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June 1, 2011

Gingrich Woos Skeptical Evangelical Voters

His marital past may be too much for some conservative Republicans.

As evangelicals and other social conservatives gather here this weekend (June 3-4) to take the measure of a number of Republican presidential candidates, Newt Gingrich will be conspicuously absent.

Gingrich’s campaign cited scheduling conflicts in not speaking to Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition, but his absence will nonetheless prompt questions about his ability to woo politically minded religious voters, and leave some voters’ concerns unanswered.

To be sure, the former House speaker has made the rounds in trying to line up early support, especially in Iowa, where religious conservatives are a major force in the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses.

He’s paid a courtesy call to San Antonio megachurch pastor John Hagee and also stopped by the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and a gathering of Hispanic evangelicals, always trying to reaffirm his commitment to God and country.

Even so, some political observers expect his marital past -- three marriages, two divorces and an admitted affair with the woman who became his current wife -- to be too much for some conservative voters.

"There are some who will look over that because Newt is a political genius," said Tamara Scott, the Iowa director of Concerned Women for America. "There are others who have concerns that this man couldn’t keep his marriage together and how can you run the White House and the country if you can’t keep your own home in order? I’ve heard all of it."

But Gingrich, who has talked openly about his past failings, has a compelling narrative for religiously minded voters who appreciate a good conversion story.

"People are not, by and large, going to be sidetracked by somebody’s past behavior," said Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. "We’re all sinners and people make mistakes."

Indeed, Iowa pastor Jeff Mullen, who has hosted Gingrich at his church in Waukee, cited ancient Israel’s King David, who was a murderer and an adulterer and yet is described in the Bible as a "man after God’s own heart."

"I personally don’t think (Gingrich) needs to ask my forgiveness for anything," Mullen said.

Gingrich’s nascent campaign is already off to a rocky start. After savaging the House GOP plan to overhaul Medicare, and racking up a bill at Tiffany & Co. of up to $500,000, Gingrich’s "Positive Intensity Score" now trails all other GOP candidates, according to Gallup’s most recent analysis.

His political baggage isn’t new: a March poll by the Pew Research Center found Gingrich was the first choice of 11 percent of white evangelicals, lower than Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney and significantly lower than Mike Huckabee, who has since withdrawn from the race.

As he attempts to both launch and repair his bid for the White House, Gingrich has held get-to-know-you meetings with evangelical activists. California pastor Jim Garlow, who became chairman of Gingrich’s "Renewing American Leadership" nonprofit, left his session with a better impression.

"I found him to be very transparent," said Garlow, pastor of Skyline Wesleyan Church in La Mesa, Calif., of his discussion of Gingrich’s "moral and marital failures" in a private meeting. "There was no defensiveness at all."

But some evangelical leaders say Gingrich still has work to do.

"Men are much more willing to cut him some slack than women are," said Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land, who said he’s asked hundreds of Southern Baptists what they think of Gingrich and his past. "I find that women don’t trust him and it doesn’t help that he’s married to the `other woman."‘

Gingrich, who was a Southern Baptist until he joined the Roman Catholic Church in 2009, is married to his third wife, Callista, a lifelong Catholic who sings in the choir at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.

Land, for one, thinks Gingrich needs to give an honest address about his past failings, similar to John F. Kennedy’s Houston speech about his Catholic beliefs, or Mitt Romney’s 2007 defense of his Mormonism.

"Don’t try to explain it," Land said he’s advised Gingrich, who he said would think about it. "Just confess it and ask for forgiveness."

Reed, who will host this weekend’s Washington gathering as he attempts to revive his old Christian Coalition kingmaker role, predicted evangelicals will consider Gingrich as long as he speaks about his past mistakes and his current faith in God.

"I think there’s a misconception that evangelicals engage in identity voting," Reed said, citing as evidence divorced Ronald Reagan’s win over evangelical Jimmy Carter.

Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler said the candidate has not shied away from the topic, discussing it "courageously and honestly" whenever asked.

In a March interview on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, Gingrich spoke frankly about his marital past.

"I was doing things that were wrong and yet I was doing them. I found that I felt compelled to seek God’s forgiveness. … I do believe in a forgiving God."

During the 2008 campaign season, he confessed on James Dobson’s "Focus on the Family" program that he was having an affair while calling for President’s Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal.

Even so, Tyler acknowledged that some evangelicals may not be able to consider Gingrich.

