Pro-life and pro-marriage voters have a slate of flawed front-runners to choose from in the GOP primary. Ross Douthat argues that this presents a unique problem to Christians, especially with respect to the rise of Newt Gingrich. He writes:
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.
Read the rest here.
I’m sympathetic with Douthat’s concern, but I would tweak his framing of things just a little bit. The GOP may face a credibility problem with Gingrich, but Christians should not. Christians do need to beware who they set forth as the “standard bearer” of their deepest convictions, but it is a mistake to appoint any politician to carry that standard. Don’t get me wrong. I hope and pray that we can get the best candidates possible—those who are competent and who hold core convictions in line with our own. Does character count? Yes. Do core beliefs matter? Absolutely. But to expect candidates to set the world to rights and to make all things new is to expect way too much. No matter who I vote for, I am not expecting that person to usher in the kingdom of God or to be the walking fulfillment of Christian virtue. As a Christian, I am not looking for the GOP to elect a messiah. That job is already taken.