March 2, 2009
Gingrich to Convert to Catholicism
Buried in an large New York Times Magazine profile of Newt Gingrich is a little nugget of information: A Baptist since graduate school, Gingrich said he will soon convert to Catholicism, his wife's faith.
At a moment when the role of religious fundamentalism in the party is a central question for reformers, Gingrich, rather than making any kind of case for a new enlightenment, has in fact gone to great lengths to placate Christian conservatives. The family-values crowd has never completely embraced Newt, probably because he has been married three times, most recently to a former Hill staff member, Callista Bisek. In 2006, though, Gingrich wrote a book called "Rediscovering God in America" - part of a new canon of work he has done reaffirming the role of religion in public life. The following year, he went on radio with the evangelical minister James Dobson to apologize for having been unfaithful to his second wife.
The Rev. G. Avery Lee, a longtime pastor of St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans who died earlier this year, wrote to The Times-Picayune about Gingrich's faith.
"He was not a member of any church," Pastor Lee wrote in a 1994 letter to The Times-Picayune. "He said that in his study of political theory he noted how much influence the church had had on political theory and asked if I could explain."
After their initial conversation, "We talked often. Newt began coming to church. To make it short, I baptized him (by immersion) into the membership of the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church.
"He found there a liberal approach to both theology and sociology. . . . Whether our teachings had any effect or not, he was at least exposed to the basic Baptist principle of freedom: personal freedom before God, an open mind before an open Bible, the separation of church and state, and compassion toward other people as sinners saved by the grace of God.
"He also may have learned that we Baptists fuss and fight a lot with each other. It has been suggested by some that in baptizing him, I didn't hold him under long enough."
Update: A Focus on the Family employee emailed me to note that Dobson is not a minister as Matt Bai describes him for The New York Times. Dobson founded a ministry called Focus on the Family.