Newt and Evangelicals: Not a Match Made in Heaven

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What was Newt Gingrich doing at John Hagee’s Cornerstone Church on Sunday? Besides delivering another speech from his book of Demagogue Mad Libs, that is. The most obvious answer is that Gingrich is courting evangelical voters. But ever since the LA Times wrote about Gingrich’s outreach to evangelicals earlier this month, I’ve been skeptical about whether that’s actually the case.

Sure, in the past few years, Gingrich has met with groups of pastors in key electoral states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and Florida. He helped support an effort in Iowa that year that ousted three state supreme court justices who were involved in a 2009 ruling that sanctioned gay marriage. And he’s gone on Christian media outlets like James Dobson’s Focus on the Family radio show and the Christian Broadcasting Network to reintroduce himself to social conservatives.

These are the actions of a man who is either engaged in a futile quest to win over evangelical GOP primary voters or looking to build a distribution network or his growing enterprise of books and movies on religious themes.

Why futile? First of all, if Gingrich is looking to earn the endorsements of influential evangelical leaders, Hagee isn’t near the top tier of people he needs to court. But more than that, Hagee is considered toxic by many evangelicals for his controversial comments about the Holocaust and description of the Catholic Church as “the great whore.” John McCain learned this the hard way in 2008 when his campaign initially welcomed an endorsement from Hagee, only to reject it days later when Hagee’s more hateful remarks attracted media attention.

Then there’s the matter of Gingrich’s divorces. Plural. Not to mention the affairs that led to each of his divorces. While evangelicals have long ignored divorce as a social concern in favor of focusing on issues like abortion and gay marriage, it still carries a significant taboo. And having an affair can get a person booted from a congregation. During the 2000 primaries, Dobson issued a personal press release highlighting McCain’s history of infidelity: “The senator is being touted by the media as a man of principle, yet he was involved with other women while married to his first wife.”

A personal history that includes multiple affairs and divorces doesn’t have to spell electoral doom for a GOP candidate if he presents it as part of a narrative of sin, repentance, and redemption. Along these lines, George W. Bush spent much of the 2000 campaign talking about his alcoholic past and referring to himself as a “sinner” as a way of communicating his new spiritual sobriety. He once was blind, but now he sees.

But Gingrich seems constitutionally incapable of engaging in the kind of confession and repentance that evangelicals want. His explanation on the Christian Broadcasting Network that his affairs were a result of his patriotic passion and working too hard is unlikely to win over a single evangelical voter and raises the obvious question of how the job of president would decrease his political passion and workload. And when he spoke on Dobson’s radio show in 2007, Gingrich refused to say that he was actually repentant. The evangelical leader repeatedly pressed him on that point: “When I hear you talk about this dark side of your life…you didn’t mention repentance. Do you understand that word repentance?”

At other times, Gingrich has sounded as peeved to be asked about his past as Chris Brown when faced with questions about Rihanna. That may be because he considers his Catholic conversion to have expunged any past mistakes. Conservative Catholic Deal Hudson explained to Max Blumenthal in 2009 that “from a Catholic point of view, Newt’s sins no longer exist–they’ve been absolved.” The problem for Gingrich is that while evangelicals believe in grace and forgiveness, many disdain what they caricature as a Catholic blessing to sin and confess…and then sin some more.

And finally, there is the small issue of Gingrich’s extremely strained relationship with the religious right during his tenure as Speaker. As Steve Benen reminded his readers earlier this week, conservative Christian leaders including Dobson got so fed up with Gingrich ignoring them after the success of his GOP revolution that in 1998 they threatened to leave the party altogether and start their own Christian conservative party.

Gingrich’s most frequent response these days to questions about his past is to ask that he be judged on “the totality of my life.” But that might not work out so well for him. By his own admission, he wasn’t particularly religious until maybe ten years ago. He didn’t become a faithful husband until he was 56. And he didn’t care about the concerns of social conservatives for most of his political career. What he actually means is he’d like to be judged on the last decade of his life.

Which brings us back to why he’s courting evangelicals. It’s possible that he relishes a challenge. Or that he recognizes the importance of social conservatives in the GOP primaries and doesn’t want to risk Mitt Romney’s strategy of putting together a coalition without them this time around. Even so, the members of a megachurch in Texas whose controversial pastor wields little influence within the greater evangelical community are unlikely to hold the key to winning the GOP nomination. They are, however, the perfect target consumers for Gingrich’s many products and pronouncements–the more outrageous and frightening, the better.