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.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

26 Comments

  1. […] If a stronger third party candidate rose up, I would drop him like a hot poker.  Of course, some people won’t even vote if he becomes the nominee which is flat out […]

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

    I am in the exact same position, for the exact same reasons. We who claim to profess Christ’s lordship should be ashamed at how we trade our birthright every time someone offers us a thin bowl of soup.

    I will still vote for down-ticket races, but if Newt is the GOP nominee, I would be voting for some minor candidate who better reflects my values. I would much rather the GOP lose an election than see Christians compromise their voice in the culture.

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    1. “I would much rather the GOP lose an election than see Christians compromise their voice in the culture.”

      My sentiments exactly.

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  3. I’m with you on everything until the last line. Not voting is not the answer. I will not vote for Newt, but I don’t want my voice to go unheard. If Newt is the nominee, I’ll be voting for someone else. If enough of us do that, and it splits the conservative vote enough for Obama to win re-election, then maybe the GOP will start to give us some candidates we can support.

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  4. Intriguing point about evangelical support of Gingrich being the mirror image of liberal support of Obama. This could be true for some. However, not all who support Gingrich for president are doing so enthusiastically, nor are they relishing the image of Newt waxing Obama in a debate. I’ll speak for myself: I think Newt is the best match of all the Republican candidates for Obama in a debate, but his debating ability does not necessarily reflect his ability to be a good president. I have my doubts about his character, which seems a mixed bag, for sure. I have little concern, however, for how evangelicals may appear to others for supporting him, and any attempt to manipulate those perceptions is folly. For the most part, people are going to think what they want to think. The question for me, as a Christian believer, is not which presidential candidate will best represent God, or Christians, to our country and the world, but which is the most competent to preserve our nation and the well-being of its citizens. I think Newt is the most knowledgeable and best-positioned in this regard, unless he sabotages himself with wackiness, which is not out of the question.

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    1. Matthew Lee Anderson January 25, 2012 at 8:29 pm

      Bonnie,

      “I have little concern, however, for how evangelicals may appear to others for supporting him, and any attempt to manipulate those perceptions is folly. For the most part, people are going to think what they want to think.”

      I think this is a sentiment that a lot of people share. I’m not sure I buy it, though. After all, a vote is a tacit form of endorsement, a political statement that you want the person to represent you in a particular way. That sort of representation makes, I think, the broader social question of what a vote by an evangelical for this sort of candidate means pertinent.

      Does any of that make sense?

      Matt

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      1. Matt,

        I do not see my vote as an endorsement of anything other than the candidate whom I think would make the best president, and to see it as an endorsement of anything but that is to go beyond what is called for. That is why I don’t concern myself with it. (If someone wants to know what I do endorse, specifically, or why I vote for a particular candidate, I am happy to tell them.) As I said in my comment, I am not voting for the person who I think would best represent God, or Christians, to our country and the world, but the one most competent to preserve our nation and the well-being of its citizens. I think that this is my civic and Christian duty, though I am willing to consider evidence to the contrary. As others have pointed out, every candidate is a mixed bag. There are all sorts of reasons to vote for a particular candidate, or not, depending on which characteristics one feels are most important for someone in that office. A candidate with a stellar Christian life and witness may not be the one who would make the most competent president.

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        1. Matthew Lee Anderson January 25, 2012 at 10:31 pm

          Agree with a lot here, especially that last sentence.

          Which brings me to: didn’t we have this exact same conversation in 08? : ) I’m almost convinced we did….which makes me feel old! : )

          matt

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          1. Oh my goodness, did we? Your memory is better than mine. Must be losing mine in my old age.

  5. “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. ”

    Is it really fair to reduce Newt’s ability to verbalize his position to this? Surely a candidate shouldn’t be elected simply for his rhetoric, but Newt’s way with words indicates original thinking. Obama relied upon vague generalizations (and flat out lies) to muscle his way through debates. Newt’s concise explanations don’t seem comparable.

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    1. Matthew Lee Anderson January 25, 2012 at 12:17 pm

      Which “original thinking?” This is a real question. Which of Newt’s ideas or policy proposals are particularly unique or distinct? From what I can tell, they’re a mishmash of other stuff presented in the most grandiose of tones.

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      1. An example that immediately comes to mind is Newt’s position on immigration: to allow local committees to decide case-by-case if illegals in their community should be allowed to stay. Holding a position that comes close to “amnesty” in the Republican Party is enough to prove individuality. Also (and in despite of some shallow accusations of flip-flopping) Newt’s foreign policy is refreshingly no-nonsense. Personal egoism has a habit of providing backbone in foreign policy, and since Newt is smarter than Bush he wont be persuaded by a Rumsfeld into premature invasions.

        To be clear though, there are areas that Newt’s views need to be defined before I will be totally sold. It also sounds like his current tax plan is causing controversy.

