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DECEMBER 3, 2011 11:53AM

Newt Gingrich's Religion

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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.

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Yep. For many Evangelicals, Catholicism is nearly as suspect as Mormonism, so one has to wonder who will be the next "Vote for me 'cause I'm not Romney" candidate. Maybe it'll be Rick Santorum - Santorum and Ron Paul are the last alternatives who haven't seen a rise to the top of the polls followed by a plummet, and since Paul wants to legalize heroin and prostitution he's not likely to appeal to fundamentalists. I guess this is all to be expected when a candidate's personal faith is weighed and scrutinized as if it was one of the central factors in whether he/she should hold public office.
Personally, I think Newt-boy's only religion is worship of St. Newt.
nan, I wouldn't even talk about this if Newt were a Democrat. It's only because such a large part of the GOP base claims Christianity is a primary qualification for president, and those who make that claim are by and large Evangelicals. Their definition of "Christian" is hugely different from that of Catholics. In fact, many Evangelicals would say that Catholics are not Christian, since Catholics do not emphasize the need for a proactive profession of faith -- i.e. they do not say that one must be "born again". To let Newt off the hook for his religion, but not Mitt (or an atheist) seems a little hypocritical to me.

Mark, I suspect you may be correct. In Newt's defense, his conversion does little to enhance his political career. On the other hand, perhaps it makes him more acceptable to voters outside of the Deep South.
You make a good and important argument---because the Southern Baptist/Catholic differences are not---I think--understood across the board. They are also so widely misinterpreted.

Newt is the kind of guy who makes it very hard to live by the Christian teaching of "love your enemy." Because his position on repealing child labor laws ---which as far as I can tell is NOT taken out of context--makes him my enemy. And that's only one item on a really long list.
Roger, thank you for your comment. When someone changes something as central to their lives as their religion, it is more than an affirmation of a system of belief. It is a renouncing of the initial system of belief. That, to me, is a big deal. And as you imply, he has a long way to go before his religious views, whether Baptist or Catholic, are reflected in his politics, at least when it comes to issues like child labor.
Steve, thanks for this very interesting discussion of religion and Gingrich! Another topic related to this is the subject of which partner does the switching and/or conversion to the other's religion and the dynamics involved. One would have thought since Newt was the 'big man on campus,' his sweetheart would happily switch to seal the deal.

Also, regarding this part of your post, "Not so devout, however, that she minded carrying on an affair with the married Speaker of the House."--Item Number 7 on the Roman Catholic list is "Thou shalt not commit adultery." I guess that one is for 'others' to follow...
John, the fact that Gingrich was willing to undertake the conversion to Catholicism makes me suspect that he never took his stance as a Baptist very seriously. Certainly, he did not display "Baptist" morals when it came to marital fidelity. As you mention, Callista didn't either. Of course, as a devout Catholic, all she had to do was go confess her adultery periodically and all would be OK I guess.
All excellent points, although I should think Newt's Catholicism would be the least of his liabilities, with batshit insanity topping the list.

Alan, you made me laugh, but I think Newt, if the nominee, will be a very formidable candidate. Even when he spouts nonsense, he spouts it with such confidence that many, many people will believe him, and will be impressed with his supposed intelligence and common sense. Newt's lies and half truths will be believed, mark my words.
Gingrich is nothing but a cynical opportunist. Let's just see how long before someone else calls him out on his decidedly non-Catholic behaviour. Flip. Flop.
Having grown up Lutheran, I'm quite happy Newt left the fold. Lutherans strongly believe the one is saved only through the grace of God. Newt's going to have to count on God's grace. As far as I'm concerned, that shit can start burning in Hell today.

My suspicion is that Newt's conversion to a Southern Baptist was more inspired by a young man's desire for political power than any divine revelation.

A fine review of Newt's wandering faith. Did you feel the need for a shower afterwards?
Evangelicals demonstrate -- yet again -- their hypocrisy by favoring a philandering, money-grabbing reprobate like Newt over Romney, a man who -- whatever his other faults (and they are legion) -- at least appears to do more than pay lip service to family values.

That they prefer a bad Baptist/Catholic to a good Mormon says all that need be said about these people -- except to add that their perspicacity, judgment and lack of common decency is obvious from the fact they gave us not only Bush the Lesser, but Jimmy Swaggert, Jim Bakker, Ted Haggard, Joel Osteen. Then there's John Hagee -- the vile Catholic-hating "preacher" that even John McCain had to reluctantly reject. I wonder -- will he endorse Newt?

Meanwhile, this same nest of vipers and people who vote like a school of fish had a hissy fit over Reverend Wright. Go figure.
Boanerges, what, are you saying a politician might actually use religion for political purposes? Surely you can't be serious...

Stim, his Baptist faith certainly didn't hurt is chances in an election in Georgia, that's for sure.

Tom, having grown up amid Evangelicals, I can gratefully state that they aren't all of the Jim Bakker/Jimmy Swaggart/John Haggee variety. Still, one of the reasons I moved away from my Baptist heritage is because I felt that for far too many, their political views did not match the selfless, charitable, and loving sentiments that were preached from the pulpit and taught in Sunday schools. To their credit, they often displayed individual charitableness, but they were loathe to allow those sentiments to flavor public policy.
As I reside in the buckle of the Bible Belt -- in fact, in the place where the tang goes thru the belt -- I can attest that most Evangelicals are good and decent people, what used to be called the salt of the earth. But I can also attest that most haven't a clue about politics or economics -- not a clue!

The extent of their "knowledge" of such matters is to endlessly, senselessly regurgitate the infantile, puerile vomit thrown-up by soulless propagandists, mutant morons and half-naked bimbos on Fux News. Such "knowledge" leads them to vote like a school of fish.

God help us -- religion certainly won't.