Callista Gingrich: Sign of the Times?

James Dobson, scourge of Spongebob and the Teletubbies, has found a live target. Speaking this weekend at a conference in Texas, he condemned Callista Gingrich as “a mistress for eight years.” Karen Santorum, who “set aside two professional careers to raise those seven children,” he said, would “make a fabulous first lady role model.”

Dobson’s very use of the word “fabulous” is sign enough the world’s spun right off its axis. But in Forbes, Victoria Pynchon predicts his point will land flush with many of the conservative evangelical Christians who make up his audience. “Lack of ‘purity’ in a First Lady is unforgivable,” she writes. The ‘First Man’s’ impurity (so long as it is heterosexual) can be given a pass.” In other words, in the world of the Christian right, what’s bad for the gander is infinitely worse for the goose.

It’s a hard proposition to test. In politics, outrage follows no logic save politics itself — Dobson may simply prefer Santorum’s hard-line stance on immigration to Gingrich’s somewhat gentler view. Or, to put it another way, would Dobson have swatted Sarah Palin with the same heavy hand had she won Todd away from his second wife? However Dobson’s attack may affect her husband’s bid for the presidential nomination, Callista Gingrich’s story is one that Catholics may soon have to start taking seriously.

To hear Catholic social critics tell it, American society turned into Sodom and Gomorrah sometime in the 1960s, and shows no sign of turning back. In large part, feminism, in all its forms and waves, is to blame. Rod Dreher’s condemnation of Stephen Daldry’s Academy Award-winning film The Hours features all the relevant tropes. It’s a “feminist film,” because Laura Brown, its heroine, abandons her family in pursuit of personal fulfillment, and doesn’t particularly blame herself for it. “We are meant to sympathize with this existential heroine instead of seeing her for what she is: a selfish, cold-hearted bitch who walked out on a decent man and two little children to go off in search of herself,” Dreher fumes. The essay’s title calls the film “An Apologia for Evil.”

Laura Brown defected from domesticity in the 1950s. Among women pundits, there seems to be a general consensus that the clock shouldn’t be turned completely back, nor all the toothpaste returned to the tube. Caitlin Flanagan has, at least according to Ann Hulbert, conferred on herself a kind of prophethood for having it all in a way neither traditional housewives nor feminists could ever have dreamed. “Thanks in part to a husband with a big paycheck, [Flanagan] works cozily from home, on hand for her now preteen twin boys, and in command of a panoply of household help…she scrutinizes the selfish pretensions and self-defeating contradictions that sprout like marigolds in affluent American mothers’ hearts and hearths.”

Flanagan’s ideas and delivery may have “ginned up a catfight” or two, as Hulbert puts it, but she’s not going away. Her contributing editorship at the Atlantic, her two books, her occasional spot on Colbert’s couch all attest that her collage of tradition and innovation is finding a receptive audience.

The Catholic blogosphere, at least, is filling up with women who are like Flanagan in the sense that they defend tradition, but do so in voices seasoned by modernity. Some have even violated the norms Dreher upholds (though not not a Laura Brownish degree), but repent with more brio, with more swagger, than tradition would likely have afforded them. At the Crescat, Katrina Fernandez, a divorced single mother, rails against feminism. On Shirt of Flame, Heather King, a self-described “ex-falling-down drunk,” calls following Christ a “metaphorical orgasm.” Margaret of Cortona they ain’t.

Callista Gingrich fits very neatly into this matrix. On the traditional side, she appears in public wearing triple strands of pearls, plus the helmetlike hairdo Amanda Marcotte believes could cut cheese. She’s written a children’s book, Sweet Land of Liberty, featuring an elephant named Ellis who “travels through American history, delivering lessons in rhyming couplets.” She has said she’d use the first lady’s platform to promote music education — “precisely the kind of uncontroversial passion that plays well with everyone,” according to Ariel Levy.

On the modern side — well, Callista’s husband has denied he asked his previous wife, Marianne, for an open marriage. Nevertheless, Callista has testified that she and Newt began their affair seven years before marrying. Now, a bare dozen years after the marriage, here she is, singing in the choir of the National Basilica, proudly bucking for first lady, and looking like she wouldn’t be caught dead at midnight in sackcloth.

Her role in Newt’s conversion looks like a new twist on woman’s old role as witness and redeemer. After the two married, reports Time Magazine, Newt “Gingrich found himself dragged to church whenever they traveled.” Callista, he says, is “adamant that we go to Mass.” This is pretty much what Clothilde of Burgundia did for Clovis, King of the Franks, back in the 5th century — only Clovis and Clothilde didn’t, in the interest of personal fulfillment, begin as illicit lovers or take advantage of generous divorce laws. Also, Newt hasn’t taken an axe to anyone for demanding more than his fair share of treasure, though God knows that could change.

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