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. JeChr

    Newt lacks the moral character to be president.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
  2. CEL1

    Mentioning Christ in his speeches ? Even Satan can do that. He needs to turn his life around and stop all the hate, then I'll believe that Christ is in his heart. Right now, he looks to me more like Satan is in his heart and his mind. I would not doubt that he is the antiChrist.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
  3. Stella

    The affairs are less of an issue than the fact he used an affair to speak out against Bill Clinton while he himself was having affairs. Clearly he sees himself as above the laws that he applies to others and that excludes him from any future that involves making laws that affect me. I would vote for my cat before I'd vote for this hypocritical clown.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      I'd vote for you cat, too, Stella. Cats never try to hide the fact that they are completely self-absorbed, hedonistic creatures.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      Oops, make that "your cat." Sigh. . . I hate it when that happens.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
  4. Apeman

    Isn't that how Hitler did it? Get the stupid, gullible, missinformed, uneducated on your side (teaparty/birthers), then attack the opposition and all the banjo country sheep fall in line? Problem is, there are too many intelligent people in the USA that will laugh at this ploy.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
  5. Matt

    The great slimy, lying, wh0r1ng, hypocrite is running. Obama 2012 it is! Boy he sure made that hard.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
  6. Just.Me

    Lord God Almighty, save us from this man. Amen.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
  7. carlos

    of course he will not cheat again, his weenie is not up to its task.......how, with all his sins, he was able to be allowed to convert?????

    May 11, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
  8. Jeff

    Another Republican loser. Great.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
  9. hownowbrowncow

    I see two faces, but wonder how many there really are. President? I don't think so.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
  10. Sean

    He just needs to mention Christ more in his speeches. Then all will be forgiven.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • Jesus

      True....it's all about conning the weak minded evangelicals.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
  11. Chris

    Newt, this is the mainstream media. We have been waiting 15 years for this opportunity to defame and slander you into submission. We are tired of writing stories everyday about Sarah Palin and her children. We want fresh conservative meat. We hated you in the 90's and our hatred has only grown as you appeared regularly on Foxnews who destroys us in the ratings. Our daily assault on you will continue even as our ratings continue to go into the tank.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
    • Brian

      LOL! Awesome post

      May 11, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
  12. Brian

    I doubt there is a single conservative anywhere who won't come out to vote against the fool we have as president right now

    May 11, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
    • Jesus

      A "fool"? Obama is Harvard educated, a legal scholar, and well disciplined decision maker who will run against some huckster Pastor (Huckabee), a skirt chaser (Gingrich), and Romney (a staunch supporter of Obama's healthcare system when Gov. of Mass and pro-abortion who denies all of that today.). That's the field that is running against Obama! Enjoy!

      May 11, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
  13. Ed - Spring, TX

    I I don't judge a person's character based upon multiple divorces and affairs but I do question that person's judgement. I believe that this is sign of impulsiveness. Do we need that in a president? I don't think so.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
    • Brian

      Ya... we wouldn't want our president to shut down oil drilling after the first spill in 20 years, or who would call a bunch of white cops racist for arresting an unruly black professor, or who would bomb Libya out of nowhere, or who would sue a state for trying to protect it's borders

      May 11, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
  14. Transaction

    This is the same guy who led Clinton impeachment trial while he himself was cheating on his wife!

    Are Republicans so blind that they can't see his hypocrisy???

    For those who forgot the past:

    May 11, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • ProudAmerican

      .Everyone needs to go and read this.... Thanks for posting this link..

      May 11, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
  15. Carl, Secaucus, NJ

    “Secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists"–well, which is it? Whatever you think of radical Islamists, you wouldn't call them secular atheists!

    May 11, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
  16. Rob

    Another Republican hypocrite. Great. Just what we need. This guy is lower than low. Leaving your cancer stricken wife for another woman. Affairs. He can apologize all he wants, but his actions speak to his nature as a human being. Shifty, slimy, and not trustworthy. If this is the best the GOP can do, good luck! Should make for an entertaining election cycle. Interesting how no one with any real smarts or credibility wants to be associated with the right wing religious fundies these days.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  17. Bob

    READ THE BLOGS MISTER...Everyone hates you like they hate Sarah Palin. Why on Earth would you ruin you're party and run for President?
    p.s. Your an idiot also.

    From a Conservatave

    May 11, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • Jesus

      Barry Goldwater would flip in his grave, if he knew who were the front runners in the GOP.

      May 11, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
  18. pri1ncess

    Lies, liar, adulterer that makes him a fine Republican.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • Jesus

      With Gingrich in the mix and Tiger Woods failing at every golf tournament, I see a political future for Tiger. He just has to ditch all that Buddhist stuff and jump on the Christian bandwagon.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
  19. Andrew

    Here is my problem with Newt. He has had 2 affairs with his secretaries that led to the destruction of his marriages. Who wants him to the voice of the moral far right. We all know how his Contract with America ended in 2008. More debt and over 100 weeks of unemployement payments to millions of Americans. I will not be voting for him.

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

      It's all about milking the dolts in the evangelical world. They "forgive" everybody. All it takes is a good speech, some crocodile tears, and a bent head and tightly closed eyes in a prayer.

      May 11, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
  20. Hmm

    The question is who is happier about Newt's official entrance into the campaign, Huckabee or Obama?

    May 11, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
    • Heywood Jablomeh

      Actually the happiest is Newt! Let's not forget "Laptops for the Poor." My all time favorite idea from morally bankrupt stooge. I'm guessing the powers that be understand whomever runs is going to be a sacrificial lamb in the same way as McSame was 2 yrs ago...and the right didn't really like him either. Say what you will about George, his lasting impact will be felt for a while yet, just not how they imagined. Go Biden 2016.

      May 11, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • stormsun

      Either way it works to President Obama's advantage. Gingrich is going to learn, if he doesn't know already, that the GOP is going to pay for many years for its sin: cozying up to the religious right, which in return for support requires adherence to certain religious doctrine. This is the very reason religion and politics should never be mixed. Thomas Jefferson understood that over 200 years ago.

      May 11, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • Jesus

      Huckabee belives that a guy lived in a whale, is convinced that another fellow loaded two of every animalls in a handbuilt boat, but denies Darwin's theory of evolution. Gingrich believes in tapping into every good looking babe within 50 yards.

      That's the GOP field!!

      May 11, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
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