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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. Mike in WA

    I's hilarious how Democrats cry foul if you look at their private life but it is open season on Republicans. Just look at the 2008 election no you can't talk about Obama's wife saying hos she was proud of her Country or anything else she said but you can attack McCain's wife for being in the transportation business.

    May 12, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  2. david mann

    Newt's "REDEMPTION" smacks a lot of "Death row conversions". "I found God on death row". How sincere is a man who has a PATTERN of infidelity spanning decades of misbehaviour? He didn't just have a brief lapse of integrity. He went at it like a bull in rut. Three wives...numerous affairs [always younger women you may note]. He dedicated a lot of time and energy to his pursuit of pleasure and degradation of morals over the 30 or so years he was breaking marriage his vows again and again. But of course he was indulging in all this infidelity because of his burning passion for his country. At least the younger female Republican staffer portion of his country. But now of course we are expected to believe that's all in the past and he has seen the light. I'll believe it when I see him sprout wings and fly. boy!!! you repugnicants sure are a weird bunch.

    May 12, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  3. RAWoD

    Newt has no chance. Only he and, perhaps, 3 percent of the country think differently.

    May 12, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  4. lucy2

    A divorced candidate is no big deal – sometimes things just don't work and divorce is the best solution for everyone involved. But dumping wife #1 while she was very ill, and then dumping wife #2 because of an affair (while going after Clinton at the same time) speaks volumes about his character. I think that's a very difficult hurdle to get over, especially if you tend to run on a "values" campaign.

    May 12, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  5. SiriusVH

    A really good thing that you can't ask God what 'He' thinks of Gingrich 😉 ....... I have found the level of intellectual dishonesty and cynicism attained by Gingrich in the course of his career to be jaw-dropping ...

    May 12, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  6. BB

    'Values voters' – – – Who is NOT a values voter? That is why each and every one of us take the time and effort to vote...because we have values. I have a lot of values, and I'll be voting Obama in 2012.

    May 12, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • Ames

      Hear Hear and Amen! I am sick and tired of Southern Baptists and evangelists staking a monopoly claim on values, virtue and Christianity itself. As a Christian I wince at their twisted and hypocritical brand of Christianity turning people away from God. Newt's endorsement is so cynical it is a joke.

      May 12, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  7. Coriolana

    Anyone who would cheat, then abandon a cancer-stricken spouse is far too ethically challenged to even consider for the highest office this country can offer. If he is what the Republican Party has stooped to, I suggest they invest in Bags-on-Board. Lots of them.

    May 12, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  8. rodrigo

    For a party that preachs moral values the conservatives really are just full of it. How about Bristol Palin getting knocked up during the 08 election, out of wed lock? Seems like some wonderful family values! Now we have Newt Gingrich, a man that is in his third marraige because he cheated on his previous two wifes, one of which while she was dying of cancer. This man claims to be a good christian, well the evidence would show otherwise. Just another great example of the wonderful family values that the conservatives say are the #1 thing of importance! Honestly we would be better off electing a monkey to office, he would be tolerent of everyone, he could do a lot for bi-partisanship, and he could do all of this without even being able to say ONE WORD.

    May 12, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  9. Dawn

    Conservative women are not the only women he'd have a problem with – most women might have a problem with a politician who cheated his wife while she was in the hospital with cancer. Clearly this is a man who puts his OWN needs first. Is that who Republicans want to have as the face of their party? Liberal women don't like these lying, cheating politicians any more than conservative women (think John Edwards).

    May 12, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • oakhill

      Thank you Dawn! A voice of reason that isn't bent on just trying to make Republicans look like idiots. I'm a right leaning middle of the road voter, ex-Republican, now Independent, and I don't care what party a candidate is from – if he or she is/was prone to cheating on a spouse, then that tells me that deceit is part of their make-up and can easily spill over into the way they handle any number of issues. Put simply, I don't trust them. As far as Newt goes, he is too much the face of status quo Washington, and I'm sick of career politicians who treat their position like a lifelong chess game, so I wouldn't vote for him anyway.

      May 12, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • Jerry

      Unfortunately oakhill, in the cases of Gingrich vs Edwards, there is a clear partisan divide in how each is treated. Edwards has been ostracised and will never again hold power or influence in the Democratic Party, but Gingrich is a serious contender for the 2012 Republican nomination.

      The irony that the party which doesn't really care what people do in their private lives is horrified by Edwards, but the party that preaches 'family values' is seriously considering a monster like Gingrich, should not be lost on voters.

      May 12, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  10. John

    Values like staying in a racist church for 15 years or sticking a cigar in a 18 year olds....

    May 12, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  11. Tom

    Oh everyone knows that the “MORAL” issue is only a problem for the Republicans when it doesn’t apply to them. I’d use Gingrich as my moral compass the say day I used Susan Smith as my Nanny!

    May 12, 2011 at 10:17 am |
  12. jean2009

    So they are running Mr.Infidelity....says so much about their lack of values. Anyone who thinks the Rethugliklan's represent the best interest of American women should take note, and look at the rest of their legislation.

    May 12, 2011 at 10:06 am |
  13. SDN

    Are we so desperate that such a personality, with such a history of deceit and betrayal, would be considered for any position of authority, let alone the Presidency?

