The Beltway media tells itself that Newt Gingrich can’t possibly appeal to the GOP base, a group dominated by Christian conservatives, because of his history of cheating on his former wives.
The Washington Post’s left of center policy blogger Ezra Klein says he likes Newt Gingrich, who he calls a “dreamy policy wonk” he’d love to get a beer with. But Klein concedes that Gingrich can’t possibly win his party’s nomination given the man’s extramarital affairs. Although Klein’s thinking is the consensus among the pundit class, the latest New York Times/CBS poll, which finds Gingrich leading the pack in Iowa, shows that white evangelicals overwhelmingly support the former Speaker of the House.
The answer lies in a four-pronged strategy informed by a savvy understanding of the modern Christian right. First, Gingrich turned his marriage infidelities into a chance to embrace a religious transformation. Second, he made himself a spokesman for Christian-focused historical revisionism, a trend popular with evangelicals in particular. Third, he successfully harnessed the recent wave of anti-Muslim bigotry. And finally, he placed himself deep within the religious right movement by simply buying off key leaders.
Despite the easy narrative of political hypocrisy, the knee-jerk charge hurled in political debates, many evangelicals find stories of redemption far more compelling than those of picture perfect personal lives. The tale of personal crisis and redemption before God has propelled other Republican stalwarts. Think George Bush or Tom DeLay, hard partying alcoholics who became born again and were warmly embraced by Christian conservatives.
Gingrich publicly acknowledged his extramarital sin to then-Focus on the Family leader James Dobson in 2007. Dobson asked if the rumors were true, that Gingrich pursued the Clinton impeachment while carrying on with an affair with a young congressional aide (now Gingrich’s third wife, Callista). “There’s certainly times when I’ve fallen short of God’s standards,” he confessed during the on air interview. “Do you understand the word repentance?” barked Dobson. Gingrich, demurring from his know-it-all style, replied that he had begged “God to receive forgiveness and to receive mercy.”
The thought of Gingrich kneeling down and asking for God’s mercy might seem comical to political observers. After all, Gingrich is known for unapologetic political hits and jetting around in private planes, not humility. For evangelicals, however, a man asking to be absolved from his sins is perhaps the most humanizing story possible.
Newt Gingrich poses with the Power Rangers at a press conference
Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum tout themselves and their families as the embodiment of wholesome Christian values. But deep inside, do GOP voters really want a flawless ideal? What sets Gingrich apart is his tale of falling into darkness and seeking the light of God, something that might actually make him more appealing to traditional Christian voters. As Richard Land, a powerful Southern Baptist, put it recently
in an open-letter to Gingrich, “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.”
Gingrich has focused on his story of redemption in interviews with the Christian press. He told Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody that he sought “not God’s understanding, but God’s forgiveness” as he explored his bid for the presidency.
It would be a mistake to attribute Gingrich’s rise in the polls solely to his ability to turn his extramarital affair into an asset. Gingrich, once known for science fiction-influenced policy proposals, has weaved modern Christian conservative crusades into his political identity.
“It is a lie to teach American history as though this is a secular nation in which God did not reappear, again and again and again for every generation,” said Gingrich to a recent meeting of far right pastors. Since Gingrich’s heavily publicized mea culpa in 2007, he has set out to rebrand himself as a culture warrior against the “secular machine,” as he calls it, that seeks to censor the Christian underpinnings of America’s founding fathers. He has produced two movies and one book that argues that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson envisioned America as a Christian nation.
Gingrich attached himself to the Christian historical revisionist movement, led by crackpot historians like David Barton and popularized by radio blowhard Glenn Beck, shortly before the birth of the anti-Obama Tea Party. The Tea Party’s interest in a far right conception of America’s founding has made Gingrich’s “Rediscovering God in America” series a hit among grassroots conservatives over the last three years.
Promoting the series has also given Gingrich an opportunity to travel the country addressing large congregations. “We are in a period when we are surrounded by paganism, and paganism is on offense,” Newt Gingrich warned at an event with militant Christian right leader Lou Engle and Mike Huckabee two years ago.
Such rhetoric is extreme, but does not come close to matching Gingrich’s recent vitriol towards Muslims and Muslim Americans.
Earlier this year, Gingrich compared Muslims to the Nazis and Communists, saying he would have the “guts” to administer a loyalty oath to Muslims seeking jobs in his administration. Last year, he managed to insert himself into headlines by leading the charge against a planned Muslim community center a few blocks from Ground Zero. Supporters of the community center, Gingrich said, were “apologists for Sharia” who are “very hostile to our civilization.”
Poll after poll has shown that evangelicals largely hold hostile views of Islam. Although Gingrich has made efforts to reach out to minorities in the past, particularly Latino voters, his new found demagoguery against Muslim Americans appears to be rooted in political expediency.
Taken together, Gingrich’s unflinching attacks on Muslims, his vocal opposition to the separation of church and state, and his quest for personal redemption might seem like enough to earn the endorsement of Christian right power brokers in early primary states. But a look below the surface reveals a more simple reality.
In 2009, veteran Gingrich aide Rick Tyler set up a group ostensibly designed to unite religious conservatives with supply side right-wingers. Rather than training a new army of activists, as Tyler had promised, the new organization served as a conduit for Gingrich to buy off the Christian right.
The group funneled $200,000 to the virulently anti-gay American Family Association, $25,000 to the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, as well as hundreds of thousands in “seed money” to an effort set up by Bob vander Plaats, a religious right huckster who controls a large grassroots network of Christian voters in Iowa. In last two months of the presidential primary, all three recipients of Gingrich money have lavished praise on the candidate to the press.
The primary is certainly not a lock yet with four weeks of tough campaigning before the first caucus. Although he still struggles in New Hampshire polls, Gingrich has an ace up his sleeve in the heavily evangelical states of Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida.
Posted originally on Nation of Change.