Evangelicals and the New Newt

Mainstream pundits are amazed that Newt Gingrich is surging among evangelical Christians, in spite of his sleazy personal and public history. Gail Collins sums it up like this:

[Herman Cain has] been replaced as the Tea Party’s darling by Newt Gingrich. Never has the voting public’s lack of concern for a politician’s private behavior been more crystal clear.

These are the same people who expected the religious right to reject Sarah Palin when her unmarried teen daughter turned up pregnant. How did that work out? (My 2008 coverage of that issue still looks good.)

Here’s what they don’t get: Instantaneous moral transformation is the essence of evangelical Christianity: Amazing GracePaul on the road to Damascus, and so forth.  The idea that you could be a complete sleaze for most of your life but a Man of Righteousness today — it makes perfect sense to them. For Evangelicals, the question isn’t “Did he do bad things?” but “Has he repented and changed?”

In practice, answering this question involves a lot of wishful thinking. Evangelicals tend to believe in the conversions of people they like (i.e. Newt), while people they don’t like (i.e. Bill Clinton) are faking it. (In an interesting show, Iowan Evangelical talk-radio host Steve Deace proves the exception, arguing for some kind of objective consistency.) But you’re never going to get anywhere attacking Evangelicals for wishful thinking.

What is their wish exactly? Deace captures it pretty well: Evangelicals want someone who will “play offense”, someone who will take the fight to Obama and champion their worldview. They see Newt as that champion, even though he isn’t one of their own the way Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum are. (But Bachmann and Santorum “can’t hit that major league curve ball” according to a Deace caller. “We know Newt can.”)

So assuming (as I do) that Newt is the same self-centered con man he’s always been (though possibly with the diminished libido of a 68-year-old), how do you peel away his Evangelical support?

First, you need to realize that Newt has a gender gap, even within Evangelicals. Richard Land of the Christian Post observes that “Evangelical women are far less willing to forgive and let bygones be bygones” and advises Gingrich to address their concerns in a special speech.

As you prepare that speech, you should picture in your mind a 40-something Evangelical married woman whose 40-something sister just had her heart broken by an Evangelical husband who has just filed for divorce, having previously promised in church, before God, his wife and “these assembled witnesses” to “love, honor and cherish until death us do part.”

Better yet, picture the Evangelical woman whose cheating husband has given her the I’ve-changed line once too often. She’s going to want to hear something a little stronger than the repentance Newt has shown so far. And I don’t expect to ever hear Dr. Land’s proposed speech, because I don’t think Gingrich has it in him.

These Evangelical woman are a wild card that may not show up in the polls, because they might have their own election-day conversions and realize they just can’t vote for this guy. (If there’s an unexpected Bachman surge, that’s where it’ll come from. It’s also why Newt needs a Sarah Palin endorsement.)

Second, Gingrich needs to be pinned down on the exact timing of his conversion. Any post-conversion sleaze seriously undermines his case.

And finally, the emphasis needs to be on continuity. There is no New Newt. His recent don’t-call-it-lobbying career is of a piece with his whole life: unprincipled and benefitting no one but himself. His book-and-video efforts haven’t promoted the conservative cause so much as exploit it for personal gain. Even his campaign is a money-maker.

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  • By Campaign Update « The Weekly Sift on December 12, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    […] Evangelicals and the New Newt. Mainstream pundits are puzzled by how the religious right can rally to a morally challenged Newt Gingrich. It’s really not that mysterious. […]

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