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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. tone

    As im reading this why am not suprised by this (secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists,” in a matter of generations unless Americans fight back against secularization)........ Why does he have to scare people to vote for him? they all do it, it just seems republicans do it better.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  2. Darrell S.

    Oh, come ON, Newty! Are you for real???

    I'm sorry, but I haven't forgotten that while you persecuted President Bill Clinton for lying under oath about an extra-marital affair, YOU were having an extra-marital affair.

    Save OUR Presidential Fund money and back out of the race now. There is NO possible way you'll even win the Republican Primaries! And take Trump with you!

    May 11, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  3. Clint

    There is one big reason for why I would not vote for Newt. He resigned barely into his term. I know, lots of you are saying 'WHAT?', this is what I mean. It doesn't matter to me that he cheated on his spouse. It doesn't matter to me that he was cheating with a staffer on Government time. What matters to me is that the people of Georgia elected him to serve as their representative and he basically quit his jobThe obvious thing would have been to keep his *&(! in his pants but in failing to do that, take censure, let someone else be speaker, or return your pay until the end of your term but serve your term out.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  4. Terry - Indiana

    Talk about your flashbacks, I keep seeing 1994 and the Gingrich Contract with America. Talk about the suck factor, this guy is a real loser.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  5. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    Newt thinks he can cross those hurdles by using "code words" that Americans clearly understand and won't like it. People who have a conscious, whether religious or not, are going to vote for a man who divorces his wife on her death bed to move on to another woman and then another, he has no morals, but we do.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  6. steve houston

    Gingrich is a smart guy. I've seen him speak on CSPAN a few times. He's a very logical and analytical thinker. Most people who are like this tend to be non-religious, because faith is about believing in something in lieu of facts or evidence. He knows he cannot become President without the religious vote, so he's bascially pandering to them.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  7. delrose

    He can't be serious about running for President of this great country. I know I'm not perfect and have made more than enough mistakes in my life, but I have not been married, divorced or an adulterer. He has no platform on ethics, thats obvious. This country needs leaders, he certainly has nothing to offer.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  8. littletingod

    Hey! Bring him on! Bring on the other GOP clowns as well!

    May 11, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  9. Jordan N.

    “Most important, he needs to talk about how he has found peace and meaning through a personal relationship with Christ,"

    Isn't the most import thing for him to discuss are the issues facing our country and what his ideas are for resolving them? I don't care who he had an affair with; I want to know what he'll do if he's the leader of this country.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
  10. Ken

    We can't trust this guy!!! didn't he get caught cheating or bumping toes in the bathroom? This guy represents all that is wrong with America.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  11. Robert

    I heard Newt was born in Germany – where's the long form birth certificate????

    May 11, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  12. One Citizen

    Is Newt Gingrich the best we can do in the Republican Party? I think not. He cheated on his first wife and then cheated on his second wife who was the person he cheated with the first time around. Character matters. This is not a right or left issue, but a clear leadership issue.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  13. The Big Kahuna

    I would much prefer this guy be a womanizer, or a drunk before a home-wrecker......how can he run for President when he cant decide which pillow he wants to lay his head.....and he touts values; come on....talk about the pot calling the kettle black...but, look at is like this; he will at least promote job growth with his hiring of staffers....he may tag a few too.....

    May 11, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  14. BlackDynamiteNYC

    He has about as much chance of winning anything as Trump does
    Both are on their 3rd ball-and-chain
    BD

    May 11, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  15. Bob in Pa

    Lets re-phrase the question to the Baptists. You want Obama or Gingrich ?
    Then lets see what kind of issue they have.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • Scott

      That's a trick question right? I don't want either.

      May 11, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  16. John

    oh he announced via Twitter. Very inspirational and gutsy way to do it Newt. Good job. Just a step down from Pawlenty's youtube announcement. Great job.

    Strong Pimp Hand / Biden 2012

    May 11, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  17. Seenen

    Newt worships Newt. Period.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  18. Jordan N.

    “secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists,”

    Um, how would an "Islamist" society be secular? Pretty sure they worship a god, too. Frankly, I thought part of the problem with the mid-east was the lack of secular culture, instead having one dominated by religion, and that's what Gingrich's proposing for us? Christianity may be a different flavor, but in the end they all leave the same bitter taste when mixed with government.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • Nonimus

      I think it's kind of like being a secular country, dominated by radical Christians, only you hear God a lot instead of Allah.

      May 11, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • give your head a shake

      Yeah, I have poured over that a “secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists” comment from the Grinch before. Perhaps the hypocrite was drunk on 0% alcohol beer at the time. I wonder if he gets confused whether to sit or stand when he goes to the bathroom.

      May 11, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • Joe

      Newt is intelligent but he panders to the ignorant. He knows he's spouting nonsense, and from that I gather he holds his political base in very low esteem.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
  19. belladonia

    I heard Newt was born in Germany - where's the long form birth certificate????

    May 11, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  20. lc

    No way will I ever vote for him.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:41 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.