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        1. Also and despite my critical response, I think this post raises a few points I truly need to consider as an Evangelical before casting my vote.

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  6. […] and author of numerous books, including a Christianity Today book of the year—has an excellent guest post at Mere Orthodoxy on the problem with Gingrich’s multiple divorces and infidelities. It […]

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  7. A big part of this article is based on a false premise: that Newt is dismissing these questions. From the article:

    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.

    It’s a strong paragraph, rhetorically, and the link to postmodernism is astute. But it all rests on the claim in the first sentence that Newt “thinks his history of moral and ethical infidelity is irrelevant to his qualifications.” But this claim is demonstrably false. I don’t recall Newt saying anything of the sort. To the contrary, during the December 11th debate George Stephanapoulos asked each candidate about fidelity, a poorly masked broaching of the subject that might as well read as “So, what do you think of Newt’s marital history?” Newt was the last person asked about it, too, which means every other candidate had had the opportunity to take a shot at him first. Here’s what he said:

    Well, first of all, I think it is a real issue. And people have to look at the person whom they’re gonna loan the presidency. And they have the– they have the right to ask every single question. They have to have a feeling that this is a person that they can trust with the level of power we give to the presidency. And I think it’s a very, very important issue. And I think people have to render judgment. In my case, I’ve said up-front openly I’ve made mistakes at times. I’ve had to go to God for forgiveness. I’ve had to seek reconciliation. But I’m also a 68-year-old grandfather. And I think people have to measure who I am now and whether I’m a person they can trust.

    This is a perfect answer, and precisely the answer we Christians should expect. He acknowledges that it’s a legitimate issue, and says people have every right to ask it. He contends he’s changed, but leaves it to others to believe or disbelieve that. I see no issue there. The only issue is if you take him at his word.

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    1. Christopher Benson January 25, 2012 at 3:42 pm

      Well done, Mr. Bowyer. Too much of the moralizing attitude toward Mr. Gingrich overlooks his own testimony. Thank you for quoting the words that I have heard from Mr. Gingrich in debate after debate. As you said, “the only issue is if you take him at his word.” It appears may people do not accept the sincerity or truthfulness of his word. I, for one, will not be voting for Mr. Gingrich, if he is nominated by the GOP, but my objections do not relate to his marital record, which I am satisfied to keep past things in the past.

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    2. Matthew Lee Anderson January 25, 2012 at 4:04 pm

      Chris,

      Good reply, and well put. Can you then explain his suggestion that asking the question was “despicable” in the South Carolina debate?

      “Take him at his word” is, in the case of those whose history involves a repeated pattern of breaking it, an incredibly tricky thing to do. Not saying it’s impossible. Just saying that I think this question of Newt’s word is the heart of the matter.

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      1. His exact line as I recall was that raising the issue two days before the primary and then starting the debate with it was “as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.” The fact that he would use such extreme language shows either that he is utterly lacking in moral imagination (I would hope any decent person off the top of their heads could think of ten things more despicable), or it was a calculated, and completely successful attempt to manipulate the audience and take up the role of victim.

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      2. Good question. :) Glad to take a crack at it

        Can you then explain his suggestion that asking the question was “despicable” in the South Carolina debate?

        I think he explained it himself: he noted, just before calling it despicable, that it came out just two days before the primary (clearly timed to do the most damage), and derided the idea that it should lead off the debate, which is also the time in which such a question could do the most damage.

        I somewhat sympathize with John King’s position, and reasonable people can disagree about whether or not Newt’s anger was a little much. But I do believe there’s a distinction between voters asking themselves if they can trust him, and news media artificially elevating the issue beyond the level of importance voters have been ascribing to it. It can be a reasonable issue, yet still be asked and emphasized in an unreasonable way.

        “Take him at his word” is, in the case of those whose history involves a repeated pattern of breaking it, an incredibly tricky thing to do. Not saying it’s impossible. Just saying that I think this question of Newt’s word is the heart of the matter.

        Agreed, it is tricky. And though I’m fairly supportive of Newt, I wouldn’t try to talk someone into overlooking his indiscretions. I completely sympathize with people who can’t get past such massive personal failings.

        However, Mr. Walls’ article suggests he feels differently than both of us. He explicitly says he is “willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that his repentance is sincere and that God has forgiven him,” yet he rejects him as an acceptable candidate anyway. I’m not sure how to square those two things.

        When Mr. Walls talks about the issue strategically, I find his conclusions reasonable (a little exaggerated, maybe, but reasonable). I can understand the fear that Newt’s failings will be exploited in a general election. But he’s clearly saying more than that when he suggests that supporting him would be a “compromise” of some sort of principle. If he means it when he says he is willing to take his repentance as sincere, then I don’t see what compromise is being made. It might be a political compromise, but I don’t think it’s a spiritual one.

