A personal policy prevents me from identifying my choices in an election. It would be detrimental to my work as a pastor to choose sides publicly in an election contest. I will talk issues. Prophetic preaching demands that issues, including those that relate to public policy, be addressed.

I am going to make an exception to my policy. I am going to talk about Newt Gingrich, and I need to reveal that I voted for him once.

The year was 1976. I had no idea who Gingrich was. Actually, I was not really voting for him, I was voting against his opponent. During my freshman year in high school, I had gone to Washington for a week as part of a government-studies program.

All of the students in our group were from Georgia, and during the week we had the privilege of meeting with representatives. During our question-and-answer session, the congressman from my district responded to a query in a manner that made me conclude, with the indignation of a 14-year-old, that he had outgrown his usefulness.

I don’t remember the question or what he said verbatim, but his answer to a question about a situation in our district came across as, “That’s a local problem, and I’m a national politician.”

I decided then and there if I ever had the chance I’d vote against him. That chance came in 1976, the year I turned 18. Incidentally, Gingrich lost that election, but he won two years later,

Gingrich is in the news of late because he seems to be toying, along with just about every other politician of note and a few of little note, with the idea of running for president.

In recent days his personal life has been the topic of discussion. He appeared recently on James Dobson’s radio program. In the interview, Dobson asked him about an alleged extramarital affair.

Gingrich admitted he had been involved in an affair during the same period that he was leading the impeachment charge against President Clinton, which developed following the revelation of Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Gingrich said he had repented over his actions. He also tried to make the case that the situation with Clinton was of a different nature because of Clinton’s alleged perjury.

Now on his third marriage, Gingrich has a new book out entitled Rediscovering God in America. He is the scheduled the graduation speaker at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University this spring.

Many conservatives, including some of the evangelical-Christian variety, are excited about the prospect of a Gingrich candidacy. My first reaction to that is, “Wow!”

Giving benefit of the doubt, it could be evidence of a developing maturity on the part of religious conservatives. If Gingrich truly represents their positions on public policy issue, and if they can trust him to pursue those positions, maybe it says something good that they can overlook his moral failings and accept his statements of repentance.

When it comes to politicians with policies that Christian conservative leaders disagree, they often have wanted to make the case that a politician’s private life cannot be separated from his public life, because it a slippery slope from personal immorality to public corruption.

Gingrich is not alone in this race in having his private life paraded before the entire country. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s marital and extra-marital situations have been bandied about a lot.

Like Gingrich, he has also been married three times and involved in some very public infidelity. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission recently said of Giuliani: “I mean, this is divorce on steroids…. To publicly humiliate your wife in that way, and your children. That’s rough. I think that’s going to be an awfully hard sell, even if he weren’t pro-choice and pro-gun control.”

Still, Giuliani is going to speak as a part of the executive leadership series at Pat Robertson’s Regent University in April. Mitt Romney will be Regent’s commencement speaker. Romney is a Mormon, married to the same woman for 38 years.

All of this is interesting but problematic for social and religious conservatives. Giuliani has leadership credentials but also personal and policy problems. Gingrich has policy credentials but also personal issues.

Romney is the epitome of a family values candidate but, and I say this with due respect, he’s a Mormon. That’s going to be a problem for a lot of “mainstream” Christian evangelical types, who regard his church as a non-Christian cult.

It is fair to ask whether some conservative Christian leaders are being hypocritical by their implicit or explicit support of candidates with whom they have common ground on the issues but whose personal lives have run so counter to what those leaders stand for.

It is also fair to ask whether in other cases more liberal Christian leaders have been wrong to downplay the moral failings of other politicians with whose policies they were in agreement. If you’re going to bash any politician for marital infidelities or other personal sins, then you ought to bash all of them–at least if you have that much time on your hands.

Or is it better to look beyond the personal failings of candidates and focus instead how they would lead and the policies they would pursue? Maybe we should accept someone’s statement of repentance, as long as we are careful not to hear what we want to hear just because with think the particular politician shares our views on other issues. Presidents and prospective presidents are real people, who have to lead a real nation in the real world.

Michael Ruffin is pastor of The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga. This column appeared previously on his blog.

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