Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

Newt Gingrich, Evangelicals, & Imperfectability

January 27th, 2012 | 4 min read

By Andrew Walker

This post is coauthored by Andrew Walker and Eric Teetsel
In recent days, Mere Orthodoxy has played host to several essays on Newt Gingrich. Matthew Lee Anderson—a friend and co-laborer in the effort to engage young evangelicals with conservative ideas—and Jerry Walls have stated their unequivocal opposition to voting for him. For them, a lifetime of personal vanities, grandiose policy proposals, character flaws, and serial adultery disqualifies Newt from receiving support from evangelicals. Even worse, were evangelicals to support Gingrich, it would potentially contradict our Christian witness (especially regarding marriage), making evangelicals “opportunistic hypocrites.”

Matthew states,

"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."

Jerry Walls uses even more forceful language to express his opposition,

“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.”

We disagree.

Evangelicals can support Newt Gingrich in good conscience without descending to an “impoverishment of standards.”

We are not endorsing Gingrich as the best Republican alternative to President Obama.  Nor are we asking evangelicals to overlook his moral shortcomings. A man’s character matters and there are legitimate concerns about Gingrich’s. Chief among these concerns is his pride. One political observer we know has said, “If you want to understand Newt, watch Lawrence of Arabia.” Yikes. You could argue that his pattern of adulterous behavior extends not from aberrant sexual desire, but from pride.

We take issue with the notion that adultery disqualifies an individual to serve as our Commander in Chief.

To employ a standard of Christian witness as they Matt and Jerry do, the anti-Gingrich crowd must also end their support of Mitt Romney. As Martin Cothran aptly noted on his blog:

“Adultery is a violation of one of the Ten Commandments and is a mortal sin. On the other hand, I would rather not have a person who is a polytheist in the White House either. Mormonism is essentially polytheistic, a violation of another of the Ten Commandments, and also a mortal sin.”

He continues,

“But there is an important difference between the two scenarios above--the Gingriches and the Romneys. It is that the former are repentant, and the latter are not. And so I'm not clear on how unrepentant and continuing violation of the first commandment is less problematic than the repentant violation of the sixth commandment.”

From our position, Matthew and Jerry have taken themselves out of the 2012 presidential race altogether. And while Romney may not be the focus of this article, the flaws of Gingrich can be transposed onto Romney. Though Romney may not be a Christian, equal measures of rogue ambition and political flip-flops (on abortion and gay marriage, issues, we might add, that Gingrich has been consistent on) may likewise disqualify him on the same grounds of personal character flaws that are applied to Gingrich. If the quest for power has led to problematic personal decisions for Gingrich, then Romney’s vacillating political philosophy makes him culpable to the charge of self-serving pragmatism.

Further, Romney’s Mormonism is a damning sacrifice of evangelicalism’s doctrinal witness since Mormonism denies the Trinity. If Christian witness is the standard-bearer of potential support, Romney must be subtracted from evangelical consideration, as well. Otherwise, evangelicals are supporting an individual, who, though faithfully married, undermines the essence of true Christianity. From our perspective, enthusiastic evangelical support for Romney may, alternately, present us as “opportunistic idolaters.”

The result is that evangelicals can cede or weaken their moral and Christian witness on marriage by supporting Gingrich, or they can completely abdicate their Christian witness by supporting a non-Christian. It’s a lose-lose equation for the anti-Gingrich establishment.

We don’t believe Barack Obama’s potential re-election is an eschatological evil, nor a Gingrich election a celestial eon. It’s an imperfect election with imperfect candidates voted for by imperfect citizens. Evangelicals will not have sold out if they support Newt. They’ll simply be voting for an imperfect individual. We’ll only sacrifice our moral witness if we stake our moral witness on Gingrich’s example. We don’t.

Our understanding of Christian witness should in no way be dependent on the man in the Oval Office.  Whether it’s Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama we are mistaken if we hold to hope that our  president will lead the charge for Christendom. Presidents can only ruin our moral witness if we expect them to be our moral exemplar. We don’t.

Whether thrice-married or happily married for 44 years, casting one’s vote in favor of a candidate is not a carte blanche endorsement of the person as a whole, but the recognition that an individual’s governing philosophy aligns with your own. We prefer a candidate who acted wrongly (indeed, continues to act wrongly) than one who, at the very core of his being, believes wrongly about matters of public policy, such as Barack Obama.

We don’t place faith in the past of Newt Gingrich. Nor of his present. We don’t place faith in the faith of Newt Gingrich. We place measured sobriety in a Gingrich presidency that he’ll elect Supreme Court justices who see marriage as something written into Natural Law irrespective of his own abysmal experiences in upholding his own. We place measured sobriety in a Gingrich presidency that he’ll have the moral resolve to help end abortion. We place measured sobriety in a Gingrich presidency that he’ll reduce our national debt and put America on the path towards solvency.

We wonder whether such swift denouncements of Newt Gingrich are sprung from an inward desire to have a president who really accomplishes something for Christianity; someone who validates our cause and lends dignity to our truths. This is problematic. Evangelicalism, when given the opportunity to shine on the national stage, usually fails. And because cultural Christianity has failed so greatly in offering an enduring cultural witness (partly, because we’ve reduced our witness to politics), Newt Gingrich fits the profile for assuaging the wrath of a failed evangelicalism that yearns for another chance at stardom and legitimacy. Refusing to vote for Newt Gingirch represents an over-reaction to an evangelicalism that longs to be pristine.

Andrew Walker

Andrew T. Walker is an Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.