The 2012 presidential primary race has thus far failed to produce the archetypal Republican candidate with frontrunner staying power: a candidate who connects with the evangelical Christian base and who comfortably walks and talks "traditional family values." As evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress (recently in the headlines for declaring that the Mormon faith is not a Christian religion) put it to Slate's David Weigel:
"I think there's now an evangelical tri-lemma. Do you vote for a Mormon who's had one wife," he asks, "a Catholic who's had three wives, or an Evangelical who may have had an entire harem?"
Mitt Romney, despite having solid "family values" credentials, has been stuck as a weak frontrunner for the entire campaign, in large part because of misgivings many evangelicals have about his Mormon faith. Rick Perry, who seemed tailored to fit the bill, fell to earth as quickly as he rose after consistently miserable showings at several debates. Herman Cain, an ordained Baptist minister and once the prime beneficiary of his rivals' weaknesses, has been all but vanquished not only by his gaffes on foreign policy, but also by unfolding accusations of sexual harassment and an alleged long-term affair during his days as the head of the National Restaurant Association. Ironically, Newt Gingrich, a candidate with an even more turbulent marital history, is the latest rising candidate to pursue this key Republican voting bloc.
Can Gingrich succeed where Cain stumbled? His past personal life certainly seems to suggest that courting evangelical voters would be an uphill battle: to begin with, 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 for his own infidelities. Ahead of the Iowa caucuses, he did not sign the Iowa FAMiLY Leader's traditional marriage pledge, which includes a vow to "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." He did, however, affirm its principles in a response to the group's request for his signature, by promising "personal fidelity" to his wife.
Recent polling by Public Religion Research Institute drives home just how much of a problem Gingrich's personal history could be going forward:
Fifty-seven percent of Americans and fully 70 percent of both white evangelicals and Republicans say that an elected official who commits adultery should resign.
Most significantly, white evangelical Protestants in particular tend to draw a straight line between fidelity in personal life and trustworthiness in professional life. While the general population is evenly divided, 64 percent of white evangelical Protestants and a majority (55 percent) of Republicans disagree that an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.
Consistent with these findings, there has been some resistance on the ground. A group called Iowans for Christian Leaders in Government has already written a strongly worded letter to Bob Vander Plaats, the head of the Iowa FAMiLY Leader, declaring that Gingrich is "not an acceptable choice among Christians." Meanwhile, Southern Baptist leader Richard Land warns Gingrich that while evangelical men might forgive him, far fewer evangelical women will be able to override their discomfort with his infidelity.
But as substantial as Gingrich's challenges are, they may not prove fatal to Gingrich's campaign for two reasons. First, Gingrich is on better ground with conservative Christian voters than Romney on the issue of his faith. Romney faces a significant perception problem: Approximately half of white evangelical Protestants say both that they are uncomfortable with the idea of a Mormon president and that they do not believe that the Mormon faith is a Christian religion. In contrast, while there has historically been antipathy between evangelicals and Catholics, today a solid 84 percent of white evangelicals have a favorable view of Catholics, the religion to which Gingrich converted in 2009.
Second, Gingrich's recent conversion, and the prominence of the themes of sin and redemption in evangelical circles, may allow enough of these voters to look beyond their discomfort with his personal history, and instead to his potential as a strong national Republican politician who is not Mitt Romney. This approach wouldn't be unheard of for evangelical voters: after all, Pat Robertson endorsed the thrice-married Catholic Rudy Giuliani in 2007, and even beloved Ronald Reagan was divorced.
Gingrich's performance at the Thanksgiving FAMiLY Leader Forum, where he spoke frankly about his personal failures and acknowledged that he had caused "a great deal of pain," may foreshadow his ability to successfully flesh out his own narrative on the bones of these well-worn themes. After the forum, Vander Plaats reported his surprise at the enthusiasm that conservative Iowa mothers expressed 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."
For many evangelicals, the question between the two frontrunners Romney and Gingrich may come down to an uncomfortable choice that can be expressed in the terms of an old theological debate: faith vs. works. In Romney, many evangelical Republicans have a candidate whose personal values they trust but whose faith they may not; while in Gingrich, many evangelical Republicans have a candidate whose faith they trust but whose personal values they may not.