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Evangelicals and the Gingrich Candidacy: The End of our Moral Witness on Marriage

January 23rd, 2012 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

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Newt has, we are told, won the South Carolina primary on the backs of evangelicals.  I’ve been an  occasional defender of the demographic against its many critics, but this is all a bit much to take.

The surprise for everyone in this is how the rank hostility toward the “liberal media” has played into Newt’s rise.  The key moment, of course, is the absurd moment when Gingrich lectured John King for raising the minor matter of the accusation that he once asked for an open marriage.  If there was a moment when I have been more disappointed by Republicans, I cannot remember it.  Forget the accuracy of the story for a moment--these were, as has been pointed out once or twice, formerly legitimate inquiries to be made of public officials, as Gingrich knows better than most.

The critiques of all this from Douthat and Doug Wilson are worth reading in full, and my own position is generally of a piece with their respective readings.  Different lines of attack, but both score points.

Despite Newt providing us all with the occasion for the best satire of the political season so far (with gratitude to Ben Domenech), I can see exactly zero upside for evangelicals to support his candidacy.

Two friends emailed me not long after the South Carolina primary saying that they wouldn’t vote for the fellow.  Both under the age of thirty, both done with the charade.

In short, Newt’s serial monogamy and the possibility of the open marriage accusation undermines his legitimacy as a viable leader of those who claim to care about marriage.  There is a little charge known as “hypocrisy,” and the evangelicals foisting Newt upon us have opened themselves to it.  Practices are not incidental to our understanding of a thing:  they are a way of authenticating it, of manifesting its intelligibility and its truth.

The retort is that evangelicals affirm the possibility of forgiveness, and indeed we do.  Gingrich's repentance for his failures seems genuine, and we have no real reason to question it.  But while salvation may be instantaneous, sanctification is something slower.  It can take a while to add virtue to our faith, particularly if we didn't have much to begin with (as seems to be the case with Gingrich).  Rejoice, then, with the angels in heaven over the sinner who keeps repenting.  But maybe leave the keys to the nuclear weapons to someone else.

The unstated premise in all this is that what happens in private ought to be taken into consideration when evaluating a candidate.  Set aside the fact that Newt once championed the case:  is it not the same principle that stands beneath the conservative opposition to gay marriage?  It may be the case that Newt has reformed, but he ought to at least grant that the question is still legitimate.

The evangelical support for Gingrich, then, erodes and undermines their moral witness on the question of marriage, making it seem nothing more than platitudes that are conveniently tossed aside for convenience and charisma.

The evangelical writers raised a fuss over the religious right's recent offering of support to Santorum, and perhaps justifiably so.  But such support is a welcome moment of political sanity (even if offered far too late to be effective, once again) in what is obviously a misguided evangelical political world.  The real tragedy is that no one in South Carolina listened to them.  The evangelical political witness might be more effective if they had.

If you're scoring at home, then, Santorum’s in the race, and Ron Paul if you must (though you mustn’t).  I like Santorum and have said nice things about him in the past.  His willingness to engage in discussion sometimes leads him to cringeworthy quotes, and he lays on the foreign policy a bit strong.  And there’s the matter of getting in, which he might struggle with.

But he actually brings some substance to the table, a virtue that I would like to further in any way I can.   And if he’s still in it on Super Tuesday, I’ll go caucus for him here in Missouri.  If he’s not, I’ll toss in for Romney (who I will support in the general, should it come down to it), or simply throw away my vote as a silent matter of protest.  But I will not, can not, support Newt Gingrich.  And I’m a little embarrassed that it even has to be said.

Postscript:  My friends John Mark and Frank Beckwith are also worth reading.  I would interact with them more, except I've been warding off a cold all weekend and can't quite bring it together.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.