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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. annie s

    Gingrich has shown extreme weakness with his history of adultery, and his dumb excuse of it happened because he worked too hard is all the more reason not to elect him to the hardest job in the country.

    May 12, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  2. Aerin

    All together now, chant:
    NEWT THE TOAD!! NEWT THE TOAD!! NEWT THE TOAD!!

    May 12, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  3. Aerin

    Gingrich said that the United States will be a “secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists,” in a matter of generations... This does not even make sense. Which is it, atheist or Islamist, it can't be both at the same time. Just another example of the trash repugs talk.

    May 12, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  4. perry

    So Mr. Gingrich relies on his faith to get him through every day – where was your faith when you cheated on your dieing wife.

    Do you just turn your faith on and off like a light switch? Or are you lying about your so called faith and only use it because it is politically advantageous for you to do so?

    May 12, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  5. Evangelical Steve

    I am a conservative, evangelical male who despised Bill Clinton for his many infedelities and told many that I could not vote for a man who was not faithful to a vow (marriage or otherwise). If my choices for president are limited to Gingrich and Obama, I will vote Obama. Newton, at your age, your ambition should be to be spiritually preparing to meet your Creator – not running for public office.

    May 12, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
  6. Jeannettelj

    In a recent CNN poll, 31% of folks say that they would vote for Newt over the president. These 31% are either racists or idiots. J Or both!!

    May 12, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
  7. Andrew

    Does he really think voters will overlook his infidelity? If they somehow get round that, do they think they will overlook his recent flip flopping? Does he really think he can win any of the debates? He has virtually no chance.

    Personally, I don't mind when somebody changes their position when new facts arise or the situation changes drastically, but Newt recently changed his position on Libya just a couple weeks later, just so that he can continue criticizing Obama for no reason.

    May 12, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  8. Onegood1

    Newt's baggage? And I guess Obama's snorting massive amounts of cocaine (a felony to possess) isn't baggage? Or a close perrsonal friend and pastor who accuses white people of creating AIDS to get rid of blacks isn't baggage?

    Must I go on?

    May 12, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • Marinator

      Yes....please go on & showcase the world of your ignorance & stupidity.

      May 12, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  9. Birther 2d max

    Yeah, and o guess Bill Clinton was a saint. He couldn't keep his pants zipped up long enough to ask an tell. And the cigars? Gross. Let's just remember the real issue here – Obamas birth certificate! We all know it Isnt real or else he'd show Osamas picture. Birth certificate – death certificate? Osama- Obama ? Hmmm...

    May 12, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
  10. Nurse Lisa

    Slither Newt, slither.

    May 12, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  11. Eb

    This buffoon is living proof that the Republican party has no idea what it wants to do, where it wants to go, or what will happen if they get there. Trump? Palin? Gingrich? PUH-LEEZE folks, somebody come up with a viable candidate so we can have an actual Presidential election contest instead of a runaway.

    May 12, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Artist

      Repugs are having an ident i ty crisis. The religious right have hija cked the party. They want to appease the religious nuts but don't want the bagg age that comes with the nuts. They need to divorce from the religious nuts and let them form another party. They need modera tes. The religious nuts are a cancer to the repugs.
      .
      I am not a democrat by a long shot but the repug party left me no choice but to leave when the Glen Becks started taking over years back. Let the Christian Taliban start their own party and quit hiding behind the repug party.

      May 12, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  12. Name*Emma

    Newt, the hypocrite, is the Publican advocate for family values. That' s laughable. I hope he gets nominated, as that will ensure Obama gets a deserved second term.

    May 12, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  13. SAToday

    He should have thought about all of this a long time ago. No one wants to hear his "excuses" and "reasons" and how wonderful he is! He is a poor excuse for a husband – for a man. It is time for him to retire to someplace where no one has to listen to him.

    May 12, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  14. Tony

    Three affairs.. to me that shows a lack of control. A willingness not to follow the rules and also a willingness to lie. None of which are good qualities for a President.

    May 12, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  15. RdclCntrst

    "'In meetings with pastors, the issue always comes up,' said Rick Tyler, Gingrich’s spokesman.'And he answers it straightforwardly, courageously, without making excuses.'”

    This is an out-and-out lie. Gingrich is FULL of excuses. The last time he was asked about his catalog of marital infidelities, Gingrich said–and I am not making this up–"There's no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate."

    So in other words, he cheated on his wife because of how much he loves America. Which makes it okay? The ends justify the means? Either Mr. Gingrich is an idiot, or he thinks we are. And Mr. Gingrich is many things (bully, liar, cheat, elitist, bigot...I could go on), but he is NOT stupid. He is a very conniving, very calculating man. He can't possibly think that Americans will believe that loving your country is an acceptable excuse for adultery. And yet, that was his excuse.

