Like many evangelicals in Iowa, Steve Deace, an influential conservative radio host, is wrestling with the possibility that Newt Gingrich may be the most viable standard bearer for family-values voters in the next election. It’s a conundrum, he says, that many others are also grappling with. "Maybe the guy in the race that would make the best president is on his third marriage," he says. "How do we reconcile that?"
One senses him trying. "I see a lot of parallels between King David and Newt Gingrich, two extraordinary men gifted by God, whose lives include very high highs and very low lows," Deace says. David, after all, committed adultery with the ravishing Bathsheba, then had her husband killed, among other transgressions. The Bible makes room for complicated, morally compromised heroes. Now Christian conservatives, desperate for an alternative to Mitt Romney, are learning to do so as well.
"Under normal circumstances, Gingrich would have some real problems with the social-conservative community," says Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council. "But these aren’t normal circumstances."
Until recently, there was an assumption that Gingrich’s marital history would make it impossible for him to shore up religious conservatives, especially conservative women. Such voters dominate the Iowa caucuses, whose decision on Jan. 3 will do much to determine whether the Gingrich bubble is more enduring than those of Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain. "I’m one of those who said Newt would have a large gender gap, and that even though men might be more willing to forgive and move on, quite frankly I thought the women would be less likely to do so," says Bob Vander Plaats, head of the Iowa FAMiLY Leader, the state’s major religious-right organization. (The unconventional spelling of his group’s name is meant to emphasize the subordination of the individual in family life.)
After all, it’s not just that Gingrich is on his third marriage. He famously divorced his first wife while she was suffering from cancer—a cancer he’d previously used to garner sympathy in campaign speeches. He cheated on his second wife with congressional aide Callista Bisek, now his third wife, while leading the impeachment battle against Bill Clinton. Like Sen. Larry Craig, he of the attempted airport-bathroom tryst, Gingrich’s personal life has become a liberal punchline, proof of Republican hypocrisy on family values. How can voters whose main priority is the restoration of the traditional family rally around him?
Yet on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, when most of the GOP candidates gathered in the First Federated Church in Des Moines for a FAMiLY Leader forum, the consensus was that Gingrich came out on top. Partly that’s because he’s been preparing his theocentric message for a while, particularly since converting to Catholicism, Callista’s religion, in 2009, which he has said strengthened his appreciation for the role of faith in public life. In recent years, his writing and speaking have become increasingly religious and even apocalyptic, limning a great world-historical show-down between the forces of Christian civilization and those of what he calls "secular-socialism," which weakens society, allowing for the spread of radical Islam.
"A country which has been, since 1963, relentlessly in the courts driving God out of public life shouldn’t be surprised at all the problems we have, because we’ve in fact attempted to create a secular country, which I think is frankly a nightmare," he said at the FAMiLY Leader debate. Most of his audience surely knew that 1963 is the year the Supreme Court banned prayer in school.
After the debate, moderator Frank Luntz held a focus group with 25 conservative Iowa mothers. Vander Plaats was shocked at their enthusiasm for Gingrich. "Though they don’t embrace or endorse or condone his personal past, they might be more willing to get over that if he’s the best one to lead to preserve the America they want for their children," he says.
Two days later, the FAMiLY Leader came up with a list of four finalists for its coveted endorsement: Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and Gingrich. The fact that he made the cut was striking, given that the FAMiLY Leader is asking all candidates to sign a pledge titled "The Marriage Vow," which says, "We acknowledge and regret the widespread hypocrisy of many who defend marriage yet turn a blind eye toward the epidemic of infidelity and the anemic condition of marriages in their own community."
Gingrich benefits, of course, from the powerful Christian narrative of sin and deliverance. "These voters believe in forgiveness, they believe in redemption," says Ralph Reed, who leads the Faith and Freedom Coalition. After all, as he points out, it was evangelicals who helped elect Ronald Reagan, our first and only divorced president.
The redemption narrative allows evangelicals to see themselves as fundamentally different from the feminists who rallied behind Bill Clinton because he was able to advance their agenda despite his personal failings. Tamara Scott is the Iowa director of Concerned Women for America and recently became a co-chair of Bachmann’s campaign, but she has nothing bad to say about Gingrich and resists Clinton comparisons. "Here’s the difference," she says. "Bill Clinton denied what he did. He didn’t repent."
Of course, none of this is to say that Gingrich has the religious right locked up, just that it won’t be his sex life that thwarts him. Perkins points out that Gingrich failed to prioritize social issues when he was in the House, and he’s lately been lambasted for influence peddling on behalf of conservative bêtes noires Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. His show of leniency toward some undocumented immigrants during last week’s CNN debate could hurt him as well. "If you’ve been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you’ve been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don’t think we’re going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully, and kick you out," Gingrich said.
This isn’t a completely outré position among evangelicals, but it infuriated some on the right, who hate the suggestion that a hardline position on immigration is inhumane.
"People know him, but they don’t know everything about him," says Perkins. "They will in the next couple of weeks, and we’ll see how well he can withstand that type of scrutiny." Still, he acknowledges, anxious anti-Romney conservatives are eager to coalesce behind someone. "The bench is getting kind of shallow," he says. "The only candidate left that has not been out in front is Rick Santorum, and time is short."