Evangelicals and Newt: Love Him or Hate Him?

There’s been much discussion trying to figure out how evangelicals really feel about Newt.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land has openly told the candidate, “I have good news and I have bad news:”

The good news is, as you know Evangelicals are a forgiving people, who having experienced redemption and forgiveness in their own spiritual lives, are most often willing to extend it to others who ask for it. Consequently, a high percentage of Evangelical men are willing to cut you some slack over your turbulent marital history. The bad news is that Evangelical women are far less willing to forgive and let bygones be bygones. There is a large and significant gender gap on the issue of your two previous marriages. My research would indicate a majority of men, but less than a third of Evangelical women are currently willing to trust you as their president.

Michael Medved, who is Jewish but undoubtedly has his finger on the pulse of conservative evangelicals, writes that Gingrich’s personal failings, in contrast to the poster marriages of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, might be what draw voters to him. “[W]ith two failed marriages, and two angry ex-wives who have unloaded on the media, resembles a bigger slice of the public that hopes to overcome problematic pasts for wholesome fresh starts—like Newt’s purportedly hyper-romantic union with Callista for the past decade.”

Then for some evangelicals, he is unforgiven, because he has been unrepentant.

Several months ago, I wrote about WORLD magazine publisher (and former Bush advisor) Marvin Olasky’s excoriation of Newt’s exploits as speaker. Not only was Gingrich unfaithful to his wives, he had committed another heresy: infidelity to the conservative cause. Olasky, again, has renewed his questioning of whether Gingrich has really changed, and WORLD is making a big push to reporters to ensure that they know about it.

Olasky writes that Congressional figures he spoke to for his June story on Gingrich described him as a “self-aggrandizing leader.” Many of them “commented not so much on Gingrich’s two divorces but on the affair he carried on all the time he was speaker, at a time when opponents were working to castrate the Republican Revolution that Gingrich personified.” (In another interesting twist, Olasky reveals that after Rick Perry’s debate screw-ups, he tried to convince Mike Huckabee to jump into the race, and that Huckabee responded, “It might be too late. It is amazing how things have turned out. I didn’t think Perry would do that well, but I never imagined he would take a gasoline shower and light a match to himself this soon.”) 

Back in Iowa, where Gingrich has to make his first case to evangelicals, in the wake of news that conservative Christian leaders were trying to coalesce around a non-Mitt, the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition says it won’t endorse any candidate. (The FFC’s founder, Ralph Reed, knows a thing or two about sin — and has certainly played the redemption card skillfully.)

Then there’s the matter of the mysterious “Iowans for Christian Leaders in Government,” which has distributed anti-Newt flyers and most recently penned an open letter to Bob Vander Plaats, the leader of the FAMiLY Leader, who hosted the Thanksgiving Family Forum God and country fest and whose endorsement the candidates covet. The open letter, written on a blog that bears no names or footprints (the site registration is private), lambasts Vander Plaats not only for his association with Gingrich, but for accepting Gingrich’s help in securing $200,000 in “seed money” for his campaign to oust judges who had ruled in favor of gay marriage.

There’s something odd, though, to my eyes, about the phrasing in the Iowans for Christian Leaders in Government materials. Like it wasn’t really written by an evangelical in the trenches of politics or the culture wars. Of course, because whoever is behind it (whether an Iowan, Iowans, or residents of another state) won’t identify themselves, I don’t have a sure way of finding out for certain. 

My gut, though tells me that an Iowa evangelical or group of evangelicals would have approached Vander Plaats in a much less public way first. (See Matthew 18:15). If that were the case, and they failed to make a breakthrough with Vander Plaats, he would at least know who his accusers are.

What’s more, my gut tells me, a lot of the language in the open letter doesn’t feel to me like it was written by a seasoned religious right-er. To wit:

You lead an organization that encompasses an affiliate group called “Marriage Matters” and not only did Mr. Gingrich fail to sign your Marriage Vow, he failed to live his life in accordance with the values we hold so dear.

It is by now public knowledge that Mr. Gingrich has been unfaithful to two of his previous spouses, even delivering divorce papers to one as she lay in the hospital from a condition surrounding her cancer.  We pray that marriage truly does matter as much as you represent, and not as little as it has meant to the candidates you have supported in the past.

That’s not the way a culture warrior — even one who disagreed with Vander Plaats on this matter — would have phrased this. Instead, they would have first praised Vander Plaats for his vigorous defense of “traditional marriage” in the state of Iowa, and the hard work he has done, for example, on the judicial retention vote. Of course they may be irked that Gingrich didn’t sign Vander Plaats’ marriage pledge (which may look like he’s trying to play both sides — help fund Vander Plaats but then look less extreme to more moderate voters by declining to sign his pledge). But then the open letter goes on, “he failed to live his live in accordance with the values we hold so dear.” I’m sorry, that’s just not the language an evangelical marriage crusader would use. They would use terms like “sanctity” and “traditional marriage” and “God’s design” and all that. Not that mushy “values we hold so dear.” It’s not just values we hold so dear — it’s God’s command, God’s plan, God’s design for men, women and the family. (Have the Iowans for Christian Leaders in Government read anything Vander Plaats has written?)

Of course it’s possible that these Iowans want a differnet kind of Christian leader in government — one that wouldn’t engage in bribery and influence peddling. But that’s not Vander Plaats’ wheelhouse; ideological purity is.

In any case, it’s not easy to ferret out “what evangelicals want” or who evangelicals leaders will endorse. Although conservative evangelicals tend to be monolithic on issues, they are not so much on personalities. And if you remember the 2008 campaign, it was the split among evangelical voters in South Carolina that led to McCain’s victory there and his march to the nomination. The candidates know they don’t have to win over all evangelicals — just enough of them.