"Newt has made peace with God over his failings and people can determine for themselves if it’s a disqualifier or not," Tyler said. "The people that I’m talking to are more concerned about finding someone who could beat Obama because he is so antithetical to their values, as opposed to picking someone who is perfect."

Comments

I don't trust a man who has been unfaithful to his wife.

Reagan's first marriage did fail, but by all accounts, marital infidelity was not the cause. There is no comparison between Reagan and Newt on this issue.

Strange that politicians always find religion and redemption around election time and return to their old ways when your votes are no more needed. Only suckers fall for that again and again

@ AlanM I think you just summed up the nature of much of American politics.

I agree with every one of these comments. I think Gingrich is fooling himself if he thinks his conversion to Catholicism and/or "repentance" is going to make any difference to evangelicals. If a man can't be trusted by his wife, he can't be trusted by the country. Good comments all.

As a lifelong Evangelical who has spit his vote about evenly over my 55 year voting career, I've observed that no candidate for President - and more recently for any other office - can be so depraved that nomination by the Republican party cannotredeem him or her.

It is sad that at this time when we have a sincere and competent professing Christian in the White House Republican Evangelicals are twisting themselves into pretzels trying to justfy opposition to him even if it means supporting a three-time adulterer.

How can non-believers take seriously the religion of those who don't take it serious enoough themselves to make critical distinctions between Party and principle?

The rules don't apply to "political geniuses"? Or pastors? Or the current "sings in the choir" spouse who broke up the second marriage with the wife who broke up the first marriage? What am I missing here? Gingrich is not invited to speak at the FF meeting hosted by Ralph Reed, colleague of Jack Abramoff? What am I missing here?

Our conservative theological position need not be governed by conservative political personages!

If you are one who automatically dismisses Gingrich because of his past, I echo the words of Jesus: He who is without sin cast the first stone. I think God allows men like Gingrich to come into the spotlight to see what His so-called grace-full children are going to do. I'm saddened by the ignorant comments already lodged because of a man's past. Yes, it is important, but if the man is repentant, honest, and transparent, who are any of us to condemn. Woe to you who are so haughty that you fail to exemplify the love of Jesus.

I'd like to ask Tony with his magnamanous attitude toward sinners how he felt about supporting Bill Clinton for a second term.

I agree that there is full forgiveness for those who confess their sins and seek forgiveness. That forgiveness is from God, not their fellow man. We too should be willing to allow sinners to rebuild their lives and do honorable work again after a mistake but there are mistakes big enough, and repeated often enough to disqualify one for designation as the "Christian" candidate.

Lets get honest here. It is a lot easier to be forgiving of someone whose professed political philosophy matches our own. It is all about politics and economics, not about righteousness and theology.

Yes, Christians must forgive someone when they have sinned, whether they be Newt Gingrich or Bill Clinton. But forgiveness and trust are not one and the same thing. If someone has commited a financial crime, while they should be forgiven, they should not be placed in a position where they have access to funds not their own. If someone has abused children, they should be forgiven, but never be placed in a position where they care for children. And if someone repeatedly violates their wedding vows, that person should be forgiven, yet should not be trusted with an office one has to take an oath to acquire.

Funny how if one is a republican, It is were all just sinners, I was told by a kooky preacher and one of his sidekicks when I asked why they couldn't get over Clinton, and was told how Clinton desecrated the white house. These same boobs had said how God was really going to give it to the democrats, whatever that means. These people worry more about someone getting a blowjob than they do about their republican heros selling the American people these nutty wars and killing 10s of thousands of people who were never a threat to any of us here in the U S. I notice that these same folks do not mention Obamas war mongering even though so many of them believe he is the anti Christ. This whole world has gone madd and so many of the evangelicals are the crazy of the crazies. And these people believe their scorned for following Jesus. : (

What do non-Caholics object to more -- Gingrich's marital record or his conversion to Catholicism/

As a non-Catholic I can answer your question @US Catholic. We object to his marital record. If anything, we may be surprised that Catholics don't object to it more. But like Sam Brownback of Kansas did, we wonder if he converted to give himself more credibility. I'd be really surprised if anyone objects to his being Catholic. I certainly don't.

Gingrich is a professional politician on the national stage, and true to form for this reason an ardently committed supporter of anti-Christian, violently racist zionism.

Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition I have a question. What casinos funded this event? Or maybe Trump footed the bill. Dear Evangelicals, we must do better and live and work for the csuse of Christ, not for these politicians.