Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
As Herman Cain, once the darling of a sizeable segment of the Republican primary electorate, crashes and burns under continuing revelations of sexual harassment and marital infidelity, another unlikely candidate is rising to the top of the Republican field. Evangelical Christians’ discomfort with Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and his past flirtation with political moderation on such issues like abortion has created new openings for other candidates, and Newt Gingrich is the latest to follow Cain and Rick Perry as the candidate du jour for social conservatives.
At first glance, Newt Gingrich is not a poster child for traditional family values. He divorced his first wife while she battled cancer. He is currently married, not to the woman for whom he left his first wife, but to his third wife, a congressional aide with whom he had an affair – while he was leading the impeachment campaign against Bill Clinton.
This checkered past of divorce and infidelity would certainly not seem to endear social conservatives to Gingrich. And yet, he’s meeting with evangelical pastors in South Carolina , and gained a coveted potential endorsement from the Iowa FAMiLY Leader, the state’s major religious-right organization (Herman Cain did not make the cut). During a FAMiLY-sponsored forum a few weeks ago, from which Mitt Romney was notably absent, Gingrich gave a heartfelt speech about his religious beliefs, which have intensified since his 2009 conversion to Catholicism, which was partially inspired by his current wife.
For many evangelical Christians, Gingrich may seem like a good alternative to Romney, at least in terms of his religious faith. Half of white evangelical Christians say that they would be uncomfortable with a Mormon president, and the same number do not consider Mormonism to be a Christian religion. By contrast, most white evangelicals (84%) have a positive view of Catholics.
And his stance on immigration – which is more moderate than many of his opponents, who have been focusing on arrest and deportation as solution to illegal immigration – may actually help him among social conservatives who are attracted to what George W. Bush called “compassionate conservatism.” When asked to choose between two approaches to immigration reform, 54% of white evangelicals favor an approach that both secures the borders and provides an earned path to citizenship for those who are here illegally, compared to 43% who favor an approach that focuses on securing the borders and arresting and deporting those here illegally. Gingrich will, however, need to take care not to move further to the left on this issue, since white evangelicals still strongly support robust enforcement strategies for dealing with illegal immigration.
This leaves Gingrich’s turbulent marital history as a stumbling block among white evangelicals, who are more likely than the general public to agree that it is a serious moral failing when a politician commits infidelity:
- Three-quarters (76%) of white evangelicals say an elected official who cheats on his wife should resign.
- Nearly two-thirds (64%) of white evangelical Protestants believe that an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life CANNOT behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.
When the first sexual assault allegations against Herman Cain came out, we predicted that this would unsettle his white evangelical Christian base, and Gingrich’s history has the potential to be equally troubling. What may separate Gingrich from Cain is that his indiscretions are in the past – which means that he could benefit from the Christian narrative of sin and redemption. After the FAMiLY Leader debate, the organization’s head, Bob Vander Plaats said that he was surprised by the enthusiasm that 25 conservative Iowa mothers expressed for Gingrich in a focus group. “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 said.
It’s too early to say whether Gingrich will maintain his front-runner status, especially given the fates of Romney’s last two rivals. But it seems, as this point, as though white evangelical Protestants may be less uncomfortable with Newt Gingrich’s marital unrest than with Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith.