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. JJsMom

    Newt the Hoot for President of what Planet? Uranus? What a JOKE, LOLOLOLOLOL!

    May 11, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
  2. tom

    So the Republican FINALLY has a candidate with a brain . . . and, of course, he is as evil as they can find. If he doesn't win, maybe he could run for Governor of Ohio next time around.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
  3. caitanni

    I personally do not care what a candidate for President has done with his tally-wagger. We are all human and we are born sinners. If a man could go through his life without sinning once, who would he be??? I want a president who knows how to run a country, could care less if he has cheated on his wife/wives or how many times he has been married. C'mon we elect "politicians" into office...how many of them do you think have lied or cheated to get where they are???

    May 11, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
    • dzerres

      That's not the point. Do you even pay attention? These guys on the right judge everyone else and then go commit even worse sins. That's called hypocrisy. Of course it shouldn't matter and it doesn't matter as long as you are not a hypocrite about it. Geez

      May 11, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
    • ProudAmerican

      It has more to do than just what he has done with what he has done with his "tally wacker" it has everthing to do with having morals and integrity ..If someone can cheat on his wife/wives even when she is in the hospital with cancer THEN having the gall trying to impeach a president for having an affair while he is doing the same thing. ..Arent you scared to think what other things he would do (has done) if he thinks he can get away with it. This is just what America needs, a president that people dont respect. Im sure other countries would think America has lost its minds completely and respect us, if we elected this snake to be our Commander in Chief.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
  4. Elias

    we also haven't forgotten his contract on America. All he will contribute to this election season is a good laugh. Newt is a joke.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
  5. DLayman

    Let's see: megalomania, drug problems, multiple divorces and treats women like crap. Who does this remind me of? I've got it! The Charlie Sheen of politics... ;*D

    May 11, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
  6. kdgnlnx

    LOL> LMAO! Good lick , Newt! I'm with you buddy.......I would't want you to call me Natzi now. HEY REPUBLICANS, HOW LOW ARE YOU WILLING TO GO?

    May 11, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
  7. Dave

    Confess your errors and all shall be forgiven....I wonder if the 2 wives he divorced while they were ill/hospitalized forgive him? Does his ex-wife forgive him for cheating on her while they married with a congressional aide?
    Converted to Catholicism.....how did that happen with a history of 2 divorces?

    This man has shown time and again his arrogance. Anyone who supports him should really look at themselves why they look to him as a role model. Wuld you want your kids to live like he had lived?

    I will give him that he has intellegence. Unfortunately, his morales are based in his pants. He is morally repugnant.

    He can say whatever he wants to say and do whatever he wants to do now, I can't wait till see how he is judged in the afterlife!

    May 11, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
    • Clark

      He's so smart he predicted Clinton's tax policies would (wait for it) "cost jobs and hinder the economy"... guess he was right on the money with that one.

      May 11, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
    • Archangel07

      Because like Newt the Cathloc church is filled with money hungry hypocrites.

      May 12, 2011 at 12:22 am |
  8. pdog

    no self respect.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
  9. Rex Raptor

    I hope he gets the nomination. Obama will steamroll him!

    May 11, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  10. greg

    he will have to sell his soul to win over fundamentalists...but he seems to be seasoned in betrayal so it may work out for him.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  11. Wellyesok

    How do you spell hypocrisy? N – E – W – T .

    May 11, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
    • Watcher

      I looked it up in the dictionary and newty's picture was there next to the definition.

      May 11, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  12. Enitan

    I am one of those conservative women and Newt will NOT get my vote.

    He was prosecuting Bill Clinton while cheating on his wife. What a hypocrite.

    What a waste of my tax money. He did the same thing twice. What a LIAR and now he wants to become the President of the United States?

    May 11, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
  13. paul

    Newt Gingrich is Satan's Spawn.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
  14. S. Durham

    Thanks be to God that there is a glimmer of hope for the GOP in the 2012 Election cycle. The list of possible candidates to date has been most grim. I believe Gingrich has a real chance at beating Obama. Especially if things continue to fall apart as they have.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
    • ProudAmerican

      You are delusional...

      May 11, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
    • ???

      Yeah, I mean if another terrorist mastermind is captured or killed under the current administration Obama is certainly doomed in the next election.

      May 11, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
    • dzerres

      What planet are you from? Gingrich is a serial philanderer and hypocrite who was pursuing the impeachment of Bill Clinton while DOING THE EXACT SAME THING AT THE EXACT SAME TIME. His God may have forgiven him (how does he know and do we need another president who has favorable dialogues with God) but most sane voters won't. And how does this clown get past the Catholic Church's ban on divorce and re-marriage? He should never have been allowed to convert much less stay with that outfit. If I were Catholic I'd be offended that he is one of my own.

      May 11, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
    • ScottK

      "I believe Gingrich has a real chance at beating Obama." At what? checkers? And is it just because he's not playing the "black" side? If you look at the two side by side after removing color you would have:

      Barack Hussein Obama: Christian centrist, upholds Bush era foreign policy & military spending, upheld Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, has been married once and never divorced family man.

      Newton Leroy McPherson: Christian conservative, claims he would uphold Bush era foreign policy & military spending, says he is for the Bush tax cuts, ditched his wife of 18 years while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery for a newer model in 1980, then ditched her for a much younger (23 years his junior) model in the mid 1990's all while spending our tax dollars on attempting to impeach a president for being unfaithful.

      May 11, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
  15. steven harnack

    So now secular atheists are going to join forces with radical Islamists? And he's supposed to be the GOP's intellectual? So all of these preachers know he has truly repented but they don't believe that President Obama is a christian because they only have his word that he is? Excuse me while I go and vomit!

    May 11, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
  16. MM

    Of course they will forgive him, isn't that what relgions all about.................

    May 11, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
    • Mitler

      No, it's not....

      May 11, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      My ex thought so. He was an evangelical Christian who believed that he could do whatever the heck he wanted as long as he admitted his "sins" and asked for forgiveness. It's cowardly, living your life without thought of actual consequences.

      May 11, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
  17. ScottK

    Doesn't the guy next to him in the picture look like he's removing a false mustache?

    May 11, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
    • Watcher

      More like ordering lunch/

      May 11, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      I thought he was "picking a winner."

      May 11, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
  18. cal usa

    I wonder how many of those values voters who are so big on forgiveness are just as willing to forgive Bill Clintonfor his affair. After all, he only cheated on his wife once, and they've stayed together. It would seem he only needs to be forgiven once. Newt is more of a serial philanderer, so he's going to need ongoing forgiveness and redemption.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
    • tom

      buy a clue. clinton had many many affairs. not that i care

      May 11, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
  19. nina

    That's why the right and left will never come to agreement – religious right expects a person to fail to meet the standard they proclaim and judge a person by the quality of their repentance and the left expects people to walk the talk and if you can't, then don't talk about it and create a problem for yourself


    May 11, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  20. marco

    news flash America. You are hated worldwide as much as terrorists.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
    • Just Another Commentator

      News Flash: We know you pretentious, assuming global trash. Now eat a missile or three.

      May 11, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
    • Watcher

      Yo Marco, Yawn! We will be coming over to kick your butt soon... Stay put.

      May 11, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
    • herpaderp

      Watcher summed up Marco's post quite well.

      May 11, 2011 at 6:40 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.