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The Missing Premise: One more on Gingrich, Marriage, and the White House

January 26th, 2012 | 5 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

The discussion around here the past couple days has been top notch, the sort of civil and spirited roundabout that we ought to have more often.  Don't let the length of the comments scare you off:  there's good stuff down there, and none of it by me!

I don't have too much more to say on this whole subject (really!), but remembered tonight one little bit of data that I think is significant for discerning how someone ought to vote when it comes to someone like Gingrich.

First, though, some prefatory remarks by my friend Francis Beckwith:

Adultery, of course, is one temptation. And I highly doubt that Gingrich would succumb to that temptation ever again. But the cluster of character traits that gave rise to these infidelities is a different story all together....

This is not to diminish or call into question Gingrich’s conversion. Quite the opposite. For, as the Catholic Catechism teaches, absolution of sins does not eradicate all the effects and consequences of those sins on the shaping of one’s character. This requires ongoing conversion, including detaching oneself from those things that may provide an occasion for sin.

The Catechism is a helpful guide on the matter, but there's no reason to get hung up on the "Catholic" part of it.  It's sound, prudential advice that's easily recognizable as wise. We don't let alcoholics near the liquor cabinet, after all, and we batten down the hatches on the internet for the porn addict.  Repentance, if it is anything, means the change of a life, and that means understanding the peculiar temptations a person has and going about things a different way.

I'm with Beckwith that Gingrich probably won't have another affair.  Who can tell for sure, but let's just play the odds.  Benefit of the doubt, and the like.  Beckwith puts the question well, though:  will seeking the Presidency deepen the "cluster of character traits" that were at the heart of his infidelities?

At a few points in my many conversations, I've made this argument in one form or another.  And the rejoinder is simple:  we don't know what sort of character traits produced the infidelity, so we ought turn a blind eye while casting our secret ballots.   It's a good response, as we don't really know what caused the infidelities.  And while it may have been the pressures of public office, who can know for sure?  The missing premise here goes a long ways toward softening up the case, and making the vote for Gingrich seem a lot more plausible.

Except we know what was behind Gingrich's affairs.  Gingrich has already told us.  We just forgot about it, because it was back in March of last year when no one was paying attention.  I quote:

"There's no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate."

He goes on to talk about being a grandfather and having daughters that like him, which along with love of country and all his hard work are goods not to be frowned upon.  But his candid admission that the situation that he is now seeking to return to, with its immense responsibilities and work and its patriotic underpinnings, was near the heart of his infidelity is worth taking note of.

By his own admission, Gingrich was the sort of fellow for whom political power was personally destructive.  At least if we take him at his word, anyway.  History is full of examples of the type, though there's no need to revel in it.  All men have limits that they reach, and grasping beyond them tends to prompt their lives to unravel and pain to ensue.  We are not all great men, and some of us not even very good men.  You may call this all judgmental:  I might call it personal experience, though my wife and friends would get to it first.   There is nothing more important, Peter Whimsey once put it, than knowing one's own limits.

The question, of course, is whether knowing what we know about Gingrich's life outside the context of grace whether we should vote to expand the power and influence he had because he now lives inside it.  I know of no final argument that could settle the discussion, no plank or reason that could finally persuade.

But to me, the case still seems to be strongly on the side of not voting for the fellow, if only for the reasons that we may be placing him in the path of temptation that he has already confessed he could not handle before.  The counsel of Scripture is not, at least as I recall, on the side of throwing ourselves in front of the train and praying that our newfound power of the Spirit will suffice.  "Flee temptation" is something like a command, even if we sometimes need others to tell us when to run.

Of course, we haven't even mentioned his desire to go to the moon, an intemperate fantasy built on imaginary buckets of non-existant cash.   We should, at some point, have the purely substantial discussion about policies and what would be best for America.  But until then, we ought to note all of Newt's own words, and pause at the thought of doing unto him what he has already confessed originally contributed to his corruption.

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.