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. Seggy

    I hear his running mate will be John H. "Ski Trips" Sununu.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:23 am |
  2. Byron Jones

    Come on, folks, Saint Augustus, Gingrich ain't!

    May 12, 2011 at 7:22 am |
  3. Scott715

    If Newt gets anywhere with this it shows that the Republican party has completely lost its way even more than they seem to have in the last few years. He is not a credible person in any way. All his talk about values and renewing America is just Newt wishing it was still the 1950s and all that went with it. He has no actual ideas of how to make it better. I say this as someone who lived in his district in Georgia when he was in Congress. My ex-wife was in his class at Kennesaw University that resulted in the ethics charges against him. He would be the worst thing to ever happen to America if he ever got into the Oval Office.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:20 am |
  4. Adelina

    Americans should pay more respect to their politicians. You have too many foreign nations that hate you. Or split into two or three nations and stop the nasty fightings.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:10 am |
  5. Peter

    "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"

    Sorry, I can't get passed this fact. The affair was bad enough, but to attack Bill Clinton for the same thing while he was having his own affair is just plain sleezy and shows that all that outrage was just an act.

    May 12, 2011 at 6:51 am |
  6. TheRedeemer

    What else is new? Jefferson had a relationship with one of his slaves. George Washington seems to have slept everywhere, Kennedy was banging Marilyn Monroe in the white house and Clinton used Lewinsky as a humidor in the oval office. Unless the guy has a "meaningful relationship" with a blow up doll or a donkey..... who freakin cares.

    May 12, 2011 at 6:39 am |
    • Peter

      Yes, but Newt made a big deal about "morality" while going after Clinton.

      A 24-carat phony.

      May 12, 2011 at 6:53 am |
  7. RedDevilLye

    This guy is an idiot, a hypocrite, and an absolute ass. Just what America needs.

    May 12, 2011 at 6:17 am |
  8. Terry

    Gingrich is good for the GOP. Gingrich is the GOP.

    May 12, 2011 at 6:10 am |
  9. Sparkandsnoot

    If we can forgive Obama for spending 20 years listening to the racist rants of Rev Wrignt, and truly believe as many of us do, that his basic character was not tainted by the hatred that was spewed at him, then we should be able to forgive Gingrich for his transgressions.

    May 12, 2011 at 6:08 am |
    • Jason

      The difference is that Gingrich didn't just sit and listen to some one preaching bad morals. He actually embodies them through his actions.

      May 12, 2011 at 6:38 am |
  10. TJeff1776

    "By example" is the best teacher- I have always been told. BUT what has Newt, so far, got to offer. In each of his failed marriages, he committed adultery which led to divorce. But much worse- he publically pointed the accusing finger at Bill Clinton while in the same process HIMSELF. IF he were a child molester, he would be locked up for life. IF a convict shouts "forgiveness" and "repentance"- is she/he then set free. The bounds of the law are NOT structured that way until she/he has paid the "utter-most". Moreover, if he had been a child molester thrice times- would you allow him to keep your child notwithstanding he appeals to your sense of forgiveness. Is HE the example we look for in establishing an image
    for families to follow ?????? He needs another setting, another life, to practiice his repentance in BUT not the public spotlight. I know his silver=tongue will say otherwise.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:41 am |
  11. Da Professor

    Mr. Gingrich - Aren't your hands a tad dirty to run for President?
    Having an affair when your wife was in the hospital?

    May 12, 2011 at 3:26 am |
  12. Myles

    Did CNN ever write a front page story called "Sin, Redemption and Clinton"?

    May 12, 2011 at 3:13 am |
    • Terry

      As a mater of fact, Yes CNN did.

      May 12, 2011 at 6:11 am |
  13. Adelina

    Andrew, that's the thing. Why do they show such radical abhorrence when no president can really make that much difference in a democratic nation? I don't see anything Mr. Gingrich could do to make people like Wzrd1 so downright miserable than Mr. Obama.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:12 am |
  14. Stan

    Got to wonder about someone with his baggage and his age that still wants to be president. It seems to be his life dream rather than a calling. He seems a bit odd as well.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:06 am |
  15. mateosgago

    Are you kidding me? Does the word "honor"mean anything to the Republican party anymore?? Don't you morons see that this so-called "forgiveness" for cheating and lying over and over again is an opportunistic ploy? Since the Neo-Cons took over your (ie Republican) party has NO internal commonality, outside of a dislike of anything "liberal (ooh dirty word)" or of anyone that doesnt look, act, or pray like you. Sad. Anyhow, despite partisan disagreement, it is kind of too big a risk for any American to take on a candidate for the President of the United States that is a hyperpartisan supreme deuschbag that aims to gain votes by cultivating a culture of fear by propagating fabricating doomsday scenarios. Word of advice Newt: before you judge others you might want to keep it in your dirty old pants. Besides Ron/Rand Paul, the RNC is a circus-act

    May 12, 2011 at 3:05 am |
    • Myles

      At this point, I don't care if they call them selves republicans, tea-baggers.. err partiers, or anything else. I also don't care if they cheated on their wives and lied about it. "cough *Bill Clinton* cough". Anyone willing to stand up for my ability to earn and keep my money has my vote. We'll see if that's what Newt's about. Maybe it isn't. I know darned well it isn't what Obama is about.