    May 12, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  14. Jerry

    So called "Values voters", should love Newt Gingrich. Self serving hypocrisy is their shared 'value'.

    May 12, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • Ames

      It is far easier to be concerned with another person's sin rather than our own? I can treat my wife like crap, and blame two lesbians getting married in Des Moines for the breakdown of "family values". Very convenient.

      May 12, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  15. chief

    i wouldnt vote or trust newt again.... if a protestant turns catholic and in combination with his intelligence, he sold out for the washington catholics..... as far as his affiars.... he is safe with teh catholics, they fogive pedaphile priests on a daily basis... and sometime the same ones over and over

    May 12, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  16. Wilma

    Socail conservatives are "fair-minded and forgiving." Since when?? I have found them to be hateful and vengeful.

    May 12, 2011 at 9:32 am |
  17. Mary D.

    I have one thing to say. " WOMEN OF THE UNITED STATES OFAMERICA BEWARE "of Newt Gingrich. Newt Gingrich has treated women he supposedly loved with such disdain, just think how he will treat women he does not know or love. I will repeated Women of the United States of America Beware of Newt Gingrich. Women beware of the road to h- with Newt Gingrich.

    May 12, 2011 at 9:15 am |
  18. Really?

    Newt suffers fr the Bill Clinton syndrome. It was ok for Bill to run around cheating on Hillary. I remember u Dems saying that Bill's personal life and what goes on in his marriage is none of our business and does not impact his ability as President. Well I agreed back then and I feel the same way now about Newt. Go check Newt's record.

    May 12, 2011 at 9:12 am |
    • Kat

      Hey "Really" - The article/question has nothing to do with how Dems perceive this – it is how "Social/Values Conservatives" view it. I personally don't care about his married life – BUT, if you read the article you will realize your comment is just an attack on us Dems – and has nothing to do with the article.

      Now, regardless of this, I would not trust Newt with running any part of this country. His policies scare me, but that has nothing to do with his marriages.

      But then again, all the "right" wants to do is find fault with us and the POTUS, they attack for any/all reasons. Maybe if you stuck to issues we could have a discussion. My sister is "Tea Party" and I am DEM, and yet we can have discussions based on fact, not cheap shots or name calling. Whatever happened to a time when we could disagree about things, but have civil discussions not based on hatred and name calling?

      May 12, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • jean2009

      It is not what he has done in his personal life (although pretty shoddy and hypocritical), it is how he wants to legislate his views about women, their rights, and his other policies that I don't care about. Rethugliklans just don't represent what is best for working Americans, and in particular for working American women.

      May 12, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • Name*Buzz

      What record?

      May 12, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
  19. Really?

    Far be it fr anyone to know what goes on privately in a marriage. So I would say if u don't know the whole story then commenting makes u a moron. What Newt has done is balance the budget, brought the country to 4% unemployment, cut spending and gave us the best prosperity that Bill Clinton takes credit for. Can Obama say the same?
    So if u can forgive/overlook Obama for his past drug uses in the past, his past sitting in a radical church for 20yrs, his voting present, his broken promises to this country over and over, then same standards apply to Newt. Otherwise you show ur true colors of blatant liberal hypocrisy!!

    May 12, 2011 at 9:09 am |
    • rodrigo

      Yeah lets leave the country in the hands of another fake politicion that just tries to feed us the BS. This man was cheating on his wife that was DYING of cancer! Sure he claims to be for the lord and be a good christian, but sorry Newt lust is one of the seven mortal sins! Even if jesus could forgive you once for cheating on your wife, there is no way you can get away with it again. Have fun hell buddy!

      May 12, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • Santa Cruz CA

      to Really? How do you figure 'Newt' balanced the budget and got unemployment to 4%? He was so fricken busy pointing the finger at Clinton and spouting his megalomaniacal message about Nazis under every rock. He will NEVER make it to the WH! Imagine that home-wrecker Callista as first lady...SO NOT!!

      May 12, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  20. JohnOBX

    The hypocrisy of the conservative wing-nuts of the Republican party reveals itself yet again. If their votes were based on character issues, which they trumpet with deafening conviction, then they'd be supporting real family men like Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama.

    May 12, 2011 at 8:56 am |
    • John

      Family Value like Obama's mother and father. Obama's mother liked to have many men and his father liked to have many women and drugs.

      May 12, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • Paul Falduto

      So now Obama is judged by the (alleged) sins of this parents? Wow, that's rich!

      May 12, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • blf83

      Amen!

      May 12, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • John

      Why if there were anything to complain about a liberal would... Values .... ACORN ? How them leftist ... John Edward, Slick Willy Clinton, Kerry... Kerry was also a liberal who tried to hide his school grades... found out President Bush had better grades.

      May 12, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • Ames

      Don't forget it is his patriotic fervor and love of God almighty that inspires him to philander. It is clear that Obama being a faithful father and husband means he doesn't love God and country as much as Newt. I completely get the logic of these Southern Baptists that have become the defacto arbiters of Christian virtue. How can we call it hypocrisy?

      May 12, 2011 at 11:03 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.