trimming his nose hair??? Newtie attracts a funky crowd...

    May 11, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • B. McCall

      We call that..."nose mining" where I'd come from. Nudie is in great company, he's just a joke that likes to see his mame in the papers.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
  14. Jim AR

    Married three times AND Catholic? Three Times? I doubt the nuns back in my elementary school would have voted for him.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • Kroc

      JFK and RFK, both Catholics but Democrats.............
      They were worse, but no problem. Right??

      May 11, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • Josh

      You're right. Let's elect Newt Gingrich now because he did the same thing a couple of Democrats did decades ago.

      May 12, 2011 at 12:39 am |
    • sqeptiq

      KROC, you have some evidence against Robert Kennedy except your hate, a common commodity in the "values" crowd?

      May 14, 2011 at 11:31 pm |
  15. rossballard

    How interesting that Newt uses and a shortened web address controlled by the Libyan government. See Washington Post article on the use of .ly in internet address shorteners. Too funny.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/the-libyan-connection-behind-ly-url-shorteners/2011/04/11/AFCo8xjD_story.html

    May 11, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
  16. Jake

    Interesting, the right wing christian conservatives who condem gays support this man who has been married three times with one of those marriages being split by an affair. Where are the family values here? Talk about hypocrytes.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • heresjanedoe

      The "values" voters don't care what you've done so long as you say you "found" Jesus after.

      May 11, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • Michael in Houston

      great post. Well said

      May 11, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • Dave

      Could not have agreed more....these are the same people who preach Christian values, but only when it suits them. This is my problem with evangelical voting blocs...they are the biggest hypocrites. However, heaven forbid if others have a different viewpoint. They will be cast off the fiery corners of hell.

      May 11, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • Michael in Houston

      Thankfully, the evangelical voters are having less and less influence in elections. They were far more powerful a decade or so ago then they were in the last election. They are a voting block who has seen better days and thier hyprocrisy, intolerance, and judgemental garbage are no longer relevant. They have been replaced by middle aged, overweight, pasty white puffy faced freakshow called the Tea Party.

      May 11, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  17. Leonore H. Dvorkin

    Yay! Another potential Repub candidate who would be a walkover for Pres. Obama. Go, Newtie! The more Repub clowns in the ring, the better for the Democrats. Things are looking better and better for us Democrats in 2012 as the Repubs flounder around.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  18. dude

    He's a struggle for ANY voter. Sheep sheet.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
  19. Ashley

    So... voters rely on what imaginary man in the sky a politician believes in instead of using critical, rational thinking to decide who will be best for a progressive nation... Hmmm

    People wonder why I don't bother with our political process. It's a joke.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • Nonimus

      @Ashley,
      "People wonder why I don't bother with our political process. It's a joke."
      ...and yet you feel you have the right to complain about it's result. 'I don't vote but hate who gets in office.' *That* is a joke!

      May 11, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • Ashley

      You think that your vote really matters? Do you know how a presidential election even works? My entire life has been surrounded by LOUISIANA politics, because my family WORKS for the STATE. As in, in the capital building.

      Don't lecture me. It's all a sham.

      May 11, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • Nonimus

      "Don't lecture me."
      ...and don't lecture us about how bad the system is if aren't willing to lift finger to do anything about it.

      May 11, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • Ashley

      Go pat yourself on the back for thinking that voting is really changing the system. Your elementary school teachers who made you say the pledge everyday would be proud.

      There are far more meaningful ways of touching people's lives at a grassroots level than pushing a button on a machine. You don't know me, slick. Sod off. I'm from a Katrina ridden New Orleans. I've helped more people than you know. Get out of my face, and get out of my thread.

      May 11, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • Nonimus

      "You think that your vote really matters?"
      Yes I actually do. Not much, since I am but one person, it's still one vote. If your votes are not being counted, that's fraud and illegal. fix it.

      May 11, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
    • belladonia

      Then you should have absolutely nothing to complain about since you choose not to vote!!!

      May 11, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • Nonimus

      "You don't know me, slick."
      Thank goodness.

      May 11, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  20. Kroc

    Does JFK, Marylin Monroe etc. and/or Bill Clinton ring a bell for the moral Democrats??

    May 11, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • T3chsupport

      Are those people even slightly relevant to this situation?
      That was the past. We're talking about hiring someone for the future.

      May 11, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • JojoB

      It actually is a valid analogy but I wish people would stop talking about morality as if it belonged to either party. Powerful men of all political persuasions are capable of infidelity and other bad things.

      May 11, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • steve houston

      I don't think the dems are claiming any moral high ground. The article is about Gingrich making his case with religious conservatives, not democrats. You're WAY off in left field.

      May 11, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • John _Atlanta GA

      Newts Hypocrisy made it even worse. He was having an affair while attacking the president for having an affair. Now he's found Jesus and anyone beleives him. He has always been a fraud and a liar and specializes in deviding. He is everything people say they do not like in a politician and the last thing this country needs.

      May 11, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • Michael in Houston

      Yes JFK and Bill Clinton ring bells for us. We would love to have them back in the white House. I will set aside the political argument and mention one thing and one thing only about the man...Newt. Its NOT that he cheated, has a few divorces under his fat belly or how he treated his wife in the hospital. What it is about is the level of hypocrisy this man brings. Thats not JFK, thats not Bill Clinton...thats Newt. His level of hypocrisy reached a level during the impeachment that no man could possibly exceed. He is toast. He is weak. He is a small toad of a man. I could care less about his "sin". what I do care about is the fact that he lead an impeachment against a sitting US president for the same "sin" he was cowardly doing himself. Sorry pal...Newt will never be able to explain, confess, or white wash his way out of that. Ever.

      May 11, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • Frank

      The issue isn't the sin per se, it's that the Republicans put themselves on the pedestal as the moral compass of America and yet behind closed doors the most vocal of those are the ones doing the sin they preach against. Gingrich is a prime example. The irony is that the Bible the Republicans so often quote to tell us Democrats what we are doing wrong is the same book that teaches not to judge, lest be judge – to examine the tree in your eye rather than bring light to the speck in someone elses and that no sin is greater than the other.

      I'm all good with Christians praying and celebrating together regardless of party, but please don't try to tell me that somehow you are more holy than I because you are a Republican and I'm a Democrat Jesus didn't come to earth as a politician and he didn't speak to it, so please Republicans don't think you have a monopoly on morality.

      May 11, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      None of those people made a career out of selling a higher personal morality; Newt and the "values voters" have. And their motto seems to be "do what you want and ask for forgiveness. The rubes will buy it."

      May 14, 2011 at 11:27 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.