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.

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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.

16 Comments

  1. In your attempt to argue against Gingrich as the eventual nominee, you fail to provide a case for anyone else being the candidate. I feel like you are grasping at straws to simply pick the best of the worst.

    I would have expected better contextual facts around “going to the moon” than you provided. Come on Matt, you know better than that. The guy is simply stating that we need to reenvision what our space program should be, that is one of many ideas he has had. Primarily, he is slamming President Obama’s lack of vision with NASA and stating his own desire to reinvigorate it.

    After reading these, I often wonder (knowing what you do about me) if you would hold the same sort of grace if I became a well known speaker. Or would my past sins be a road block for what your litmus test to leadership requires?

    This is just a viewpoint I am offering based off the perceptions of your arguments.

    Reply

  2. Matt,

    You write: “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.”

    Boo… Newt has stated time and again–including in the last debate http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgUKblaNwR8 –that he thinks the government should support space exploration by putting up prizes for the first in the private sector to achieve certain goals, not dump buckets of public money into government bureaucracies, precisely because this way would be cheaper, less wasteful, and more efficient. No need to create a straw man.

    PS This is but one example of those original, “grandiose” ideas that you and Douthat were looking for.

    Reply

    1. Matthew Lee Anderson January 26, 2012 at 10:27 am

      Ben and Scrumpy,

      You’re right I didn’t include the surrounding context. And that Newt has said that it should be “prizes.”

      Which makes me wonder: with the value of the dollar today, how large a prize would be necessary for it to make sense for a company to pursue? After all, the niche for space residency is pretty limited, isn’t it? And if it’s a research community, it could take decades to turn into profitable products, right? And….and on, and on.

      So yeah. I get it. He was trying to expand our vision for the space program, to inspire a sense of national greatness again (yay that, I guess) and to be bold and visionary. He also just made a promise that, if we are to take him at his word, is almost laughable. Dreher agrees:

      http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/2012/01/25/to-the-moon-newtie/

      Best,

      Matt

      Reply

  3. A question: Which would be worse? Gingrich may not have the kind of character some would prefer. But, do we want another kind of character with which we are already familiar after almost 4 years? In other words, why not vote for Gingrich rather than have the current character remain in power? Not voting for the Republican candidate is voting for the Democrat candidate, is it not?

    Reply

  4. Good thoughts; glad we’re exploring this some more. The core of what you’re saying seems to be based around that quote from March, where Newt says he cheated because he was too passionate about his country (implying he had no passion for fidelity left over, I suppose). I have three thoughts in response to this:

    1) You put me in the amusing position of trying to defend Gingrich by criticizing him, but that’s what I’m going to do: I think his explanation was nakedly self-serving. It may have a grain of truth to it, but it seems equally as likely to me that it’s just another lame politician’s answer: a shortcoming framed in the most appealing way. The political equivalent of saying you “work too hard” when a job interviewer asks you what your biggest weakness is.

    2) It’s entirely possible that both his political drive and his infidelity share a common source, and aren’t necessarily reinforced by one another. For example, if someone is very ambitious, that may cause them to be both very hard-working and very ruthless, and it doesn’t necessarily follow that stopping them from working so hard will correspondingly stop them from being so cutthroat in what dealings they still have. Similarly, I don’t think we can confidently say that Gingrich will be a better husband or a better man without political influence. That may very well be so, but it’s also possible the added attention and responsibility will discourage some of his shortcomings. The aphorisms about sunshine/disinfectant and idle hands may apply here.

    3) I wonder if we’d really be putting Gingrich in any more moral danger than any other candidate by electing him President. I think it’s fair to say that the Presidency contains enough power that loaning it to anyone significantly decreases their ability to live a virtuous life. I think we’ve already decided to accept this unfortunate fact; what’s left is largely speculation about degree.

    I also wonder, as an outcropping of this third item, whether or not Gingrich’s failings are honestly more dramatic, or just more public. He speaks off the cuff and often reveals more than he means to, and he’s been around forever, both things that ensure the electorate will see each basketful of his dirty laundry. Do the political alternatives actually have less to gawk at, or are they just much better at hiding it? There is a degree to which Gingrich’s many indiscretions, by the mere fact that they’re public, are almost reassuring: it gives me some reason to believe he’s not particularly good at being secretive.

    Is it better to be flawed and transparent, or opaque? The former has problems, but the problems are known and can be measured. The latter either indicates a better man, or a significantly worse one, because any failings are made worse by the fact that they may not be exposed to the light of day. There is, of course, no right answer given how little information we have, but the important thing is to recognize the existence of the question.

    Reply

    1. Matthew Lee Anderson January 26, 2012 at 7:02 pm

      Chris,

      I appreciate this reply a lot. Couple quick things, as I’m running out of time.

      1) I almost said something like that, but I thought it sounded too cynical. Of course, the problem is that if true, it casts a pall over the story of his conversion, too. It is possible to tell this sort of story in order to seek political power.

      2) “Similarly, I don’t think we can confidently say that Gingrich will be a better husband or a better man without political influence. That may very well be so, but it’s also possible the added attention and responsibility will discourage some of his shortcomings.”

      Absolutely right that not having power won’t necessarily make him a better husband. But if we grant the non-cynical reading of (1), I think it’s clear that he’ll do better without the power than with it.

      3) “I wonder if we’d really be putting Gingrich in any more moral danger than any other candidate by electing him President.”

      The position does have inherent moral dangers attached to it, I think. But what’s unique about Gingrich is his history of not being able to navigate those dangers successfully, and his admission that such responsibilities played a role. So I do think this is a special case.

      As to the transparency/opaque point, I think that is absolutely playing a part here. And you raised the question incredibly well.

