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. 21k

    imagine that old,mushy white body shmushing and sweating all over calista while still being married to wife #2. ugh! well, gop, he's your candidate, defend him. either she's a real %^&*(, or he's shwingin' a real big club!

    May 11, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      Eeew! TMI!

      May 11, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
  2. Richard

    If he becomes president, be prepared for the little head to run the country

    May 11, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  3. ScottK

    Newt running for the "Christian Conservative" republican ticket is like Porky Pig running for Prime Minister of Isreal.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  4. Brian

    This is a stupid story. As soon as he announces his candidacy, CNN publishes a smear story about him. I'm no Gingrich fan, nor a Republican, but CNN's bias is absurd. Please try reporting the news rather than editorializing.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
    • Trevor

      Hey Brian where is the smear? I don't see it. CNN is simply reporting the facts.

      May 11, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      Brian, I'm with Trevor, I don't see a smear in this story. In fact, it contains a lot of statements from pundits and Gingrich's supporters eager to explain and forgive his past. How is that a smear?

      May 11, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
  5. carnival barker

    no chance in hell

    May 11, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
  6. MM

    Once the conservative realize that they need to dump the crazy Christians and all of their issues that do nothing but divide this country, they will win most elections. I am an independent and would have voted for McCain until he picked his running mate. MILLIONS of other Americans faced a similar choice and voted for Obama, simply because they do not want the Gov legislating what occurs in the bed room, not do they want books being banned from libraries. politic is about compromise and in religion, their is no compromise. hence their is no place for it in politics. Too bad the GOP still hasn't quite figured it out.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
  7. malmec

    Steven Tyler is a better choice.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
  8. El Kababa

    It must be nice for Conservatives to have a candidate who is both smart AND evil. Usually, they have to choose one or the other.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
  9. Eric

    It's laughable that he's speculating that a secular athiest country has the potential to be dominated by radical islamists. Doesn't he realize that the two ideologies are complete opposites?

    May 11, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
    • Hmm

      He has never let things like facts stop him.

      May 11, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      Not to mention the fact that secular and atheist are two completely different things.

      May 11, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
  10. Tom

    Apologies are not enough, We need records and forms. Both long and short form records of divorce, trials, confessions, citizenship, birth. Now is the time to make all these records public so that Republicants can make informed decisions. Release the information now. If they are not released now we can assume that he is hiding something. Past explanations and short forms are not good enough. We need a full record.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
  11. Theo

    As a registered republican I must say I'm disgusted, there are many better choices out there, this adulterating sob should be ashamed to even show his ugly face on national television.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
  12. Hmm

    I don't think this guys is qualified to win the GOP nomination. Has he ever been a reality TV star?

    May 11, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
  13. Horace V

    A man who cheats on his wife is a man of low moral caliber. Of course, most politicians are people of low moral caliber so what's the difference?

    May 11, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • Theo

      This jellyfish did it while his wife was dying of cancer, talk about stepping it up a notch.
      Compassionate conservatism?

      May 11, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
  14. Todd

    Eye of Newt is dreaming and America is having yet another nightmare with this announcement.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
  15. Joni A

    Where was Newt Gingrich born again? Georgia, former Soviet Union? Let's see his long birth certificate and college transcript.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
  16. Kath

    Let him run!!!!! Go Newt, Go!!! Obama will be a 2-term prez for sure!!!

    May 11, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
  17. teddybear

    He has displayed complete lack of character in his personal life and for me, that counts big time .....3 marriages...serial adultery....blowing off wives one and 2 when they were sick in the hospital with cancer! This is not presidential material

    May 11, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
    • Brian

      he is a generational mind but your post s true, huge character flaws, too many to be Pres

      May 11, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  18. roadrunner

    I wish he would just go away. America doesn't need his type of hypocrisy.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
  19. JAMES

    I think he should appear along with other presidential candidates in BAGGAGE.
    Baggage is a game show.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
  20. MsDad

    What a joke.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:14 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.