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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. avinoel

    How can Newt repent of his sin of adultery and betrayal while keeping the benefit of his sin? Would seem he would have to turn away from his adulterous partner or is saying you're really, really REALLY REALLY SORRY all that is required?

    May 13, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
  2. JJsMom

    Newt the Hoot should have his "old" PAL Boehner run with him. They are both CROOKS.......btw what planet is Newt running for Presidsent on "URANUS"?

    May 13, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
  3. tcaros

    Gingrich should run with that Christine O'Donnell on his ticket. That way she can say "I'm not a witch. If you don't believe me ask my Newt."

    May 13, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
  4. steve M

    Obama belongs to a race that births its illegitimate children at 70%, drops out of high school if they ever get there, cause most of the crime in the country, and occupy two out of every 3 beds in jail, have no intention of ever participating in society, and view work as something for the illegal immigrants to do...... Gingrich faces hurdles from voters that value values? then Obama should have nobody voting for him.....

    May 13, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
    • Bill

      your comment is so full of racism ,he is an american just like everyone else. so crawl back under your rock and shut the hell up

      May 13, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
    • DJ

      Wow, Steve... Racism has been on display quadruple-time since Obama was elected, but your comment puts you in the bottom .0002% of the furry dinosaur club. Isn't there a tar pit you're late getting to?

      Just in case you didn't know, the majority of Americans find people like you horribly embarrassing and frustrating. There's something wrong with you. Trust me on this. It's you. Get it fixed.

      May 13, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
    • Racist much?

      Shouldn't you be laundering your white hood for the big get together tonight?

      May 14, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
  5. steve M

    wow...... a country that views personal responsibility as a rumor and values are something you get at wal*mart when things are on sale......

    May 13, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
  6. GOP HAte America

    who cares Im voting for Obama again anyway.

    May 13, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • ward

      We are too – the Republicans are too scary – they want to take away programs we have paid into all our lives, and tell you ti's good for you! They can't wait to get their hands on Medicare and SS money. They want more big tax breaks for the rich and then attempt to balance the budget by taking away from the poor, elderly, woman and anybody else who's vulnerable.

      American should make the rich richer – that's the Republican way – a true redistribution of wealth.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • JJsMom

      DITTO!

      May 13, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
  7. GOP HAte America

    he struggles with it because he's a friken hypocrite and its so obvious a blind person can see it

    May 13, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  8. MrsFudd

    It's true that Newt doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell in getting the Republican nomination. It's not just Christians who won't vote for him, it's most people who cannot forgive a man who hands his wife divorce papers while she's enduring chemotherapy. It is a dirty rotten shame, because if you put Obama up against Newt in a Presidential debate, Newt would wipe the floor with Obama. Obama wouldn't know what hit him or what to respond. Newt is that knowledgeable and experienced. It's just a shame that Newt had to give in to his lusts rather than think about the big picture. He would have made a fine President, but America is just not that forgiving.

    May 13, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
    • Bill

      not a chance in hell obama would clean his lying *&^ clock in a real debate sorry you are so nieve

      May 13, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
  9. Michael

    Nothing spells repentance (to a fundamentalist) like huge amounts of cash.

    May 13, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
  10. Michael

    GOP voters have had lots of practice swallowing pure distilled BS and taking it up the yazoo from their elected officials; surely they will find a way to overcome the natural revulsion inspired by Gingrich and his sordid existence. Nobody has less of a gag reflex than a Republican.

    May 13, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  11. f geason

    this so call man is using nothing but racial politics to draw attention to himself. he is old news, and old policies, remember he put several people out of work . when he shut the government down. he have no moral, no sham, and he just trying to raise money for a book or some other money making gimic.plus he cant win. maybe we need to ask his ex-wives all about is true self

    May 13, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  12. 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 like "nutty Newt" of Paul 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 13, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  13. Bob

    Left his first wife while she was getting treatment for cancer.... left his second wife for his Congressional Aide who was helping him waste Government Resources to prove the President had oral sax and lied about it.... and blamed it on his love of the country.... And he's running on Family "Values" LOL

    May 13, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • Michael

      Republicans' definition of "values" is in a purely financial sense.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  14. Jay

    I for one will give old Newt the benefit of the doubt about whether or not he is a changed man. Also it is God's job to give this man his forgiveness if he truly has repented. However, he FAILS as Presidential material from the fact that A) he wants to run on the party that claims to represent Family Values – – he screwed that up too many times! B) he has been proven over and over to be a Hypocrit and C) his own party cut him loose because of his screw ups. He has way too many character flaws to be President – we, the USA, needs a President whose character is above reproach and cannot be questioned and a President who could care less about special interests and is willing to put the best interest of the country before everyone (including him or herself) in this world – Newt would always be first in foremost in every situation and the Presidency would come second and the USA and the citizens would be LAST! We need an average American President not some INFAMOUS old Newt and his ilk or some Reality Trash Palin type. For a good read about the type of President the USA needs read Pieces of A Presidential Mind available on Amazon.com!

    May 13, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  15. timd

    And I'm not just a member of the mongoloid haircut club, I'm the president!

    May 13, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  16. timd

    Ah yes, the family values party. They value family so much, they have multiple families....and what's up with those mongoloid haircuts. No fan of Ronny but at least he had a sweet pompadour.

    May 13, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  17. riomarcos

    He served his wife divorced papers while she was in chemo. What a wonderful character he is!
    Islamic and fundie Christians hate our secular society. They want to replace it with a theocracy. They hate America.

    May 13, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • timd

      He wouldn't have divorced here if she just would have hurried up and died.

      May 13, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • Robert

      Wasn't that first wife the one he was dating when he was 16 and she was his high school math teacher?

      May 13, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • ward

      II wonder if his many 'mistresses' were with it? Seeing how that's going to cost him the nomination, and never the Presidency. I hope he spends ALL his money trying to convince Christians that cheating is ok, as long as it's Newt

      May 13, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  18. Keven

    " Newt simply needs to address the past in an authentic way that makes it clear he is a changed man " and if anyone believes that, I have a bridge to sell them.
    He's a self centered, egotistical, religious man... Ha !

    May 13, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  19. RAWoD

    Wait until Newt is caught tapping his feet with a wide stance in a mens restroom. Then we'll see how the "evangelicals" overlook it.

    May 13, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  20. mabel floyd

    the article states that genrich answered the question of why he cheated straight forwardly. not true. he said he just loved the united states so much and worked so hard that his pants just slid down and before he knew it cheating happened. gee whiz nuet every wife should have a husband who is soooooo in love with the country. come to think of it-many republican wives do.
    i am sure the t-baggers will "forgive" him as they could care less. the evangelicals will "forgive" him as they could care less. these two groups only care if he can lead them to the power and control they need to take over the country. it must make God Himself vomit.

    May 13, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • JoePub

      Wrong assumption teabaggie. Gingrich is off the table for tea party patriots. Ron Paul is the way to go.

      May 13, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • S. Studenberg

      God does not vomit. He has Linda Blair for that.

      May 13, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • Paulio

      Ron Paul is a loon whose positions are so contradictory as to be hilarious.

      May 13, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • JoePub

      Contradictory? How so? He's the only one out there that is making sense.

      May 13, 2011 at 3:36 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.