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.

  • jkm

    This piece is as sharp as Callista’s hair. Love the Clothilde and Clovis comparison. This opens up the discussion on “devout Catholic” Mrs Gingrich in ways women can’t or won’t go. Thanks!

  • Billy

    It’s an impediment to enter the Church if you have a prior marriage, let alone 2 of them. Some parishes may even advise you that any marriage outside the church requires an annulment. Yet, Newt is Catholic now, isnt he? Whatever the hurdles, he’s been received into the Church. There was an issue when John Kerry was running for President that maybe he shouldn’t receive Communion because of his support for abortion. I haven’t heard anything similar about Newt relative to his past bad conduct.

    So we have a man who has been received into the Church who committed some grave sins in his past. What are we as Catholics to do with him now? St Augustine he ain’t. But do we hold that past against him and if so to what extent?

  • From The Pews

    And this one is going down in the book for all Eternity…

    “In politics, outrage follows no logic save politics itself.”
    ~ Max Lindenman

  • Dcn Chip


    If Speaker Gingrich was validly received into the Church at the time of his conversion, then his two previous marriages would have had to be dealt with canonically, no? So, unless we suspect foul play on the part of the Church , and complicity in Speaker Gingrich’s becoming Catholic illicitly…wouldn’t we have to assume that his marriages were properly dealt with, and that the and his wife have received the sacrament of reconciliation (which would have, by definition, dealt with the sin of their prior affair, if properly confessed and repented)?

    Get me not wrong: I am not a Gingrich fan. But daggonnit, how dare we sit in judgment on our pedestals, assuming that something sinister has occurred and that they really aren’t worthy to hold the places they do at the Basilica, and in the Church? Speaker Gingrich’s Catholicism is no bonus ticket for his run for the Presidency. If anything, it is a drag. So, if they are sacramentally reconciled to the Church, then they are sacramentally reconciled to ALL of us. And we need to just hush about their past sins (especially if we don’t know details, and have no cause to need to discuss them).

    The sacraments either do what they are supposed to…or we’re all fools. So…which is it?

  • Dcn. Jay

    Well said, Dcn. Chip!

  • Beatrice

    I am catholic and once you repent and go to confession and are SINCERE, ( operative word ) The the sins are put behind you , as every catholic who has ever sinned and repented knows. Of course, if he is only doing it for show , then he is the one that will have to answer for it, not to the public. So, give him his due. if you don’t like him don’t vote for him, if you think he would make a good president, vote , Please.. don’t foul him for his past. How many of you would like your past made public? Think of that if you want to make a good decision….I am not sure who I would vote for yet but if he is nominated I would vote for him, to keep an abortion candidate from winning again.

  • Joyce

    Yea, and how many of us have cheated on the former wife with the current wife, two times removed. I would never want this kind of cheater as president. If he has no problem cheating on two ex-wives, he’d certainly have no problem cheating on America. He knew his wives; he doesn’t know us.

  • daisy

    Like most college girls 30 years ago I was for all practical purposes a little slut. I’ve confessed, repented and changed forever. Thankfully I don’t have my husband’s critics throwing it up in my face every day. Get off Callista’s back unless you want to say that St. Margaret of Cortona, St. Mary of Egypt, St. Pelagia and St. Mary Magdalene are not in Heaven.

  • Holly in Nebraska

    The big problem is that it isn’t really over. It’s not really in the past. If you are regretful of adultery, don’t you give that person up? If she is so sorry, why didn’t she tell him to go back to his wife? Where is the regret? “I’m so sorry I’ve been having sex with your husband. Please forgive me. I’m make it better. He’ll divorce you and marry me. That makes it all better now, doesn’t it?” I’ve asked before, if I rob a bank and say I’m sorry, can I keep the money?

    I think if Newt had married some other person with whom he had not committed adultery, he’s still a dirty rotten scoundrel but at least there is room for remorse.

    You’d think this particular hat trick on his resume would be a problem, but a lot of Americans are in the same or similar boat with their marriages, so I don’t expect it will matter much in the voting booth. I don’t see it happening 30 years ago, so I guess it is a sign of the times.

  • Dotty

    i think he just uses his religion for his own personal gain. Why else would he be attending church at one of the largest Baptist churches on the west coast of Florida on the Sunday before the primary…and why did he even make it public that that was where he was going?