      But the danger is that we need a President who, above all, can keep secrets. That’s one of the highest responsibilities that the President has–to know stuff, and to not say anything about it. Given Newt’s obviously undisciplined tongue, that itself poses a problem.

      Reply

      1. Good stuff. In order:

        1) I’m not sure if I’d say it calls his entire conversion into order; he’s spinning, as politicians are wont to do. A sad counter to offer, but there it is. Remember, of course, that I’m not making the case that Newt is a great candidate, or even necessarily a better one than the others. I’m just saying I don’t think we can dismiss him out of hand based on his moral failings.

        2) Agreed, so it all comes down to the non-cynical reading. Sadly, I honestly believe in the cynical reading. I think he’s taking a grain of truth about power and willpower and trying to turn it into an entire harvest. Not a glowing endorsement, I know, but nothing that would immediateyl disqualify him relative to other options.

        3) You’re probably right about us having genuine reason to think Gingrich is a bigger risk on this front. I think that’s fair. That said, is it our responsibility to concern ourselves with this to this degree? Once we’ve agreed that we’re likely to contribute to any one’s moral failings by giving them power, we’ve already necessarily agreed that we’re willing to accept contributing to someone’s failings due to the relative importance of what that person can accomplish with that power. And once we’ve done that, I think we have to conclude that their moral failings are dwarfed by their potential political impact. In other words, it’s a fair point, but one that I think has to be considered a marginal one. If someone genuinely believes he’d make the best President in terms of policy and effectiveness, I don’t think we could put our unsolicited concern for his spiritual well-being up as an offset. Too much is at stake for something so relatively speculative, particularly given that the ultimate responsibility still lies with him.

        My general operating theory here is not that Newt is good, so much as that I think the others might be almost as bad. I have no scales on which to compare, say, the sin of adultery versus the sin of shrewdly and deftly manipulating others to achieve power, or the sin of pride that leads a President to think they can remake the economy or the world the way they want through diktat. Increasingly I feel it’s safer and more sensible to assume that I can not safely put my faith in any of these people, particularly on a personal level, and try to focus on the more objective things, like policy, where are more immune to their concerted efforts. They can spend hundreds of hours focus-testing mannerisms and ties and try to seem like a certain kind of person, but they cannot so easily manipulate their own records. I’m basically making a Hayekian argument about who to support.

        Anyway, this is probably about to become a moot point if the latest polls in Florida are any indicator.

        Reply

  5. Newt’s passion for public service is why he cheated on his wives? I remember when he said that and thinking that it was pure bullshit. But if one takes his explanation on good faith (I cannot), it makes sense to question why a supposedly repentant and changed man is trying to get back into public service, where his passion was enflamed and then directed toward women other than his wife.

    Keep up the principled fight. Rationalizing Newt’s infidelities seems to be preferable to voting for a Mormon.

    Reply

    1. …for your fellow evangelicals.

      Reply

  6. Matthew Lee Anderson January 26, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    All,

    More to come on all this. But that little business about Gingrich having friends in line to rebut the open marriage claim? That little bit is in trouble now. http://motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2012/01/newt-finally-fesses-brazen-debate-lie

    Best,

    Matt

    Reply

  7. “Wimsey”. :)

    And thanks for the thoughtful discussion here; I’m not hugely into politics, but I enjoy reading the thoughtful writings of people who are. I think I’m going to especially enjoy your thoughts and Reynolds’ this election season! (And I used some variation of “thought” three times in that paragraph. Terrible!)

    Reply

    1. Matthew Lee Anderson January 27, 2012 at 9:11 am

      Thanks, Jessica. And using “thought” that frequently is not half as terrible as spelling Wimsey’s name wrong. Yikes!

      matt

      Reply

  8. It seems impossible to say how much Newt’s act is determined by his infidelity prone character flaws over his simply being a despicable politician (which may also be a result of character flaw). When we see Newt on the TV he’s an admittedly unconvincing politician; when he’s in the confession booth he’s a (presumed) repentant. I have a feeling we would be hearing and seeing a different side of Newt were we his priest.

    Reply

    1. I suppose my point is to say Newt suffers from two sets of vices (among others): 1.) infidelity 2.) politics. He obviously shares (2) with every other candidate and since I’m more convinced we see a handicapped attempt (because of 1) to hide (2) on the TV we shouldn’t write him off any more than we write any of the other candidates.

      Reply

      1. Matthew Lee Anderson January 27, 2012 at 9:17 am

        Ryan,

        What do you make of the fact that (he claims) that vice 2 led to vice 1?

        Also, I think we should specify. Being in politics isn’t a “vice,” is it? Certainly one can be a vicious politician by loving it wrongly. But in that respect, it seems like not all candidates are created equal. See, for instance, Santorum not bringing the wife along to be on camera so she could take care of their children. That seems to be, in some ways, a subordination of politics to its proper place in life, even while seeking political office. I don’t say this to compare Santorum to any of the others, because I don’t think any of ’em did it wrong. But simply to say that if a husband and wife abdicated all parenting responsibilities in order to pursue office, that would be bad.

        My, that last claim sounds *so bold!* I’m astonished by my courage in making it, and will reward myself with a dollar. : )

        matt

        Reply

        1. Matt,

          Well, my confidence is beginning to waver as I reflect on your post and Beckwith’s.

          However, if I’m to stick to my guns I need to clarify my position, as you rightly noted. Politics in general is not necessary a “vice”. But, politicians tend to be full of vices (indeed, many of them are led into public life by their vices – Newt the first among them). Despite your “bold” claim (don’t spend that dollar all in one place :P) I suspect even Santorum is guilty of this to an extent. It seems very few people go into politics for the right reasons.

          However, I suppose the obvious conclusion is Santorum or Mitt are comparably far less questionable than Newt.

          Reply

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