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. 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 of Paul ( including "nutty Newt") 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 11, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  2. gary

    Newt is a 67 yr old fool. Wife #3 after dumping 2. He always sounds like a cranky, constipated old fart.

    May 11, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  3. jean2009

    Basically he struggles. I do think those who say he is smart are over stating the truth. He is a weasel that only cares for himself when all is said and done.

    May 11, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
  4. johnmccain

    He is closet gay

    May 11, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
  5. Ken in Lynchburt

    From an evangelical perspective, the Bible teaches that a man who cannot manage his own family and remain loyal to it is unfit to run a church. How in the world could we then say that means nothing when it comes to running a country? What's more telling is that men do not to value marriage as much as women, even within the church.

    May 11, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  6. pseudobliss

    I dont know guys....Newt is a VERY smart man. He would not throw his hat in unless he really things he can take the Dems to the mat. I think the more naysayers from the Dems side, the easier it will be for him to steam roll the donkey. Keep in mind, he has a PhD in history. He knows the history of the presidency better than most in this country. He knows the ins and outs of this race. I think with him, this race is going to be a very good one! If Obama can beat him, it will validate his presidency. Beating HIllary was just one special interest group battling another. This time, with a strong candidate like newt, Obama will have to take on a formidable and eduated politician.

    May 11, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • Know What

      Perhaps he is smart, and well-versed in politics - he might have a role as an advisor or something, but he has shown that he cannot be trusted to be at the wheel.

      May 11, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
    • steven harnack

      If you think that Newt is a very smart man than you haven't just lowered the bar for smart, you've dropped into a canyon.

      May 11, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
  7. Carlos E. Abad

    Newt, going after Clinton-Lewinsky while fooling around. What a hypocrite!
    It also reminds me of all of those televangelist who were caught cheating on their spouses and were forgiven by their flocks. The difference here is that the Country is not a Congregation or a religious sect.

    May 11, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  8. Republicans - "The Not Intended To Be Factually Accurate Party"

    Radical Islamic secular atheist .... This is a perfect example of Gingrich gibberish.

    He is the most intelligent sounding candidate the GOP can come up with [at least to the uniformed that don't take time to think].

    His appeal to the Obama-haters is as someone who they think is the intellectual equal of the President. His comments in this article are an indication of the type of "double talk" that JOURNALISTS had better be prepared for as they interact with him

    May 11, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  9. Walker

    Funny... I wasn't aware it was still alive...now it's running for President.

    May 11, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  10. neilo1

    We now see the clear pattern emerging here as far as the once honorable GOP is concerned!! I mean THIS hypocrite folks is their'serious' best front-runner– GOD HELP the once Grand Old Party –now the party of lies, distortions, hubris, greed & tax-free foreign bank accounts -the party that gave the biggest greediest Shaft to the entire country for 8 miserable years but still thinks they own America! (of course their backers do -the 400 billionaires club of hide-the-profits-abroad along with the jobs gang) ! NOW THE NUMBER ONE CENSURED-IN-THE HOUSE HYPOCRITE-ATTACKER OF PRESIDENT CLINTON RIDES AGAIN! & HE WILL BE NUMBER THE ONE LOSER! -AGAIN! http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/.element/img/3.0/1px.gif

    May 11, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  11. Don't make me laugh

    Judge Not Lest ye be Judged...you did so to Clinton and your skeletons came out the closet. You want a level of 'forgiveness' that you yourself were inwilling to accept. I say accept, because it is not up to man to offer forgiveness.

    Values, morals they are lacking 'former' speaker Ginrinch. You have been hanging out with former mayor and former governor Palin a bit too much for me.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  12. Sebastian

    Now he's a Catholic? What was this so-called Moral Majority member previously?

    Today he is parading his latest blonde wife around as a campaign aide to help sell the rest of us as a reformed womanizer who has finally found some marital morals and ethics.

    If these evangelicals don't want to be the laughing stock of America, they'd better call Newt out for what is has done and tell him that while they believe God forgives him, HE DOES NOT qualifiy as presidential material in the eyes of man.

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

    Is this guy running for a priest or for the presidency? Why is all that god talk in politics all the time? Why is it important? Are we that crazy? What is the year we write today, 1650???

    May 11, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  14. d

    haha i like the jerk picking his nose in the background!

    May 11, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
  15. The Big Kahuna

    HATERS!!!!!....you guys are just jealous that Newt got some and you didnt/wouldnt/couldnt....dont hate the player, hate the game.....

    May 11, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • Josh

      Wow. You are a literal idiot.

      May 11, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
  16. ed

    Newt's first wife was formerly his school teacher who he started secretly dating when he was 16 and she was 25.

    He left his first wife after she got uterine cancer.
    He left his second wife after she got multiple sclerosis.

    He asked two wives to marry him before he was divorced from the last.

    He had a 6 year affair with his current wife (our future 1st lady? LOL) behind his 2nd wife's back all while he was going after Clinton for his affair.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  17. thekaj

    Can someone explain to me what a radical Islamists athiest is? Seems like two of those words are counter to each other. But boy do they make a great boogy man to the Relgious Right

    May 11, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • ed

      It's an impossibility.

      May 11, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  18. Kmnla

    Gingrich says this will be a “secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists". Er, how does that work?

    May 11, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  19. Saxo Grammaticus

    I guess Gingrich didn't learn anything from Dick Nixon, so we WILL have Newt to kick around...

    May 11, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  20. Observer

    This is good news for Democrats. Gingrich is the PERFECT example of a "Moral Majority""family values" religious right hypocrite.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • Mike

      You said it. Bring on more wackos, more the merrier.

      May 11, 2011 at 4:55 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.