There has been a great deal of discussion about Speaker Gingrich’s rhetorical display in the first five minutes of the recent GOP debate. Gingrich’s response to John King was high drama, and he landed some punches on the “elite media.” It was quite impressive. But I agree with the remarks that Rick Santorum made right after Newt’s display. The question of character is relevant, and voters need to weigh it in the balance. Redemption is possible, and perhaps it has become a reality for Speaker Gingrich. But that does not make the Speaker’s past infidelities irrelevant to his candidacy. It may not be a disqualifying factor by itself, but it would be irresponsible to ignore it.
I am reminded of a column that Ross Douthat wrote late last year when Speaker Gingrich was still surging in Iowa. What Douthat wrote then is still relevant now:
The real issue for religious conservatives isn’t whether they can trust Gingrich. It’s whether they can afford to be associated with him.
Conservative Christianity in America, both evangelical and Catholic, faces a looming demographic challenge: A rising generation that is more unchurched than any before it, more liberal on issues like gay marriage, and allergic to the apocalyptic rhetoric of the Pat Robertson-Jerry Falwell era. To many younger Americans, religious conservatism as they know it often seems to stand for a kind of institutionalized hypocrisy — a right-wing Tartufferie that’s incensed by the idea of gay wedlock but tolerant of straight divorce, forgiving of Republican sins but judgmental about Democratic indiscretions, and eager to apply moral litmus tests only on issues that benefit the political right.
Rallying around Newt Gingrich, effectively making him the face of Christian conservatism in this Republican primary season, would ratify all of these impressions. It isn’t just that he’s a master of selective moral outrage whose newfound piety has been turned to consistently partisan ends. It’s that his personal history — not only the two divorces, but also the repeated affairs and the way he behaved during the dissolution of his marriages — makes him the most compromised champion imaginable for a movement that’s laboring to keep lifelong heterosexual monogamy on a legal and cultural pedestal…
Of course Christians are obliged to forgive a penitent, whatever his offenses — though a cynic might note that it’s easy for an adulterer to express contrition once he’s safely married to his mistress. But one can forgive a sinner without necessarily deciding that he should be anointed as the standard bearer for the very cause that he betrayed. Contrition is supposed to be its own reward. There’s no obligation to throw in the presidency as well.
In a climate of culture war, any spokesman for conservative Christianity is destined to be a polarizing figure. (Just ask Tim Tebow.) But a religious right that rallied around Gingrich would be putting the worst possible face on its cause and at the worst possible time.
His candidacy isn’t a test of religious conservatives’ willingness to be good, forgiving Christians. It’s a test of their ability to see their cause through outsiders’ eyes, and to recognize what anointing a thrice-married adulterer as the champion of “family values” would say to the skeptical, the unconverted and above all to the young.
Social conservatives are not looking at a slate of perfect candidates. When voting for a presidential candidate, they can only choose from available options. The strengths and flaws of one candidate will have to be weighed against the strengths and flaws of the others, and judgments will have to be made. Pro-life and pro-family voters will be looking for the candidate who has the best chance to advance policies that favor life and the family, and the candidates’ own marriages should certainly be factored in. No candidate should be exempt from that judgment—not even the ones who really know how to zing the liberals in a debate.