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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. Bill

    To me, you forgive someone when they display true sorrow for what they did. You have to decide if he really feels sorry for what he did, or is he expressing remorse because he wants the religious vote?

    May 16, 2011 at 7:20 am |
  2. Drew

    "secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists"

    Whoa okkayyyyyyyy Newt!!! Why are all the Repulicans suddenly bat-sh *t crazy?

    May 16, 2011 at 3:05 am |
  3. SDN

    Simple question; Is this the best person we can find for this job?

    May 16, 2011 at 2:41 am |
  4. Starsky

    He asks for forgiveness you say ? So why is he not more forgiving and supportive of the democrats ?

    Never trust someone who can't be honest their personal life to be honest in their public life.

    May 16, 2011 at 2:01 am |
  5. Tom Howard

    Values voters?? If they are Republicans, as the Republican Party is today, they'll vote for this fool. They'll do so because he'll blather about "freedom" or "restoring America" , and the right wingers will buy it. He care not a bit about either; he's just another greedy Republican after two things: money and power - period.

    May 15, 2011 at 11:54 pm |
  6. TJeff1776

    Newt knows what a villian he is. The Repubs are sticking him out there as a distractor to cover for the REAL one yet to be found. Remember the old cowboy movies when even at the movie beginnings the villian could be spotted with the black hat, unshaven face, and sinister eyes. THATS NEWT. The white hat conser hero is yet to arrive. Plenty of time must be
    allotted to shield him from the curious investigating public. Ronald Reagan was the biiggest hypocrit of all time. Made movies the whole of WW2- was NOT in uniform as he claimed BUT look how the conser molded his image into George Washington type status before, during, and after his Presidency- even to this day. Typical mode of operation for them.

    May 15, 2011 at 11:31 pm |
  7. Lenny Pincus

    Newt has trouble with all voters. He's trying to position himself as VP so the neocons can have a new version of Cheney. Fortunately, he and his Republican cohorts are a gigantic fail.

    May 15, 2011 at 11:30 pm |
  8. Newt Gingrich

    I did not have se-x with that woman.

    May 15, 2011 at 11:12 pm |
  9. Phil Newton

    96% of current Deficit Spending Comes from BUSH PROGRAMS:

    National Debt Increased by 75% under Bush:

    2001 – $5.871 trillion
    2008 – $10.640 trillion

    National Debt Increased 25% Under Read More...

    Jan 31st 2009 = $10.569-Tr­­illion
    Jan 31st 2011 = $14.131-Tr­­illion

    But of the $3.56-tril­­lion increase, 98% was carry over from Bush programs:

    Bush: $910-billi­­on = Interest on Debt 2009/2011
    Bush: $360-billi­­on = Iraq War Spending 2009/2011
    Bush: $319-billi­­on = TARP/Bailo­­ut Balance from 2008 (as of May 2010)
    Bush: $419-billi­­on = Bush Recession Caused Drop in taxes
    Bush: $190-billi­­on = Bush Medicare Drug Program 2009/2011
    Bush: $211-billi­­on = Bush Meicare Part-D 2009/2011
    Bush: $771-billi­­on = Bush Tax Cuts 2009/2011

    Bush's contributi­­ons:

    2001 to 2008: $4.769-tri­­llion
    2009 to 2010: $3.181-tri­­llion

    Total: $7.950-tri­­llion

    Increase Since 2001 = $14.131 – $5.871 = $8.26-Tril­­lion

    Bush's contributi­­on: $7.950-tri­­llion / $8.26-Tril­­lion = 96%

    Obama only contributi­­on: $580-billi­­on = Stimulus Spending (as of Dec 2010).

    Increase caused By Bush's Programs: 96%
    Increase caused by Obama's Programs: 4%

    May 15, 2011 at 11:04 pm |
  10. nytw

    This guy is a piece of garbage. Actually I may have to go apologize to my garbage can now.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
  11. Jason

    Wasn't he the guy who told his wife dying of cancer in hospital that he was divorcing her?

    May 15, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
    • Phil Newton

      But he added, "Have a nice day. Get better soon."

      May 15, 2011 at 11:11 pm |
  12. jerry

    hes a big quack quack .period .always has been always will be!!!!!!!

    May 15, 2011 at 9:26 pm |
  13. X-JerseyGuy

    Never mind the religious conservatives, the middle of the road independents like myself are not going to fall for his BS either.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
  14. Chris

    Newt does not have a chance in hell and he and his advisors know it. They are just in it for the PAC money. What Repub in their right mind would contribute to this dirtbag?

    May 15, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
  15. Dan

    Newt should 'struggle' with ALL voters – He's pretty much singlehandly responsible for the terrible mess the congress is in today . . . . party line gridlock

    When he was elected speaker in '94 he began an agenda which was good for the Republican party and to heck with what was good for the country. When he decided what the party was going to do on any given issue, he REQUIRED every GOP member to vote with him or he threatened to pull them from their committee seats and/or chairs. Representative government as our forefathers envisioned it went out the window. Representatives were required to vote the party line without even thinking about what was best for their districts back home

    He began this policy and you can see what it has led us to today – Gridlock and millions of people who no longer have a represntative voice in government . . . . GOP members only vote on what's best for the party and they no longer represent anyone back home

    I cannot think of a worse choice for president than Newt Gingrich . . . . even the Donald would be better

    May 15, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
  16. Gin Newtgrich

    Tilting at windmills, an emerald fog of stench enveloped our hero as he trudged to certain defeat at the hands of the truth-sayers.

    May 15, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
  17. blake

    "Values voters". What obsurd terminology. What voter in their right mind does not believe that character and personal integrity is an absolutely indespensible part of leadership?

    May 15, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
  18. David

    "secular atheist Islamists'??
    Does Newt even believe what he says anymore, or does he take us all for idiots?

    May 15, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
  19. Mercfan

    Grinrich said, "Analysts can say what they want without consequences, he noted, but political leaders must be more disciplined and thoughtful". How disciplined and thoughtful was he when he choose to leave his ill ex-wife in the hospital and divorce her? In sickness and health? How can he ask voters to ignore that decision when considering what type of President he would be?

    May 15, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • dave

      Conservatives and Republicans will vote for him because they don't care about morals or a guy that was kicked out of congress back in the 90,s, having affairs with women while he was critical with Clinton. This is the belief of Republicans, we can do anything, but others are not beyond appoach. It is time Republicans wake up to morals of their politicans.

      May 15, 2011 at 11:13 pm |
  20. dabein marga

    Now, more ridiculous than ever, we present. The Republican party!!!!

    May 15, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • kleinaj18

      More clowns emerge from the circus!

      May 15, 2011 at 11:47 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.