Newt Gingrich converted to Catholicism in 2008, and was received into the Catholic Church the following year. I find it interesting that there is virtually no mention of Gingrich’s religious conversion in the media, nor does it seem to be a major issue among Republican Evangelicals. I am sure it’s politically incorrect to bring a candidate’s religion to the forefront of the discussion, but since the Republican Party has attracted the loyal devotion of most Evangelicals, it seems natural that Evangelicals would look with concern at Gingrich’s denial of his own Evangelical heritage.
Gingrich was a Lutheran growing up, but he became a Southern Baptist as a graduate student at Tulane in the late 1960’s. Baptists have a very clear definition of what it means to be a Christian. It is a personal and proactive choice to believe that Jesus is the divine Son of God, killed and resurrected to atone for our sin. His death and resurrection are the indispensible facts that make salvation possible. Baptists do not believe in the Sacraments as a means toward salvation. You can go to heaven without being baptized, and communion is likewise not required. Baptists believe that all Christians should be baptized once they have accepted the basic tenets of faith as described above. Baptism should not be administered to infants, since infants have neither the intellectual capacity nor moral foundation to proactively accept the divinity of Jesus. Once baptized, Christians should partake in communion, which Baptists call “the Lord’s Supper”. Participation in the Lord’s Supper, however, is not necessary for salvation.
For Baptists, salvation is a personal decision, and it requires no clerical intermediary. There is very little in the way of a clerical hierarchy. Each church selects its own pastor, and each congregation is an independent entity. The pastor serves at the pleasure of his congregation. He does not have to report to a higher clerical authority. There are no bishops or cardinals, and certainly no pope.
Unlike Catholics, Baptists recognize secular divorce, and there is nothing to prevent a Baptist from divorcing his or her spouse to marry someone else. A church annulment is not necessary for remarriage. Of course, if a Baptist church member displays a level of immorality that reflects badly on the church, other members of his church may expel him from the congregation. This almost never happens, however.
These are the basic tenets of the Baptist faith. With Gingrich’s conversion to Catholicism, he has, in effect, publicly renounced them.
In April, 2011, Gingrich wrote an essay for the National Catholic Register in which he explains why he converted to Catholicism. The first reason he mentions is the fact that his current wife, Callista, is a devout Catholic. Not so devout, however, that she minded carrying on an affair with the married Speaker of the House. The affair lasted for at least five years while Gingrich was married to his second wife. Not that it really matters, but Gingrich is 23 years older than Callista. When their affair began, she was in her late 20’s, Gingrich in his 50’s.
Since their marriage, Callista has joined Gingrich on travels throughout the world. Gingrich claims that wherever they are, Callista is adamant that they attend Catholic mass on Sunday. One of the things that impressed him about the Catholic faith is the presence of Catholic churches throughout the world. Does Gingrich know there are also Baptists and other denominations represented in remote locations throughout the world? Gingrich mentions how moved he was hearing Chinese church members singing “Amazing Grace”. Is Gingrich suggesting that only Catholics would sing that great hymn, one that was written by an Anglican priest, not a Catholic, over 230 years ago?
Gingrich’s essay states that in 2005, he had discussions with Catholic clergy about the dangers of secularism in Western society. An Evangelical Christian might be inclined to ask why that concern would specifically relate to Catholicism. Aren’t Gingrich’s former Southern Baptist brethren also concerned about secularism’s influence in Western society? Isn’t that concern voiced every Sunday from pulpits in every denomination, but especially from pulpits in Evangelical churches?
At about the same time, Gingrich read George Weigel’s book The Final Revolution, about the role Christianity played in the fall of communism. Certainly, there is a great deal of truth to the suggestion that Christians played a major role, perhaps an indispensible one, in communism’s demise. The selection John Paul II as pope was a huge factor in the rise of Solidarity in Poland, the first modern threat to Soviet control of Eastern Europe. One should not infer, however, that Catholics were alone in anti-communist agitation. In East Germany, Lutherans took the lead. In many places, there was little or no religious element at all. Gingrich’s implication that Catholicism was the driving force in the fall of communism is a misreading of history.
In his essay, Gingrich goes on to explain that Pope Benedict’s visit to the United States in 2008 was the decisive moment of his conversion. He explains, “The joyful and radiating presence of the Holy Father was a moment of confirmation about the many things I had been thinking and experiencing for several years.” That’s fine. Members of Gingrich’s former Baptist church might wonder, however, why he never noticed a joyful and radiating presence among them. Are Catholic bishops the only Christians who display such pious demeanor?
I hope readers of this post will not think I am anti-Catholic. I am not. If Newt Gingrich wishes to become Catholic, it is none of my business. I would be delighted if Gingrich’s new faith instills a sense of charity, honesty, and humility that has been sorely missing from him in the past. I only raise these questions because Gingrich will need the support of Evangelicals if he is to be the Republican nominee. He will need their support to win the general election against Obama.
When polled whether they believe the president should be Christian, Evangelicals overwhelmingly answer in the affirmative. Many, perhaps most, Evangelicals deny that Mormons are Christians, a fact that may prevent Mitt Romney from winning the GOP nomination. It seems reasonable to me, therefore, that Evangelicals should be similarly concerned that Gingrich has renounced his own Evangelical past. By doing so, he, like Romney, has a radically different definition than Evangelicals of what it means to be a Christian.