      I don't want to pay for poor people to live lazily and comfortably. I don't want to pay for granny Edna's 300,000 dollar hip replacement surgery when she's going to die six months after she gets it. I don't want to pay for global warming studies. I don't want to pay income taxes. This country's founders did not intend for American citizens to pay more than half of what they earn in state and federal taxes. Any candidate who steps up and fights for a model of this country that resembles the intent of the founding fathers is the candidate that gets my vote.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:25 am |
  16. Ryno

    The former Speakers' behavior is of less import than his ideology. It's a convenient manifestation of self-fulfilling bias to judge the historical behavior of a man who has acknowledged wrong-doing rather than hear his concept for change and management of a country in crisis. Help me understand your matrix of wrongdoing – preferring deceit over ... deceit? Surely many of you on this board have spent much more time playing tic-tac-toe than chess.

    May 12, 2011 at 2:39 am |
    • Joe

      His ideology is, in a word, opportunism. Choice quote: "The idea that a congressman would be tainted by accepting
      money from private industry or private sources is essentially
      a socialist argument."

      May 12, 2011 at 5:34 am |
  17. martin

    you don't stand a chance by saying you converted to Catholics they pray to idols. How can he sever one nation under God when he is going to bow down to ceramic saints . This already says a lot about the man.

    May 12, 2011 at 2:27 am |
  18. Earl

    Slime ball, con artist, still Gingrich

    May 12, 2011 at 2:06 am |
    • wzrd1

      When I review American history, I consider the curse that IS upon us, as Giffords, a moderate in all areas, was shot in the head and disabled.
      Gingrich tries to run for president.
      That isn't irony, it's disgusting enough to vomit.

      May 12, 2011 at 2:12 am |
    • Adelina

      E & W, Why? What can you do better than he if you were a president?

      May 12, 2011 at 2:14 am |
    • Andrew

      Adelina: that's a ridiculous question. None of us are running for president. Your question is like saying that we can't criticize a professional basketball player bc either way he's still better at basketball than us. I'm not running against Gingrich for president. I think neither of us would handle the job well.

      May 12, 2011 at 2:55 am |
  19. Adelina

    When will Americans let a Chinese the President?

    May 12, 2011 at 1:54 am |
    • wzrd1

      NEVER. Just like we won't let a German become President.
      But, I'll happily vote for an American of Chinese descent that offers a good platform and rationale for governance.
      What are YOUR thoughts?

      May 12, 2011 at 2:08 am |
    • Adelina

      Was America always this divided and politicians got scorned all the time like this? Who gains by this heated hatred toward each other?

      May 12, 2011 at 2:12 am |
    • Know What

      "Was America always this divided and politicians got scorned all the time like this? Who gains by this heated hatred toward each other?"

      Yes, Adelina, dating all the way back to the first up-for-grabs election in 1796 – a quite bitter and mud-slinging affair, when John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr and Thomas Pinckney threw their hats in the ring.

      U. S. History is full of bitter rivalries in the political arena.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:27 am |
  20. hiawa23

    wasn't this the hypocrite calling out Clinton for cheating on his wife while doing the same thing? I wish him well. If a democrat had the bagage he brings, Hannity would be tearing him up. Such hypocrites..

    May 12, 2011 at 1:44 am |
    • kleinaj18

      It sure was, but he has changed. He became a Catholic in 2009!! LOL

      May 12, 2011 at 2:02 am |
    • wzrd1

      The same hypocrite that also denounced gays, until his SISTER announced to the media that she was long, long out of the closet and introduced her girlfriend.
      He has so much baggage that, when I learned he was rising again, I switched parties. I'd rather beat off with a cheese grater than vote for him. Indeed, I'd vote for Satan in person over him.
      If Trump and the lizard is the best that can be offered, I'll go with Obama. Failing that, I'll go with a communist and I was raised and trained to kill them!
      Indeed, if he DID get elected, I'd forever depart this land, abandoning my grandchild and possibly my wife of over 29 years.
      And share permissive action link details to China. It would only slightly hasten the demise of my beloved homeland.
      A tender mercy, compared to the Christian Taliban rule.
      And don't call names over the Taliban thing, I've personally MET them and processed them. Have YOU?

      May 12, 2011 at 2:06 am |
    • wzrd1

      I see! So, now he likes altar boys.

      May 12, 2011 at 2:07 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.