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. Rudy Gonzales

    Newton Gingrich, the former ten-term congressman from an Atlanta-area district was Speaker of the House and resigned in disgrace. He resigned in disgrace because he was "Womanizing"! Newton's conservative stance will not stand as his "Contract for America" didn't stand, and trickle down didn't trickle down! This man is a retread, re-hashed and regurgitation of failed concepts doomed to failure again! His third wife testifies to his conservative stance and womanizing! This guy is in it for himself! Gingrich is a greedy, power-hungry and self-centered Republican! Newton will be going up against a proven leader who is proving his capabilities. Under president Obama the job gains in the private sector shows the effects the previous Congress had put into effect with their legislation and the president's leadership in administering the accomplishments. And he can multi-task well even with the constant harping and lying from the GOP/TEA party who tries to undo the previous Congress's legislation. It's going to be a great Republican primary season! President Obama has done more to fix the US economy and international relations as well as taking out OBL this past week-end. His leadership is truly needed and warranted no matter what the Republican/TEA party say. We need to back him and get out the vote! It's going to be a great Republican primary season!

    May 14, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  2. Donald

    Newt is not a man of great ideas. He is a staunch party man and don't really care about the people. I seen him perform as speaker of the house. Strick party man. He will never get my vote.

    May 14, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  3. DE

    "Evangelical men are likely to give him the benefit of the doubt. I find an implacable wall of resistance among evangelical women.” Only because he is one of them, conservative. If he was a democrat these hypocrites would want him hung.

    May 14, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  4. Steve T

    Gingrich sounds more and more like a male Sarah Palin.

    May 14, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  5. Eioljg

    Wasn't that THREE affairs? Short memory, Newt?

    May 14, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  6. SurRy

    How this family values piece rubbish can open his pie-hole in public is beyond me.

    May 14, 2011 at 9:44 am |
  7. SurRfy

    “Evangelical men are likely to give him the benefit of the doubt." Shocking!!!

    May 14, 2011 at 9:43 am |

  8. He's perfect for the job! He's a weasel, best qualification to have & worse yet Americans will go out on a limb & vote for him.

    He'll come out with the old standard of '...finding Jesus...' & that's supposed to make everyone believe he's a SAVED guy.

    And you'll fall for it. But at least with this guy being considered the front runner for the Repubs you could get a Chinaman elected President in 2012.

    May 14, 2011 at 9:24 am |
  9. Anthony

    GOP offers nothing new! Gingrich is not going anywhere but back to the house. He knows it! He is not going to win simply because he won't gather much support.

    May 14, 2011 at 8:41 am |

    • Back to the House? No way Jose. He told his cancer ridden wife he wanted a divorce during her recovery! This is not a Man. Had an affair & divorced his 2nd wife over it. And You trust HIM with your childrens & your own future?

      May 14, 2011 at 9:28 am |
  10. TJeff1776

    According to Newt, "I am repentant and have been forgiven and have changed religions to buttress that". What difference. If all a sinner had to do is confess his/her wrong doings, the prisons could be done away with. Sheeesh.....when he served his wife with divorce papers while on her death bed- he didn't seem to grasp the timing
    situation. Pointing the finger at Bill Clinton while at the exact same time committing immoral acts himself gained an extra jewel in his hypocritical crown. No matter his silver-tongued imaging, his shining example is hardly one to place in the Presidential spotlight for all to follow or even be indifferent to. IF he is somehow elected, it will ONLY serve notice to me
    of just how far down this nation has sunk....yes, even to the point of no return. Like Hitler's silver-tongue, it conceals the fact that something is mentally wrong here.

    May 14, 2011 at 7:02 am |
  11. Sal1943

    This guy Ginditch hates middle easterners, Arabs, Muslims, Chinese, Africans, almost three quarters of the world. Yet he says he worships another middle eastern guy who lived in the Gaza neighborhood 2000 years ago; someone who was nailed by the Europeans and whose genetic relatives are being bombed everyday with U.S weapons.

    May 14, 2011 at 6:57 am |
  12. john leddy

    have you noticed that his attacks on gay people have increased as he tries to convince the fundamentalist and evangelical christians that he is there man. he will say and do anything it takes in his attempt to regain political power.?

