Despite Affairs, Gingrich Given Political Grace by SBC Leaders

January 04, 2012

Ethics Daily ran my latest article today, which is entitled "Despite Affairs, Gingrich Given Political Grace by SBC Leaders." It notes that while Southern Baptist leaders attacked then-President Bill Clinton--even after he gave a highly confessional speech at a prayer breakfast--many now argue that Newt Gingrich should be forgiven and even supported (the photo is one I took of Gingrich in Iowa in August). As Speaker of the House, Gingrich led the impeachment effort against Clinton--while having an affair. Noted particularly in the piece for hypocrisy is Richard Land, who leads the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Land demanded Clinton resign and argued that he could not support the socially liberal Rudy Giuliani during the 2008 presidential campaign because of Giuliani's affairs and two divorces. Yet, Land now praises Gingrich and suggests that with a simple confessional speech the candidate could garner the support of Land and other evangelicals. With Gingrich coming in a distant fourth place in Iowa last night, the scenario of him as the nominee is highly unlikely. However, the attempts by conservative evangelicals to justify supporting him in case he became the nominee sadly demonstrate that partisanship often trumps principles.

The Gingrich case also demonstrates the continuing dominance of our system of confessional politics. As I noted in my book on confessional politics, when Gingrich confessed on James Dobson's radio program in 2007, it led many to believe he was about to run for president. Although he decided not to during that cycle, he now uses highly confessional religious rhetoric as he attempts to gain political redemption with voters. The continued expectations of such confessions in our political system can be seen in Land's call for Gingrich to give a longer confessional speech and Gingrich's pledge to a conservative evangelical group in Iowa to remain faithful to his wife. Interestingly, Gingrich has converted to Catholicism since his Dobson confession--leaving his Southern Baptist church--which places him firmly in the growing camp of evangelical Catholics (along former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum). Although Gingrich will likely not be the Republican nominee, his brief stint at the top of the polls and his support from many conservative evangelicals demonstrate that confessional politics can be used to garner key support.