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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. church lady

    I appreciate Ralph Reed attempting to tell Gingrich what he needs to say. But Ralph, why not just tell Newt to start telling the truth about himself and his personal life. The truth wins big with evangelicals like me.

    That being said, Newt might as well run, everyone else is...

    May 12, 2011 at 8:47 am |
  2. Luis Wu

    What a totally disgusting pig he is. He cheated on his wife, more than once, that means he's dishonest. Married 3 times. That means he doesn't get along with people. Plus his politics are idiotic. I'd rather vote for Alfred E. Newman than that vile pig.

    May 12, 2011 at 8:47 am |
  3. pbm

    "Newt"......................isn't that short for "neutered"?

    May 12, 2011 at 8:39 am |
  4. 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 8:39 am |
  5. BigMike

    Even setting aside that he left his first two wives when they got sick, which I don't, it's not that that kills his vote for me. It's the fact that just a month or so ago he tied his reasoning for the affair to his overabundance of patriotism. Claiming he strayed because he was working too hard. That's not 1998, that's 2011. This is not a man anyone should vote for.

    May 12, 2011 at 8:21 am |
  6. Bill in VA

    Love him or hate him, I think Gingrich is the smartest man likely to run in 2012. So far no one that has announced or hinted at it is smarter including the current White House Occupant who in terms of substance is a lot closer to Sarah Palin than he is the Newt. Not that I agree with everything Newt has to say but he is smart. And I don't really care about divorce, affairs and any of that crap (except bj's in the oval office is a bit over the top). Can't wait to see who else come forward.

    May 12, 2011 at 8:21 am |
  7. Eric

    The second you claim "faith gets you through the day" I question your critical thinking and evidence evaluation skills.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:53 am |
  8. ray gibbs

    political bomb thrower...how often might one reinvent himself...likes to shut down government...

    May 12, 2011 at 7:43 am |
  9. jon

    also, his real problem with the protestant heretics is the fact that he converted to Catholicism. anti-Catholicism is the one area with liberals and evangelicals can agree. his campaign doesn't have a hope.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:39 am |
  10. stevie68a

    Too many "christians" are full of hate, using a cover called "love". Just a wolf in sheep's clothing. It is time for people to wake
    from the delusion of religion, and leave it to the dark ages where it belongs. Eye of Newt's conservative views differ sharply
    with wives who are disposable. Divorce used to be a major sin, until these phonies found they can't live without it. So funny,
    that "values" includes divorce.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:39 am |
    • SolomonSez

      So interesting that you quote Scripture when referring to religion as delusion. See John 10:12-15. You are the wolf – going after the Lamb of God who is Jesus Christ! Repent!

      By the way, Newt shows many character flaws – he may have repented but I want a leader I can trust! Anyone? Anyone?

      May 12, 2011 at 8:39 am |
  11. CF

    This man has no business running for president, and the fact that he now presents himself as this upstanding Catholic/Christian is so wrong. Who does he think he is fooling. He's just trying to get votes. If he has truly converted, that's wonderful – just stay out of the public light.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:38 am |
  12. jon

    pretty sure "hypocrisy" would be if he was LYING TO A GRAND JURY about his affair, not simply having one.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:38 am |
    • john

      No, hypocrisy is doing yourself things that you are criticizing others for doing. Lying under oath is just that, lying. Two different things.

      May 12, 2011 at 7:56 am |
    • jon

      clinton was being impeach for perjury, not adultery. did newt commit perjury? no? then there is no hypocrisy.

      May 12, 2011 at 9:03 am |
  13. Jon in Rochester, NY

    This man was having an affair with a staff member while at the same time being the loudest critic of Clinton. His picture should be in the dictionary under hypocrite!

    May 12, 2011 at 7:32 am |
    • Kate McClellan

      My sentiments exactly! He embodies everything that is wrong with politics – he is dishonorable, deceitful, a bold faced liar and now wants to hide his faults behind religion. Its not that he failed that is so much the issue – but that he expects the American people will WANT to put someone of his ethical failure at the helm of this country. He imagines us to be fools. Newt, I have news for you – you can't just take up a rosary, add a bottle blonde at your side and get a new tailor, and then expect to be president.

      May 12, 2011 at 8:44 am |
  14. farm boy

    Newt is another example of hypocrisy, and too many of our governmental representatives (federal, state, and local) seem determined to foster and sell it. Surely the GOP can put forth a leader of intelligence and integrity, who espouses the basics of hard work, a sense of self-sufficiency, and individual liberty.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:30 am |
    • Bob Dog

      GOP = Integrity? Ha.

      Ha. Ha Ha. Hooot, Yuk, Laugh!. ROFL!. I'll be laughing all day, and throughout 2012!

      May 12, 2011 at 8:20 am |
  15. George

    He probably cheats on his current wife. What idiots are going to believe he is a reformed person? Oh yes, there will be some who do believe it.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:30 am |
  16. George

    TRUMP/PALIN ALL THE WAY IN THE USA 2012 !!

    May 12, 2011 at 7:28 am |
    • ron

      Absolutely!!! Trump Palin or Newt Palin. Both are excellent candidates, worthy of Republican support and representative of the republican party! I would love to see them get torn apart in the election process.

      May 12, 2011 at 8:19 am |
  17. George

    The man is a proven liar, adulterer, hypocrite, and is the most boring self absorbed bigot I've ever seen.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:28 am |
    • Shoos

      Why is he even given press. He must be paying for promotion. Next.

      May 12, 2011 at 7:55 am |
  18. smc

    Gingrich cheated on and left BOTH of his past wives when they became seriously ill. The media tends to gloss over that fact, and imply he only did it once with his first wife and "he's changed" – I'd call it an ongoing pattern of behavior.

    Gingrich is the father of modern ultra-partisan divisions in this country, and he's done nothing but suggest he plans to continue down that road too.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:27 am |
    • kmcq

      I agree with you about the lack of mention of this fact in the press. I'm hoping wife #2 will speak out, as she said she would, if Newt ran.What I don't understand is why everyone is focusing on Newt, who is reprehensible enough. What about his wifey, the now-saintly Calista, with whom he cheated for SIX YEARS? She is being put out front as his salvation, as if she is untainted in all this, simply because she is a supposed "devout Catholic". I believe in redemption, too, but this is just mind-boggling! They are both egotistical, shameless hypocrites, and I sincerely hope the evangelical community isn't duped by their flim-flam scam!

      May 12, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  19. George

    I will vote for him only if he chooses Sarah Palin for his running mate.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:27 am |
    • Looking for Sanity in the Repugant Republican Party

      Isn't that like putting cow manure on dog crap?

      May 12, 2011 at 7:56 am |
    • hank

      That would make you an idiot.

      May 12, 2011 at 7:57 am |
    • ron

      You, are just is ignorant as both newt and palin. Go on, tell us more..

      May 12, 2011 at 8:17 am |
  20. George

    A Newt is a salamander. Do you want a salamander for president?

    May 12, 2011 at 7:26 am |
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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.