Gingrich as anti-evangelical icon

NewtCover.jpgWhen a story’s headline is as ambitious as “Why Newt Gingrich Converted to Catholicism,” a reader might hope for a meaty report that addresses the question with insights from friends rather than with speculation. Amy Sullivan’s report for Time mostly does not deliver, except for a few good quotations from the convert himself and from his third wife, Callista.

Sullivan perceives Gingrich’s conversion with witty skepticism, and that’s fair. She points out his historic non-interest in abortion and school prayer, his gestures toward a presidential bid and his quirky piety, which does not rule out his dipping into a novel while waiting for a Mass to begin at the Basilica of the National Shrine.

I believe Sullivan’s report falters most in this segment, about midway through:

Unlike Evangelicals, for whom conversion is often an emotional, born-again experience, Catholic converts tend to make more of a considered decision to join a theological and intellectual tradition. “Conservatives are especially receptive to the promise of there being some capital-T truth that one can embed one’s convictions in,” says Damon Linker, a former editor of the Catholic journal First Things.

Gingrich describes the appeal of Catholicism for him in just these terms. “When you have 2,000 years of intellectual depth surrounding you,” he told me on a recent summer morning, “it’s comforting.” There’s also cachet in conservative political circles to being Catholic. Until their deaths in the past year, Father Richard John Neuhaus and National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. presided over an intellectual haven for conservatives put off by Evangelicals who rail against experts and élites.

Here we have two generalizations broad enough to accommodate a few tanks, driving side by side: Evangelicals’ conversions are often emotional rather than considered, and evangelicals (with no qualifying often this time) rail against experts and élites. Claiming that Neuhaus provided an intellectual haven from these unnamed evangelical populists is especially rich, considering that Neuhaus was a chief architect of the long-lived Evangelicals and Catholics Together project.

I do not doubt that significant numbers of evangelicals experience emotional conversions, or that some are skeptical of experts and élites. Sullivan never establishes, however, that Gingrich was ever drawn toward evangelicalism, or what specific great truths drew Gingrich into Catholicism. Rather, she implies that his conversion had as much to do with his wife’s insistence on attending Mass regularly.

Sullivan neglects a trickier question: Did the circumstances of Gingrich’s two previous marriages pose any difficulties for a church that still attaches disciplines to its teachings against divorce?

Sullivan strikes the right tone of tentativeness about what Gingrich’s faith will mean for his political future. That makes the rabbit trail about evangelicals especially strange, and gives this story an unfortunate odor of blowing smoke.

Image: Newt Gingrich’s first of five appearances on the cover of Time, Jan. 9, 1995.

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  • David

    Gingrich has never struck me as authentic. A smart man, he has obvious moral limitiations and his faith has never seemed authentic. He’s opportunistic, and knows the right words to say to tickle our ears.

    David Rupert

  • jh

    Talk about a article that with such a headline tells us nothing. Why write it if you have nothing to add. Oh and quoting Damon Linker as some authority who worte a book on Conservatives and their plot to install a tehocracy please.

  • Chris Baker

    When did First Things become a”Catholic” publication? Or did Chuck Colson, David Goldman, Timothy George and NT Wright swim the Tiber when I wasn’t looking? Or do we all look alike to Time magazine.
    Boy, Claire Luce would be ticked off!

  • MichaelV

    Well, y’know, it seems like when some people think of Christianity and conversion they think of Evangelicals (that vaguely defined mob) first and maybe last.

    I’m also uncomfortable with the “emotional Evangelicals, intellectual Catholics” generalization… I can understand where that’s coming from, but it’s way too generalized and can be seen as insulting to both groups, as though Evangelical converts are stupid and Catholic converts are passionless.

  • Davis

    First Things, under the control of Neuhaus and Bottum, was clearly a traditionalist Catholic magazine. You definitely aren’t going to read anything critical of the Vatican inside those covers.

    As for Neuhaus providing an intellectual haven from Evangelicals, the fact he founded the political coalition under ECT hardly disputes that point. ECT was, and is, a tool for bringing Evangelicals into the Catholic-approved political agenda, and not vice versa.

  • Mike

    When I worked as a messenger in DC, I met Mr. Gingrich going up in an elevator at 1401 K. He was really nice and shook my hand and talked to me like a person. He seemed very genuine and not at all like the many DC lobbyists and lawyers.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    As for Neuhaus providing an intellectual haven from Evangelicals, the fact he founded the political coalition under ECT hardly disputes that point. ECT was, and is, a tool for bringing Evangelicals into the Catholic-approved political agenda, and not vice versa.

    Funny, but I thought the name reflected the reality of Catholics and evangelicals working together on points of common theological concern, rather than a Catholic-approved political agenda.

    Neuhaus did not found ECT alone, but along with his good friend, the evangelical layman Charles Colson.

    For readers interested in primary sources, the project published two books: Evangelicals and Catholics Together and Your Word Is Truth.

  • danr

    With this, Time has lost any remaining readership among all of us emotional, intellectually shallow, “T”ruth-lacking evangelicals. We’d rather spend time finding experts and elites to rail against.

  • Maureen

    As a middle-aged Catholic, I have to ask: what’s wrong with reading a novel before Mass? Crimony, a little devotional reading never hurt anyone, and the definitions are rather broad. Besides, his wife’s in choir there, so he’s bound to get there pretty darned early.

    This is not to say that engaging in deep meditation for 45 minutes before Mass would be unworthy; but as long as you’re not making a lot of noise or reading porn, the considerable freedom of a child to God includes being able to read books of your choosing before Mass to kill time.

    A lot of people purposefully study for big tests or plan papers in the Lord’s presence at Perpetual Adoration, btw. Sort of a prayer for guidance by being there.

  • David Murdoch

    I hadn’t heard about Newt converting to catholicism until after I saw this blog… I doubt that they would discipline him for divorce, the church doesn’t really employ much discipline in the modern age.

    The catholic church is the true church established by Christ and all people are called to join it.

    God Bless,

  • Maureen

    It was announced by the archdiocese at some point that Newt’s previous marriages and divorces had been sorted out in the Rota (or whatever the term is), and that his current marriage with Callista is therefore a sacramental marriage. Don’t know if all that happened before or after he married Callista; not my business, because it’s all right and tight now.

    This was indeed important, because you generally aren’t allowed to convert (and thus receive the Sacraments) unless you’ve got your marriage situation sorted out; or if you are allowed, you have to live as brother and sister until it is sorted. This is a Very Big Issue in RCIA programs at parishes, as often the spouse who’s not converting is the spouse with previous divorces, and doesn’t see any point going through the canon law process and possibly being told no.

  • Dave

    Had the article gone into the resolution of Newt’s marriage situation it would simultaneously have had more relevant religious content and been more interesting.

  • Francis X. Maier

    First Things never was, and isn’t, a “Catholic journal.” Much less a “traditionalist” one, whatever that catch-all adjective is intended to mean by Davis. It’s little forms of sloppiness like this, building over the years, that have gradually made news mags like Time so useless and cheesy.