Former Speaker, now Catholic

“On the Stump, Gingrich Puts Focus on Faith,” read the headline for this A1 New York Times piece. But a focus on faith was not what the piece delivered.

Early on we’re given an interesting political story about how Newt Gingrich is attempting to reintroduce himself to Republicans, addressing questions about his two divorces and lack of emphasis on social issues. Gingrich says that his conversion to Catholicism two years ago is “part of an evolution that has given him a deeper appreciation for the role of faith in public life.” But we don’t learn much about that conversion, instead getting vague paragraphs such as this:

It remains an open question how a new inspection of Mr. Gingrich’s record would hold up to scrutiny by voters, including his own spending votes and the 1995 government shutdown, but his advisers believe that it could be well received, given the sentiment of Tea Party supporters. And in the early going, Mr. Gingrich appears to be getting another look from religious conservatives, especially Catholics, a traditional swing constituency.

“Especially Catholics,” eh? I don’t know what that means, or how we’re measuring these things. I mean, I bet there are a lot of Catholics who are wanting a few more details about that conversion, too.

I wasn’t certain if the lack of actual discussion of religion was because of Gingrich being tight-lipped about it or something else. But later in the week, the Los Angeles Times delivered much more on that front, using a wider variety of sources. Focusing in on Iowa, the reporters paint an interesting picture about Gingrich’s last two years, wherein he meets with conservative religious leaders, expresses his contrition for his divorces and provides financial and strategic help for their social causes:

Gingrich’s moves are meant to allay concerns among influential religious conservatives that his personal history is at odds with their views. In 2007, he admitted during a radio interview with Focus on the Family founder James Dobson that he had been having an extramarital affair with his present wife as he was excoriating President Clinton for lying to a grand jury about his dalliance with a White House intern. As Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, put it, Gingrich has “one ex-spouse too many for most evangelicals.”

But as the former speaker moves closer to a potential White House bid, with more details expected Thursday, his wooing of the evangelical community appears to be paying off.

“I think he’s just excellent,” said Pastor Brad Sherman, who leads Solid Rock Christian Church in Coralville, Iowa. “Everybody brings up his past, but he’s very open about that, and God is forgiving,” said Sherman, who had lunch with Gingrich last fall.

Sometimes the positive quotes come from people who are working with and paid by Gingrich — which is specifically pointed out. There is a lot of discussion about religion in the public square. And we get a lot of background about the candidate, too. Check out this exchange:

Although Gingrich has been forthcoming about his personal conduct in private conversations, he can become testy when pressed on the issue publicly. At the University of Pennsylvania last month, a Democratic student activist asked him to square his marital record with his goal of putting the nation on a higher moral plane.

“I hope you feel better about yourself,” Gingrich responded. “I will be totally candid: I’ve had a life which, on occasion, has had problems. I believe in a forgiving God. … If the primary concern of the American people is my past, my candidacy would be irrelevant.”

I appreciate that we’re not just told he got testy but given his words as well. I don’t know where this story appeared in the paper, but it had much more news than the A1 feature in the New York Times above.

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  • http://www.thehighwayhermit.com James Bulls

    Considering there’s no requirement to be religious or to follow a religion to hold office, I don’t even know why anybody’s concerned that he should be of one persuasion or another. Frankly, I’d rather have an atheist or an agnostic in office since that way I could at least be hopeful that he or she wouldn’t legislate with bias toward his or her favored religion.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

    I’ve never been a big Gingrich fan (though I’m a staunch conservative), but I think he handled the question very well.

  • Dan Crawford

    “On occasion”?

  • Patrick Lynch

    What matters, I suppose, is if said conversion leads to any meaningful changes in stance on policy, and how he reorients his influence – should he decide to make a case dissenting publicly or to the party on the influence of his faith, things could get relatively interesting.

  • J
  • Passing By

    Neither Times article answered my question, which pertains to the status of Gingrich’s first two marriages. Were he a Baptist, contrition for his past would be fine. Since he is a Catholic, the issue is whether he obtained declarations of nullity. If either of the first marriages were sacramentally valid, then he is currently in an adulterous situation.

    While I normally don’t consider the marital (or sexual) antics of politicians my concern, Gingrich is presenting himself as a Catholic and using faith as a political tool.

    I note the U.S. News and World Report article didn’t address this either. Presumably, his wife being Catholic when they married means they got annulments on his first two marriages. Surely some reporter could, well, report that.

  • Dave

    Though it feels icky to sound so cynical, I cannot shake the conviction that — there being no religious test for public office in the United States — Gingrich’s public talk about his faith is positioning himself for a constituency, like shooting hoops or eating pierogis in public. To put it epistemologically, that’s all one needs to explain his actions.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Dave,

    That does seem to be a big hanging question, one for which no answer was forthcoming in the NYT profile, but one for which there was at least some discussion in the LAT, I think.

  • bob

    It would be a bigger religious story if he said “I have nothing to brag about. I am grateful to be a Catholic layman and thank God every day. I see a confessor about my past and present life.” It’s also not likely that he’ll say it.

  • Harold

    Gingrich’s public talk about his faith is positioning himself for a constituency,

    Well, you can’t win most of the GOP primaries without doing it. As the LA Times says, a high percentage of Iowa caucus participants are Evangelicals and the foot soldiers of any political operation in Iowa.

    I’m surprised the LA times didn’t have more critical voices, beyond those saved for the last paragraph.


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