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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. CYNDY

    The fact this immoral man evens thinks about running shows he has no shame and his ego is larger than his sense of right and wrong for the country. All the while he was condemning Clinton for his cheating, he was cheating himself – disgusting. He cannot hold a candle to Obama, I hope America realizes all Obama has done for this country and will vote for a second term. I believe he has proved to be the best President in my 60 years!

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

      I'm over 60, and like Obama a lot, I doubt he'll be as effective as Clinton, but he's leagues better than Bush or any of the current crop of clowns the GOP is parading about.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
  2. Asturiano

    Low belly pond effluence.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
  3. LouAz

    Isn't this the guy that stole Xmas ?

    May 11, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  4. keylargo

    This just in: Gingrich favorabilty rating nears positive numbers!

    May 11, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  5. Karen

    Oh boy, the GOP sign up list gets better and better. I want to see palin, trump and newt go for it. Now that's entertainment.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      Commedians all over the country are salivating!

      May 11, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
  6. Lucian Stone

    Forget it Newt. You are neut[ered]. You should have tried this before you had so much fun with the ladies. Repentence doesn't work in politics. And neither does political repentence work either. You are just too nasty–both in your personal and your political life. Go home, make love to your most recent acquaintance and read the news.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  7. Cleigh

    This guy has a lot of nerve.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
  8. hank

    when he was speaker, he quit because he messed up big time. His record as a national leader is very bad, as are his multiple marriages. There is not much here to like.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
  9. JT

    The Jesus fanatics will fall all over themselves to vote for this slimeball. Evangelicals have quite the track record and the most gullible people alive.

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

      Pretty sure most won't. But your can keep your bigotry and stew in it.

      May 11, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
  10. Pablo695

    Gingrich is DOA and that only that one who does not see that is Gingrich...

    To forgive him for one adulterous affair – sure. But after three scandalous affairs – not a chance!

    May 11, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
  11. SoSad

    I doubt there is a single conservative anywhere who won't come out to vote against this fool Gingrich who wants to be President. He's a liar, cheat, sinner, oh, he might make it then for the Republicans.........

    May 11, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
  12. DEUCE

    TIME TO PUT ON OUR LOLLERSKATES!!!

    LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLO

    May 11, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      How did you do that?

      May 11, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
  13. Bruce

    “Among evangelicals, the drama of sin and redemption is well understood,” No, among nearly all of us, integrity and honesty is well understood.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
  14. Carl, Secaucus, NJ

    Don't give me that stuff about "defame and slander," Chris. If Newt hadn't done what he did, he wouldn't be trying to make up for it now with "values voters." I think adultery is a private matter, but he made it a public issue when he went after Clinton for the same thing he had done.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
    • Pete Beck

      Although I'm a Republican, I couldn't agree more. Clinton tried to sell us on selective integrity, and Gingrich is trying the same thing. If a man's wife can't trust him why should we?

      May 11, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
  15. Will

    Plain and simple...it just ain't gonna happen. No way he gets elected president.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
  16. Seenen

    Wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust envy and gluttony. The seven deadly sins and also a good description of Gingrich.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
  17. Anthony

    Gingrich has to realize that his popularity in the Republican party is from a "Fringed" group. He does not have but a small percentage of the party. This is going to be like going to a comedy show when you see who is running for President.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
  18. Silver Rave

    If he is truly a changed man, he shouldn't run for president in the first place. forget politics and you one step closer to God.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
  19. Mike4Freedom

    When CNN announced this news on their e-mail alert system, they said that Newt was the first of the serious candidates to announce. This was a gross violation of the news/opinion divide. In saying that, they said that Newt was serious but Ron Paul was not. That is a libel to the only qualified candidate in the race, Dr. Paul.

    May 11, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
    • Hmm

      He is polling above Paul both nationally and within the GOP. The problem with Paul is he has a ceiling of about 10% for national support.

      May 11, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
    • bill

      Ron Paul is about a viable candidate as my 9 year old daughter. He ran last time and barely got enough votes to even be mentioned on election night.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
    • Robert

      Ron Paul supporters are so cute. You almost wish that you wouldn't have to tell them three truths;

      There is no Santa Claus

      There is no Easter Bunny

      Ron Paul will never be elected president because when it comes down to it his ideas wold never work

      May 11, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      Not sure about the "qualified" bit, but I would vote for Dr. Paul over Newt.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
  20. AZRUSure

    This fellow will do ANYTHING, say ANYTHING and is pressed for cash. Follow the money on this clown. He couldn't wait to push clinton into the lions den while he was having an affair.. This guy is a glory hound and is a the poster child for GOP... "bought and paid for"...

    May 11, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
    • RAMBLE3144

      CNN

      Make sure you slam him as you are a "fair" news org.

      May 11, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
    • Scott, GA

      This is the man who was having an affair-while his wife was battling cancer-then divorced her-married his mistress and
      wanted to impeach Clinton . He is now on wife #3-like Trump. He is a joke to the state of GA and the nation.
      His ego knows no bounds-another Trump trait-and he thinks he has a remote chance of being elected. We didn't
      forget your adultery years ago and we won't now. He is a self serving hypocrite-that just needs to go away!

      May 11, 2011 at 7:08 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.