Joe (the other Joe, the original Joe) already linked to Ross Douthat’s little essay on why Chrisitian conservatives should think twice before hitching their wagons to the primary season’s current rising star.
Conservative Christianity in America, both evangelical and Catholic, faces a looming demographic challenge: A rising generation that is more unchurched than any before it, more liberal on issues like gay marriage, and allergic to the apocalyptic rhetoric of the Pat Robertson-Jerry Falwell era. To many younger Americans, religious conservatism as they know it often seems to stand for a kind of institutionalized hypocrisy — a right-wing Tartufferie that’s incensed by the idea of gay wedlock but tolerant of straight divorce, forgiving of Republican sins but judgmental about Democratic indiscretions, and eager to apply moral litmus tests only on issues that benefit the political right.
Rallying around Newt Gingrich, effectively making him the face of Christian conservatism in this Republican primary season, would ratify all of these impressions. It isn’t just that he’s a master of selective moral outrage whose newfound piety has been turned to consistently partisan ends. It’s that his personal history — not only the two divorces, but also the repeated affairs and the way he behaved during the dissolution of his marriages — makes him the most compromised champion imaginable for a movement that’s laboring to keep lifelong heterosexual monogamy on a legal and cultural pedestal.
This article, cited by Douthat, offers some insight into the way evangelicals in Iowa are approaching Gingrich. If the issue is his checkered personal past, then we are called to consider seriously the possibility that he has become a new man. Don’t get me wrong: character is an issue, but if it were the only issue, then it seems to me that—at least from evidence regarding their personal lives–both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have more than a small edge on the former Speaker.
To be sure, Gingrich seems to have been quite strategic in picking his battles and his soap-boxes over the past few years. He has fought fights and very vocally taken positions that appeal to conservative Christians. But I’m at the moment inclined to share some of Douthat’s concerns about the receptivity of “today’s [Un-Christian] youth” to the strident cadences of a man like Gingrich.
I haven’t given up on them entirely: some of them will migrate toward religion as they accept some of life’s responsibilities and meet some of life’s challenges. But a religious witness that seems less politically calculated and calibrated, that is less tied to the exigencies of the moment, and that is not burdened by so much personal baggage may serve the interests of “the church” much better.
I’m half-tempted to say that I’d rather have a candidate and a president, less closely identified with conservative Christianity, whose feet I and my fellows can hold to the fire over issues that are close to our hearts rather than someone as mercurial as Gingrich who presumes to know what we want and speak for us. This doesn’t mean I want someone hostile to my concerns, but perhaps a sympathetic fellow traveler, rather than a self-appointed spokesman and leader.
In different circumstances, I might want something different (full disclosure: I voted for Mike Huckabee in the 2008 Georgia primary, and would likely have seriously considered voting for him again this year; he’s much more winsome than Gingrich). But I’m fairly confident that I don’t want Newt Gingrich as the principal public spokesman for conservative Christianity.
I know that it’s tempting to rally around the guy about whom so many prominent elite Eastern media conservatives have expressed doubts. But the guy about whom they’re expressing doubts is at least as close to them as Mitt Romney is. There are better and more effective standard bearers for the political concerns of conservative Christianity than Newt Gingrich. That none of them is currently the likely Republican nominee is most emphatically not the end of the world.
Joseph Knippenberg is Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University.