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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. amarjit

    A politician or person who cannot manage his home & personal life can never be trusted to manage a nation like America with multiple races & roles in Home & world. A person, who cannot control himself & has no self-discipline, can never be trusted by others & in public life which needs highest moral values & commitments to others.

    May 15, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  2. avinoel

    How could Newt try to convince an evangelical woman that he is sorry for his sin of adultery while at the same time telling her that he is "happily married" in his adulterous relationship? Evangelical doctrine requires that he give up the sin ... but he hasn't ... he continues "happily" in it ... take Newt at his word ... judge him by what he is now ... a happily practicing hypocrite, fraud, adulterer and fornicator trying for forgiveness and repentance on the cheap while continuing to wallow and revel in his sin ...

    May 15, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  3. The King

    The GOP attracts hypocritical, egomaniacs light bugs to a light. Trump, gingrich, palin, bachman, none of these nuts would have a prayer against President Obama. But, they are entertaining.

    May 15, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  4. Ed Wood

    I like Newt Gingrich.
    Dear fellow Republicans Please don't try and make me vote for Mitch Daniels.

    May 15, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  5. james, ct

    Newt doesn't care what the evangelicals think. He is not running for President to become President. He is merely using the platform that running provides to advance his own personal agenda for the books, speeches that he is selling. He knows he can never be elected but loves the attention the mdeia throws at him.

    He is morally bankrupt but you have to admire his ingenuity.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:46 am |
  6. Better wise up freeks

    Oh come now. Newt the toad is running. How grand? Not. He needs to score with the Christian women to get laid. Gee. Wouldn't it be nice if all the people got smart one day after taking a magic med. They realized the religions are a lie. There is no truth to them. They were wild legendary stories.

    Read Joseph Campbell. You remember he was the inspiration for George Lucas AKA the Star Wars guy. You need to use tech to get to the bottom of thing. You can not build a foundation on a mud bank. That is what all religions did. They just collected stories and told the local idiots it was true. Soon everyone believed in the so called miracles. Big mafia money is collected by the Catholic Church. The New Testament was rewritten by them to be more Hollywood. Sell nonsense like the Pope is the one who speaks to God and only he and this Pope will give you God's knowledge if you pay the price. Muslims need to rewrite their fictional foundations and come up with something of scientific reason. Maybe then the Christian churchs will wise up.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  7. maggie

    "In meetings with pastors this issue always comes up and he answers it courageously." What a farce. What is courageous about his behavior? He stepped up to the plate as it were because of his political aspirations. I'm sure that the wives and other people he dumped on along the way don't have the same opinion about his "courageousness."

    May 15, 2011 at 7:50 am |
  8. maggie

    Hmmm, how many prayer breakfasts did he make it a habit of attending before he realized that he had to pander to this group?

    May 15, 2011 at 7:48 am |
  9. TJeff1776

    Newt had his chance in the limelight. He REALLY did blow it BIGTIME. He should step aside for the younger generation to carry the ball. He appears logical enough on the surface; that is, has a nice smooth silver-tongue. very deceiving. Hitler
    had similar qualities. I honestly believe there's something mentally wrong with him. Just look at him and evaluate his past performance. Doesn't add up. There's an old saying, " your example speaks so loud, I can't hear what yer saying".
    Newt's example has been weighed.....he comes up lacking. Repentance AND forgiveness doesn't equal an example of
    good works. Jesus said to the sinning woman "thou art fogiven- go thy way".........NOT "come follow me". IF morals count
    for anything, Newt simply doesn't qualify.......period.

    May 14, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
  10. Chuck

    He is not qualified (husband of one wife) to be a Deacon in the Baptist Church. He is not qualified to be President.

    May 14, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
  11. Mike Franklin

    The pious look for perfection in the imperfection of human flash. Newt is flawed more than most, with his politics and history hanging like a dark cloud over his ambitions. We as a nation should be inclined to forgiveness but we should not mistake that with accepting him as president. Newt is not the man we need.

    May 14, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
  12. R C Porter

    The lizard has no morals

    May 14, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
  13. Lardoggy

    Loser!

    May 14, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  14. Roz

    Atheist Muslims. Boy, that says it all.

    May 14, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
  15. William

    I do care about his past, but he still looks like a shinny new penny compared to President Obama. The real question is can we put someone in office that will tell the truth and fix the damage that has been done over the last 3 years? Gingrich's performance as Speaker looks like a superstar compared to Obama's performance as President. I doublt the media will ever show the comparison. Somehow it would be Bush's fault anyway. Shame on the media for failing to create a level playing field for politicians so everyone can get an accurate view. Transpancy – a lie, Hope – a lie, Chance – a disaster.

    May 14, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
    • george w bush

      You clearly are without a clue.

      May 15, 2011 at 8:51 am |
    • jb

      Which planet are you living on?

      May 15, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • mel123

      your delusion is... fascinating.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:38 am |
    • Joe Leppig

      Three years ?

      May 15, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  16. jkw

    No one cares about Gingrich's past religious and moral issues. He screwed up when he became Speaker of the House and let it go to his head. He messed up so badly, no one in their right mind would ever give him any consideration. You can write him off today, he doesn't stand a chance.

    May 14, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
  17. LEB

    So these people are willing to try to shut down government over depending to see Obama's *actual* birth certificate even after it's already been proven that he was born in the US, but they're willing to overlook Gingrich being a known liar and shameless philanderer? What kind of values do these "values voters" have, exactly?

    May 14, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      "Values" is just a word they use, like "conservative." There is nothing conservative or particularly valuable about them. Newt has based his whole career on NASTY and many Republicans eat that up.

      May 14, 2011 at 11:21 pm |
    • Average American

      You left wing AH's got your asses schellacked by the Republicans in the last election. Keep up you sanctimonious post. You will see another ass kicking in November 2012. The majority of Americans see through your left wing party and how they have nearly destroyed American. Perhaps you and your left wing friends can move to Canada or Europe where you can expericnce socialism first hand. We will remain a capitalist America.

      May 15, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  18. guy from NM

    Values? Whose values? Newt`s? Atheist and muslim which one will it be?. To this atheist the muslims are as annoying as the christians in their thinking that they know best what good for everyone else. But in any case, Newt is corrupt, a liar. I hope he loses a lot of money running for prez.

    May 14, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • Steve

      The Religious Right...ya know, the ones whose values are the only ones that matter! 😉

      May 15, 2011 at 5:07 am |
  19. abby

    it's really hard to proclaim family values when you dumped your sick wife for someone new ... gingrich is old news - but some folks just can't give up the limelight or the desire for power...

    May 14, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  20. Laser65

    In the end, the evangelicals will not care about Gingrich's past because they are the same way. Preaching one thing in public and living something completely different in private. Could it be that what they are preaching is nonsense, and not related to how we actually live our lives? It's a facade among the " christian " politicians, and among the evangelicals themselves.

    May 14, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • Lawrence Rener

      Oh how true

      May 14, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • Average American

      I love the way you left wing AH's are so pure of heart. So great! So wonderful!

      You love Obama, a man who sucked cocaine and half the Democrats in Washington who knowingly cheat on their taxes.
      But Newt has to defend? You are a bunch of hypocritical AH's.

      May 15, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • marge

      Amen!!

      May 15, 2011 at 1:38 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.