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The party that positions itself as defender of family values is embroiled in a debate over the politics of divorce.

Considering a run for the Republican nomination as president in a field with no clear front-runner among religious conservatives, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich last week went on James Dobson’s radio program to confess that he was having an extramarital affair with a woman he later married at the same time the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal was playing out.

“The honest answer is yes,” Gingrich said. Twice divorced and currently married to his third wife, Gingrich at first said the offenses were not the same. Clinton, he said, got in trouble for committing perjury in a sexual-harassment lawsuit before a federal judge.

Telling Gingrich, “I believe you to be a professing Christian,” Dobson pressed the question. Gingrich replied that he sought God’s forgiveness for sins of his past.

“I believe deeply that people fall short and that people have to recognize that they have to turn to God for forgiveness and to seek mercy,” Gingrich said. “Somebody once said that when you’re young you want justice and that when you get older you want mercy. I also believe that there are things in my own life that I have turned to God and have gotten on my knees and prayed about and sought God’s forgiveness. I don’t know how you could live with yourself and not end up breaking down if you didn’t find, try to find, some way to deal with your own weaknesses and to go to God about them.”

The exchange came after Southern Baptist Convention leader Richard Land was quoted as saying he believed evangelicals would have deep doubts about voting for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, because of the divorce of his second wife and alienation of his children that Land described as a “divorce on steroids.”

Giuliani said on a campaign stop that Gingrich’s admission shows no one is perfect.

“I think the American people realize, and I’m speaking for myself now, we’ve made a lot of mistakes, and hopefully we’ve done some good things in our lives, and it’s probably always been that way,” he said, quoted in the Los Angeles Times.

A third GOP hopeful, Sen. John McCain, who remarried one month after his 1980 divorce, said the personal lives of White House hopefuls shouldn’t become an issue in the 2008 campaign.

All three aspire to become the second president of the United States to be elected after having a divorce. The first, Ronald Reagan, divorced actress Jane Wyman in 1949 after nine years of marriage over his increasing involvement in politics and the couple’s diverging movie careers.

Evangelicals never held the failed marriage against the 40th U.S. president, credited with enabling ascendancy of the Religious Right, largely because he shared their conservative political views. Upon Reagan’s death in 2004, Dobson said his values “were often rooted in the timeless truths of Scripture.”

Religious Right leaders have been less forgiving, however, of marital problems involving political foes.

Discussing Bill Clinton’s extramarital affair while in office, Dobson said in 2001 that “no man has ever done more to debase the presidency or to undermine our Constitution–and particularly the moral and biblical principles upon which it is based–than has William Jefferson Clinton.”

That was three years after Clinton went before 100 religious leaders at a prayer breakfast to confess, “I have sinned.”

With his wife at his side, Clinton said: “It is important to me that everybody who has been hurt know that the sorrow I feel is genuine: first and most important, my family; also my friends, my staff, my Cabinet, Monica Lewinsky and her family, and the American people. I have asked all for their forgiveness.

“But I believe that to be forgiven, more than sorrow is required–at least two more things. First, genuine repentance–a determination to change and to repair breaches of my own making. I have repented. Second, what my Bible calls a ‘broken spirit;’ an understanding that I must have God’s help to be the person that I want to be; a willingness to give the very forgiveness I seek; a renunciation of the pride and the anger which cloud judgment, lead people to excuse and compare and to blame and complain.”

“The children of this country can learn in a profound way that integrity is important and selfishness is wrong, but God can change us and make us strong at the broken places,” Clinton said. “I want to embody those lessons for the children of this country–for that little boy in Florida who came up to me and said that he wanted to grow up and be President and to be just like me. I want the parents of all the children in America to be able to say that to their children.”

Some view rumors of Gingrich’s affair a hindrance should he decide to run for president. Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell praised Gingrich’s admission on Dobson’s program and invited him to deliver the May 9 commencement address at Liberty University.

“As a pastor with more than a half-century of experience of working with fallible people, I have ministered to a few men who have experienced moral collapse,” Falwell wrote. “I have usually been able to tell which of these men was genuinely seeking forgiveness for their actions. My sense tells me that Mr. Gingrich is such a man. He is today happily married to wife Callista, and committed to be the husband he should be.”

A Southern Baptist, Gingrich is credited with leading the Republican Revolution in the 1994 Congressional elections, ending 40 years of Democratic majorities in the House of Representatives. As Speaker, Gingrich was the public face of criticism directed against policies of President Clinton, culminating in his impeachment in 1998.

Suffering backlash from the impeachment proceedings and facing ethics charges, Gingrich resigned his seat in November 1998.

Dobson’s question about Gingrich’s personal life came at the close of a two-part interview discussing for former Congressman’s book, Rediscovering God in America.

While at the forefront of “family values” debate on issues like opposing abortion and gay marriage, polls show that conservative evangelicals divorce at about the same rate as the rest of the population.

One high-profile example occurred in 2000, when former Southern Baptist Convention President Charles Stanley’s divorce from his wife, Anna, caused a minor scandal. Experiencing martial problems for several years, Stanley at one point told members of First Baptist Church in Atlanta he would resign as pastor if they were ever to divorce.

After his 44-year marriage ended, however, a staff member informed the congregation that Stanley would continue as senior pastor. The congregation stood and applauded at the news.

“It is my biblical, spiritual and personal conviction that God has positioned Dr. Stanley in a place where his personal pain has validated his ability to minister to all of us,” administrative pastor Gerald Spicer was quoted as saying.

Stanley’s marital problems affected his relationship with his son, Andy, who left after working several years as associate pastor and minister to students at FBC Atlanta to found North Point Community Church in 1995.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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