    May 14, 2011 at 2:59 am |
    • Layla

      I heard he has fangs, but I'll take him over the share the wealth Muslim in the White House.

      May 14, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • N eeewww T

      You can spot the Faux News dittoheads on this board a mile away.

      May 14, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
  13. Bibico

    Favorite GOP slogan: "We all fall short of the glory of god."

    This covers every possible sin in the religion of convenience. Except one, of course: Support abortion? There is no forgiveness.

    May 14, 2011 at 1:10 am |
    • juan

      Yes, the GOP forgave Reagan. California Governor Reagan pushed for and signed into law the most liberal abortion law in the country at that time, years before Roe vs. Wade. Based on that law, which apparently only required to have a doctor's consent to the abortion, more than 600,000 abortions were performed in California while he was governor.

      May 14, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  14. mary caracciolo

    Newt, is right about one thing, the president doesn't share his vlalues, because newt has no values...

    May 13, 2011 at 11:17 pm |
  15. soysauce

    "I rely on my faith to get me through the day" give me a break....this man is only appealing to religious conservatives because those are the weak minded people who are too stupid not to buy into the religious schtick, and those idiots are the voting base that he needs. New Gingrich is another charlatan swindler liar just like the televangelists, cult leaders and scam artists who never practice what they preach because they're too SMART to practice what they preach. Hypocritical just like religion.

    May 13, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
    • Layla

      Goodness! How's that Hope n Change workin for ya?

      May 14, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  16. Carl

    You have to be kidding.....vote for him.....lol....... Only fools will!

    May 13, 2011 at 9:43 pm |
    • TheMovieFan

      Well, they are the GOP base.

      May 13, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
  17. Tommie

    Year of Hypocrisy in the GOP. Now the best candidate (Romney) is doing the dance. Truth is Evangelicals will choose against their principals because guys like Newt will again lead them down a false hole.

    May 13, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
  18. Frank

    Newt will convince me he has changed when he abandons his quest for ever more power.

    May 13, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
  19. Jerri

    This looks like the worst lot of political candidates to choose from I've ever seen. Some are so out in left field and march to a different beat of the drum. Some are mean spirited, and i doubt if they get along with themselves. Some are narrcistic with a dash of power hungry. Some have this holier than thou additude mixed with a smug look they are conning people in to believing they have political savvy. Some are hypocrits with silver tongues. Some have a mixture of all these traits.What a joke, I sure cant pick a winner out of this mess.

    May 13, 2011 at 9:07 pm |
    • ChristianC

      ..worst political candidate.. march to a different drumbeat.. power hungry.. hypocrite with silver tongue.. Whoa! You shouldn't be talking about Obama like that..

      May 13, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
    • Nacho1

      What this country needs is a guy like Ron Paul for President...........national deficit.........weaken the IRS.........get rid of the Federal Reserve.............he has some very strong answers to some very serious problems.........

      May 14, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • Layla

      With all due respect, I'll take any one of them over the "share the wealth" communist in the White House.

      May 14, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • MacMaven

      Love the "I'll take anyone over Obama" posts. These backwoods racists haven't known what to do with themselves since a black man took office two years ago. And its this philosophy that will run this country into the ground. If you would take a Palin or a Trump over anyone, Republican or Democrat, then you should have your voters card taken away.

      Back to the original comment for this guy Newt. If there ever was a typical 'white' guy vying for public office, his picture would be right next two it. This guy already resigned his Congressional seat back in '98 due to embarrassing the party by going after Clinton. He talks about Christianity, but seems to get upset when everyone holds him to those values, citing his 3 marriages and consistent infidelity. In fact, he was busy committing adultery with Callista Bisek at the same time he was going after Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal, and was head of the investigation to boot!! LOL...the hypocrisy never sleeps. Toss this guy into the sea of unpopular Repub candidates and move on.....nothing special to see here folks.

      May 14, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  20. altalks21

    When promoting religion in public, don't forget one of the two greatest commandments, love thy neighbor as thyself. It seems that the other one , to love god with your whole heart, is the only one being fobeyed.

    May 13, 2011 at 9:06 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.