As former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich jumped to the front of the Republican presidential polls last month, he found several Southern Baptist leaders ready to support him despite his affairs and divorces.
The treatment of Gingrich, who left his Southern Baptist church to become a Catholic in 2009, differs substantially from how Southern Baptist leaders reacted to the adultery of then-President Bill Clinton.
Although Gingrich’s chances of becoming the Republican presidential nominee received a significant blow with his fourth place in Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses, he led the race in Iowa and national polls just a few weeks ago.
As his political fortunes momentarily peaked, some Southern Baptist leaders defended his past moral failings and attempted to explain why he could be supported as the Republican standard-bearer.
Brad Atkins, president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, argued last month that Gingrich’s affairs were less problematic than the Mormon faith of Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney.
“In South Carolina, Romney’s Mormonism will be more of a cause of concern than Gingrich’s infidelity,” Atkins claimed. “Conservatives can process and pray their way through the issue of forgiveness toward a Christian that has had infidelity in their life, but will struggle to understand how anyone could be a Mormon and call themselves ‘Christian.'”
Atkins is not the first prominent Southern Baptist pastor to question Romney’s faith.
Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, sparked controversy in October when he endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry and attacked Romney as “a member of a cult.”
Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, penned an open letter to Gingrich in late November that raised the possibility of bestowing the type of forgiveness Atkins suggested was available to Gingrich.
Land praised Gingrich and urged Gingrich to offer a public confession of his adultery in order to gain support of conservative evangelicals in the election.
“Well done!” Land wrote in his open letter. “You have risen beyond relevancy to serious competitiveness by your grit, erudition and intelligence. … You’re obviously extremely bright, knowledgeable, experienced on the issues and fully able to go toe-to-toe with the formidable campaigner President Obama has amply demonstrated that he is.”
Claiming to “have conducted more than 200 informal focus groups with Southern Baptists across the land,” Land argued that many evangelicals – especially women – were uncomfortable voting for Gingrich because of his affairs and divorces.
However, Land quickly extended the opportunity for political redemption.
“You must address this issue of your marital past directly and transparently and ask folks to forgive you and give you their trust and their vote,” Land advised. “I urge you to pick a pro-family venue and give a speech (not an interview) addressing your marital history once and for all. It should be clear that this speech will be ‘it’ and will not be repeated, only referenced.
“You need to make it as clear as you possibly can that you deeply regret your past actions and that you do understand the anguish and suffering they caused others including your former spouses,” Land added. “Make it as clear as you can that you have apologized for the hurt your actions caused and that you have learned from your past misdeeds. Express your love for, and loyalty to, your wife and your commitment to your marriage. … Such a speech would not convince everyone to vote for you, but it might surprise you how many Evangelicals, immersed in a spiritual tradition of confession, redemption, forgiveness and second and third chances, might.”
Land’s letter sparked responses from some Southern Baptists who argued that Gingrich had already sufficiently confessed and should be supported. These public statements include a confession on James Dobson’s radio program in 2007.
Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, claimed evangelicals needed to follow the model of Jesus and forgive Gingrich. Liberty, which has hosted Gingrich as a speaker on multiple occasions, has sparked criticism for running TV ads in Iowa recently that featured Gingrich.
“The woman at the well was fortunate she encountered Jesus that day instead of some of our evangelical brethren,” Falwell wrote as he explained why evangelicals should forgive Gingrich.
Similarly, Richard Lee, a former president of the SBC’s Pastors’ Conference and editor of The American Patriot’s Bible, called Gingrich “the only forceful Christian candidate who can at this point be elected and cleanse the White House next November.”
Gingrich did not respond publicly to Land’s letter. He did sign a pledge to be faithful to his wife. Gingrich promised The Family Leader, a prominent social conservative group in Iowa, that he would “uphold the institution of marriage through personal fidelity to my spouse and respect for the marital bonds of others.”
Although the group decided against endorsing a candidate, Gingrich had been listed along with Perry, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum as one of the only four candidates the group would consider endorsing.
After Gingrich signed the pledge, Land praised the move.
“It’s certainly a very strong step in the right direction,” Land said on CNN. “Forgiveness is part of the spiritual DNA of evangelicals. We believe in forgiveness. We believe in redemption. We believe in second and third chances.”
Land claimed Gingrich still needed to do more, but praised Gingrich for having “made significant headway.” Land added that he did not personally have any suspicions about Gingrich, but was merely noting that many evangelicals still did.
The outright support of some Southern Baptists and the offers for political redemption by others differ dramatically from the way fellow Southern Baptist Bill Clinton was treated during the scandal surrounding his affair with Monica Lewinsky – during which time then-Speaker Gingrich was leading impeachment efforts and having an affair with his now third wife.
Even after Clinton gave a highly confessional speech, Southern Baptist leaders like Land criticized Clinton and called on him to resign. For the Democratic president, confessing was not enough to earn an opportunity for political redemption from Land.
“It does not resolve the issue of whether his self-confessed sins and persistent attempts to conceal them have so irretrievably broken his relationship with the American people that, while they may and should forgive him and wish him well, he has forfeited the high honor, privilege and responsibility of remaining their president,” Land argued. “I still believe that if he desires to do what is best for the country, for the presidency, for himself and for his family, he will resign his office.”
Paige Patterson, then-president of the SBC, and Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, both echoed Land’s call for Clinton to resign.
Patterson and Mohler also called on Clinton’s home church in Arkansas, Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, to discipline him.
Land also refused to offer a chance for political forgiveness to 2008 Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, who is more socially liberal than Gingrich. Land, after attacking Giuliani for committing adultery and being divorced twice, claimed he would not even vote for Giuliani in the general election.
“How can we believe him?” Land asked during the campaign. “He promised … two wives that he would love, honor and cherish and be faithful only unto her until ‘death us do part.’ And twice he lied to his wife – twice. He broke his marital vows. That gets to the basic issue of trust, the basic issue of character. As Harry Truman once argued, he said, ‘I would never knowingly hire a man to work for me who cheated on his wife.’ When he was asked why, he said, ‘Well, if he’ll lie to his wife, he’ll lie to me. If he’ll break his oath of marriage, he’ll break his oath of office.’ It’s pretty hard to argue with President Truman’s logic.”
Land added that Giuliani’s three marriages “is one marriage too many for” evangelicals.
During the 2008 campaign, Land instead seemed excited about presidential candidate Fred Thompson, who had also been divorced. Although Land often claims to be nonpartisan, his past record demonstrates a clear partisan record favoring conservative Republicans.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.