    Also notice his phrasing: Not "I did things I shouldn't have done", but "things happened in my life". Things for which he, apparently, is not responsible. He didn't cheat on his wife, his wife just "happened" to have been cheated on.

    All Newt does is make excuses. And he should. His personal behavior has been deplorable.

    Also, if he thinks he was working too hard before, maybe the Presidency of the United States of America is not the place he should be looking to go.

    May 12, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  16. Barry Marson

    Newt, I pray that your current wife does not get sick or you'll hire some cute girl to be your staff. IF SOWIFE NUMBER THREE will be HISTORY. As you said, you are a changed man. I agree, you are a changed man. You changed wives like engin oil of a car..

    May 12, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
  17. Canuck2011

    "...three marriages and admission of an affair..." and this person wants to be president of the us? Where's his birth certificate, school records, little league history, scouts awards, and military service records? How can a man who cannot live with a woman for more than a few years before divorcing or, worse yet having an affair, be trusted with the security of the USofA? The only thing this guy has going for him is he's an old, white man with ties to big business.

    May 12, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • Jerry

      Also, his first wife was his high school geometry teacher, whom he married a year out of school. Anyone believe nothing was going on WHILE he was still in high school?

      If Gingrich was a liberal, the right would absolutely eviscerate him on his personal life history.

      May 12, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • RdclCntrst

      He can't show his military service records–he hasn't any. Mr. Gingrich has said, on the record, that he didn't go to Vietnam because he "had other priorities". I'll bet that lots of Americans who were maimed and killed in Vietnam–and Somalia, and Bosnia, and Iraq, and Afghanistan, etc.–had other priorities, too. Not dying being high among them, I imagine. The difference is that they put their other priorities aside when their country called for them. Mr. Gingrich basically said, "Go away, I'm busy."

      May 12, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  18. TominRochNY

    By "Gringrich struggles with values voters" do you mean he struggles to find any value to the average voter? Just curious.

    May 12, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • Canuck2011

      Maybe he struggles to find any value IN the average voter!

      May 12, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
  19. Turtlehead

    Slimy Newt is a perfect example of Conservative Family Values...he has none.

    May 12, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • Jasie

      It is most amazing to listen to the libs criticize Gingrich when we have a president who has lied and lied to the American people about Obamacare, given billions to Brazil so they can drill oil for us, bought and sold votes, thinks the answer to pain at the pump is to buy a new car, who voted against raising the debt ceiling and now wants it raised... I could go on about his ethics like inviting people to the White House who idolize cop killers, and he assasination of a president.

      May 12, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Vesstair

      Values, nothing. He either has no intelligence or no integrity. I find it amazing that no one picked up on one of his little snippits:

      FTA- 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

      A "secular atheist country" and one "dominated by radical Islamists" are absolute opposites. Islamists by DEFINITION are not secular OR atheist- in fact, they believe in the SAME God as Christians, they just believe God sent somebody after Christ.

      May 12, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • CW

      Jasie, were you upset when HW Bush invited Easy E to the White House?

      May 12, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
  20. david mann

    Palin, Bachman, and Gingrinch.....DIM AND DIMMER, [motto: "dumber n dirt n proud of it, you betcha"...WINK-WINK], and MR INFIDELITY...I did it for GOD and country. Wow!!!there's a line-up you Pugs can be proud of. If anyone thinks this is presidential material you need a reality check

    May 12, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • Jasie

      He'll fit right in with the most corrupt government we have ever had.

      May 12, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • Mark B.

      I woud take these folks any day over Pelosi, Reid, Both Obamas, Schumer, Geitner, et all. You've got to be kidding me.
      This present administration will go donwn in history as the most corrupt, most futile, most damaging and thankfully, least effective administration in history.

      May 12, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • che-3

      Mark B, your deranged delusions are self evident. Obama Adm. the most corrupt ever? And this has not been reported or investigated by the FBI or the CIA? Racist trailer park RAPIST toothless punk; keep making stories up. Like Pres. Obama stole the presidential elections, Obama is a UFO and a terrorist. Tin foil racist punk; oh I forgot your usual talking points and bogus lies; like nobody knew Pres. Obama as a child, when he was in primary school or University, Pres. Obama didn’t and have never gone to school in his life etc. The last time we as normal Americans checked; Pres. Obama is smarter and intelligent than all the GOP presidents put together.

      May 12, 2011 at 2:58 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.