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      3. I’ll add that I think that Chris’s explanation is correct. What was appalling, Newt said, was using that question to begin a presidential debate. What was despicable, according to Newt, was not merely bringing up the topic of his past infidelity–which has been done and been addressed by Newt without indignation–but, rather, seeking out an ex-wife to raise “a significant question in a presidential campaign” two days before a primary. (Note that, in keeping with his comments in earlier debates, he acknowledges it as a significant question.) Furthermore, the audience agreed with him. Check the video again: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OE4BAhHMsHY King asks whether Newt would like to address his ex-wife’s claims. Newt says, “No [in a way that made it clear he was taking issue with the question]…but I will.” Right here the audience breaks into applause, *before* Newt goes on his rant. Newt didn’t even need to make the case that what King was doing was inappropriate. The audience thought that as soon as King asked the question–though they were pleased to see Newt scold him for it. Why? They saw this as just one more example of liberal members of the media trying to carry water for the Democrats and attack Republicans (much like the total absence of questions about Solyndra, the Keystone pipeline, or operation Fast and Furious). It’s the sort of question that they would never ask a democratic candidate, let alone the President, especially to begin a debate.

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        1. Matthew Lee Anderson January 25, 2012 at 8:38 pm

          Chris/Scrumpy,

          I think that’s almost certainly true by way of explanation, and as Steve pointed out in the previous thread, the history of Nikki Haley in SC probably colored people’s perspectives on it as well.

          I don’t for the life of me see, though, why opening the debate in that way was so horrendous. Newt was, even at that point, on the upswing and the story grabbed everyone–not just the mainstream media, but everyone.

          Which is to say, I think both Newt and the audience are wrong to view the question as inappropriate.

          Chris, you wrote:

          “However, Mr. Walls’ article suggests he feels differently than both of us. He explicitly says he is “willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that his repentance is sincere and that God has forgiven him,” yet he rejects him as an acceptable candidate anyway. I’m not sure how to square those two things.”

          I’m not so sure these two are incompatible as well, but I think you’re right: where people fall on Gingrich seems to be largely a function of whether they can hold together the reality of forgiveness with the rejection of his character. I think that’s the sort of approach that I tried to articulate in my post about forgiveness being instantaneous but sanctification being quite a bit slower.

          There are all sorts of realms where I think this applies, not least of which is politics. In marriage, for instance, if an abusive husband repents we still might not send the wife back into the environment until there was ample, ample evidence that her safety wouldn’t be endangered. That’s the point of Beckwith’s post, too, which I think is one of the best one’s on all this: there are almost certainly a cluster of issues that surrounded the affairs, and increasing Newt’s power and responsibility will increase the difficulty he faces in those issues. And that seems problematic.

          Best,

          matt

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          1. In my opinion, Newt Gingrich was rightly outraged that a presidential debate began with a “Gotcha!” question about his marital fidelity, an old story that became questionably “newsworthy” because his ex-wife came to ABC News and The Washington Post with an allegation – unsubstantiated by many who know Gingrich, including his daughters – that he wanted “an open marriage.” It’s not accident that the story emerged two days before the voting in the South Carolina primary. The whole thing reeked of a smear campaign. We can have a discussion about (a) whether the aforementioned news groups should have run the story; (b) whether John King should have asked a question related to it; and (c), if so, whether it was appropriately prioritized.

          2. Matt,

            Allow me, once again, to register my agreement with Chris and add a thought: Suppose that none of the moderators brought up the “open marriage” accusation by Newt’s ex-wife. Do you think that Romney or Santorum would have brought it up? I’ll bet ($10,000) the answer is no. Why not? For the same reason that none of them has directly brought up Newt’s past marital infidelity/divorces in previous debates but only ever-so-indirectly winked at it by mentioning how long they have been married to their one and only: It’s cheap and unseemly. It doesn’t belong in a presidential debate (that’s what reporters and radio shows are for). The audience/voters would have disliked them for it, and it would have backfired on whomever raised it. Do you really think otherwise? Just take a moment to try to picture it: At the beginning of the debate, the candidates are offered the opportunity to ask a question of one of the others. Your candidate of choice (Romney? Santorum?) turns to Newt and says: “So, Newt. Your ex-wife was on television saying that when she confronted you about having an affair with Callista, now your wife (seated stage left), you told her you wanted to have an open marriage. Do you want to address that?” You wouldn’t be watching it at home cringing? Really?

  8. […] here’s what my buddy sent me about Newt and morality: Nor is the issue an unrealistic demand for perfection. No one has a perfect past, and few, if any […]

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  9. […] here’s what my buddy sent me about Newt and morality: Nor is the issue an unrealistic demand for perfection. No one has a perfect past, and few, if any […]

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  10. […] I can speak to today’s divorced conservative leaders like Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh. And the answer there is that we have spoken out against […]

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