The last time Pastor Robert Jeffress elbowed into the presidential race, he was warning a crowd of “values voters” about the dangers of nominating a Mormon. Jeffress, who leads the First Baptist Church in Dallas, wanted them to pick Rick Perry instead: He was an evangelical Christian who “sang the doxology,” married his childhood sweetheart, and stayed faithful (as far as anyone knows) for 29 years. Easy choice.
But Republicans may not get to choose between Perry and Mitt Romney. The current front-runner in Iowa is Newt Gingrich—thrice married, an admitted adulterer, a late convert to Catholicism. He’s pulling voters from the other “anti-Romney” of choice, Herman Cain, because women keep tumbling out of Cain’s closet clutching sexual harassment settlements and phone records of (allegedly!) decade-long affairs.
“I think there's now an evangelical tri-lemma,” says Jeffress, who still backs Perry but doesn’t have illusions about his current electoral oomph. “Do you vote for a Mormon who's had one wife, a Catholic who's had three wives, or an Evangelical who may have had an entire harem?”
This is a problem. The leadership of the evangelical right, as loose as it is, has the most influence over a Republican nomination in Iowa, in the caucuses. With a month to go, the candidate who said the right things and built the right-sized lead over Romney is Gingrich. Evangelical kingmakers, whom Newt has courted for years, are discussing how to forgive him. The actual voters who’ll pick the candidate aren’t quite so sure.
We know this because evangelical leaders have been checking. On Monday night, after Gingrich and other Republicans bared all to a forum put on by the Iowa FAMiLY Leader (the group keeps the “I” lowercase to indicate submission to God), radio host Steve Deace shepherded a focus group of six men and five women. They liked Gingrich. They worried about his personal life. Ten of the 11 were so worried that they wondered why the FAMiLY Leader included him in the first place. At Deace’s website, Jen Green explained that the doubters worried about “the affairs and the seeming lack of public repentance for them,” and felt that Gingrich hadn’t “done enough to restore their faith in him.”
They were accidentally disagreeing with Bob Vander Plaats, chief executive of the FAMiLY Leader. “There’s been a sincere life change for Newt Gingrich,” he says. “Now, if Newt would have had a Road to Des Moines conversion this year, it might be hard to take him seriously. But since four or five years ago, he’s shown a very transparent grace and maturity. He’s been married to Callista for over a decade. He’s healed his relationship with his children.”
What happened with Newt four or five years ago? Knowing this is important to understanding how he’s calmed the various Vander Plaatses of the plains. In March 2007, Gingrich called in to James Dobson’s radio show to atone for his sins. The timing was perfect. Gingrich didn’t end up running for president that year. After 2008, Dobson retreated from the active political role he’d taken in the Bush years.
“It's a very painful topic and I confess that directly to you,” said Gingrich to Dobson. “There were times when I was praying and when I felt I was doing things that were wrong. But I was still doing them.” He had fallen short of his “own standards.” He had moved on. “I'm not trying to be a leader in the sense of rising above my fellow Americans,” he said, “but I am trying to serve, particularly as a teacher and as a developer of solutions.”
In the years after that, Gingrich wrote two books about “Rediscovering God in America,” and produced two films with that title. He grew deeply involved in the conservative battle to unseat Iowa judges who legalized gay marriage. Gingrich’s network funneled $350,000 into an $850,000 campaign, and the campaign won.
This is why Iowa’s evangelical leaders anticipate that they will need to explain the new Newt to voters and to a doubting media.
“I am very sensitive to looking hypocritical,” says Deace, the radio host who moderated that awkward focus group. “I think Christians have exhausted a lot of political capital this way. We have allowed Republicans to violate moral standards that we don't accept from Democrats. My encouragement to other Christians is this: First protect the integrity of your Christian witness, then put your political activism second to that. If you do that, you’re not trapped by hypocrisy.”
What does that mean for Gingrich? Deace quoted the Prophet Isaiah for advice. From Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, and let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” That’s doubling as advice for Iowa evangelicals. Reason together. You like Newt anyway. In the scheme of things, his misdeeds aren’t so bad.
“Take the Apostle Paul, for example,” says Vander Plaats. “He wasn’t just bad before his conversion. He called himself the worst of the worst. He tried to thwart the gospel. He tried to abolish Christianity.” It’s true: Compared to Paul, Newt’s offenses don’t seem that bad. The father of the church reminisced about watching Christians die, consenting to their deaths.
This has all been discussed at the higher levels of evangelical politics; it’s largely been litigated. If you read between the lines of evangelical leaders’ statements, they’re incredibly forgiving toward Newt. Look at the open letter that Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote this week. “A high percentage of Evangelical men are willing to cut you some slack over your turbulent marital history,” he wrote. “The bad news is that Evangelical women are far less willing to forgive and let bygones be bygones.”
How could Gingrich possibly recover? Pretty easily, according to Land. “Mr. Speaker, I urge you to pick a pro-family venue and give a speech (not an interview) addressing your marital history once and for all. It should be clear that this speech will be ‘it’ and will not be repeated, only referenced.”
That’s it. The tone is not just forgiving—it’s hopeful that the evangelical hoi polloi can forgive, too. It’s scornful of a media that evangelicals expect to hassle Gingrich and his supporters for hypocrisy. The media didn’t decide whether Paul had redeemed himself. Evangelical leaders won’t let the media tell them whether they can redeem the new Republican front-runner.