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John Newton, Newt Gingrich, and the Real Issue for his Candidacy: A Guest Post by Jerry L. Walls

January 25th, 2012 | 5 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

One more round on the concerns about evangelicals and Gingrich.  Jerry L. Walls is a philosopher and the author of numerous books, the most recent of which was listed among Christianity Today's top books of the year.  If you are interested in submitting a differing perspective, send me a note and I'll consider it.  Equal time, and all that!  

Many conservative Christians are enthusiastically supporting Newt Gingrich for President, despite the fact that his personal lifestyle for most of his life has been sharply and starkly at odds with the values they profess to cherish. As one who cannot share this enthusiasm I want to articulate what I believe the issue is here, and what it is not. First, it is emphatically not a matter of whether God, or we, have forgiven Newt. I am in no position to judge his heart or the sincerity of his repentance or the status of his relationship with God, but I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that his repentance is sincere and that God has forgiven him. The issue is not forgiveness, but rather character, and forgiveness is not the same as proven character. I believe rapists, murderers, child molesters, persons who fail to report suspected molesters, slave traders, and so on can all be forgiven. I believe in John Newton's "Amazing Grace" and I well know we all need it. But I doubt anyone would argue that a rapist, a murderer, or a child molester should be running for President.

Not all sins are the same, despite the pious insistence that they are. Yes, “sins are sins,” and all separate us from God but some cut deeper and do far more extensive damage to persons (starting with the persons who commit them), do far more to destroy relationships and undermine trust, and consequently require much more time and serious effort to repair.

Nor is the issue an unrealistic demand for perfection. No one has a perfect past, and few, if any have a perfect present. But it is a stunning impoverishment of standards to dismiss multiple lies, adulteries, and hypocrisies as mere foibles that fall just somewhere shy of perfection. While Newt was going hard after Clinton for his moral failures and campaigning on family values, he was engaged in an ongoing adulterous affair.

So again, am I suggesting we demand perfection of our candidates? Should we make an issue of every high school and college prank, indiscretion, drunken weekend, wild party, and so on? Of course not. But we are not talking here about adolescent behavior. We are talking about his behavior as a mature adult, while holding elected office.

The fact that Newt thinks his history of moral and ethical infidelity is irrelevant to his qualifications to be President, the fact that he can wax passionate with moral indignation against those who raise these issues, represents a wildly distorted sense of moral judgment and moral proportion. Ironically, he is the mirror image of the postmodern who rejects traditional morality, but knows exactly how to draw a huge ovation from an audience by attacking intolerance with passionate fervor.

King David fell into adultery and he repented and was forgiven. Notably, when confronted with his adultery, he did not turn on Nathan, and say, "Seriously, I am appalled you can be making an issue of the fact that I banged Bathsheba, given the enormous political and economic issues facing this country." David was forgiven. But he never regained the moral credibility he previously had, and after this incident, his Kingdom began to unravel in various ways, as Nathan predicted. Indeed, it is surely no coincidence that we see this beginning to happen one chapter after Nathan’s confrontation with David, precisely in the form of his sons mimicking his worst behavior (2 Samuel 13). Amnon rapes his sister Tamar, and when David ignores the matter and does nothing about it, Tamar’s brother Absalom plots Amnon’s murder and successfully carries it out. Given David’s adultery and devious murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah, he was poorly situated to confront his sons with any sort of moral credibility or hold them accountable for doing the very same sort of things he had done. The King inevitably set a moral tone for the nation, whether for good or for ill. David eventually lost so much of his previous authority that his own son Absalom could successfully garner enough support to lead a rebellion and temporarily usurp the throne.

Again, I am not saying we should demand perfection of our leaders. If we insist on perfection or nothing, we will invariably get nothing. That is not my point. But we do need a President who can lead with moral authority and address moral issues with the sort of credibility that comes from a history of integrity. Newt has forfeited the ability to do that by his multiple betrayals and deceptions, and therefore the right to ask us to support him with election to our highest public office.

I believe Evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics are making a huge long term error in supporting Newt despite these obvious liabilities. For many, the bottom line is that Obama must be defeated. They relish the image of Newt waxing him in a debate. Well, their error is the mirror image of those who elected Obama in the first place. A man who had very thin credentials and experience was elected four years ago, largely on the strength of soaring rhetoric and wildly unrealistic promises. Now those who want to see him defeated are willing to support a guy who is lacking in moral substance but who is a great debater and appears to have a good chance to win in November. Christians have been far too uncritical in supporting candidates who are willing to mouth support for their views or do an interview with Dobson or talk about God in a Baptist church, regardless of whether these candidates have shown by their actions any deep commitment to their values and convictions.

Many observers already believe conservative Christians are opportunistic hypocrites. Their support of Newt only confirms this impression and deprives them of any credibility if they ever want to make an issue of "traditional moral values" again. As an obvious example, opponents of gay marriage, a flashpoint conservative issue, will find themselves in a very awkward position if they expect Newt to address this issue with credibility. Indeed, supporters of gay marriage will understandably, and perhaps rightly, scorn conservative Christians who support Newt, and then turn around and try to make the case that homosexuality is a threat to the sanctity of marriage and traditional “family values.” Let me be clear. I believe homosexual behavior is condemned as sinful by scripture, and is morally wrong. But the Bible has far more to say about adultery than it does about homosexuality. Moreover, adultery is often used in the Bible as an illustration of idolatry, for it is a profound form of betrayal that deeply images our infidelity to God. For adultery is by definition a lie as well as a treacherous form of personal betrayal.

Christians who can wink at Newt’s multiple adulteries, exacerbated by the specter of his hypocritical attack on Clinton while doing so, should not be surprised when supporters of gay marriage see them as mimicking the same sort of laughable hypocrisy if they try to make a moral issue of gay marriage. They will understandably appear utterly arbitrary and unprincipled to their critics.

I am aware that for many conservative Christians, the foremost issue in this election is the economy, and the staggering national debt, an issue of great moral significance in its own right. I could not agree more that the national debt is an issue of urgent importance and that the economy desperately needs better management. But as urgent as these issues are, I do not believe they warrant the sort of compromise I believe conservative Christians are making in their support of Gingrich.

The bottom line for me: if Newt is the nominee, I will not be voting in November.

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.