Are Catholics helping fuel the rise of Newt Gingrich? He swept Catholic Vote’s online Thanksgiving Straw Poll of Catholic voters with 44 percent out of over 13,000 votes cast. Santorum came in second with 14 percent and Mitt Romney placed third with 10 percent. Anecdotal as it may be, it’s clear that lots of Catholics like Newt. Why?
For one, he is Catholic, having converted in 2009. He subsequently produced a documentary of Pope John Paul II’s battle with Communism in Poland, Nine Days that Changed the World, that has been well received by Catholics. That documentary first put Gingrich back on my and many other Catholics’ radar. He highlighted what he learned from the experience of producing Nine Days in his speech to the annual Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC, which is well attended by Catholics active in politics and probably garnered him more good will.
To the fact that Gingrich has re-married twice, as part of his coming into the church he went through the annulment process and as a result of those findings is validly married in the eyes of the church. This may not impress those who do not like or understand the church’s annulment process, but it does give Catholics who wish to forgive Gingrich his previous infidelities some evidence that he has attempted to make right. Catholics, as often as they encounter scandal and disappointment in their elected leaders, want to hope that forgiveness and conversion is possible, too.
On the core issues of life and marriage, Gingrich is seen as strong on both issues and has managed to move past one serious blunder on the life issue. After telling Jake Tapper of ABC News that he believed life begins at “implantation” – a huge disappointment to many pro-life Catholics – he quickly issued a statement re-affirming his belief that life begins at conception, which mirrors the teaching of the Church (and pro-lifers argue, the scientific evidence). While Catholics who doubt Gingrich’s reliability on the life issue still have their reservations, he did make an energetic effort to address their concern in a way that expressed an appreciation of the deep convictions Catholics have on this issue.
On the question of the definition of marriage, Gingrich has distinguished himself in having zero patience for activist judges who attempt to redefine marriage unilaterally. He supports a federal marriage amendment and the Defense of Marriage Act. He is good at articulating why our laws should reflect our marriage tradition.
Many of Gingrich’s wider policy proposals still need elaborating and defining. Others have noted that he can be frustratingly vacillating on what precisely he thinks is the best solution to a given problem. As things stand now, Catholics may be particularly receptive to his proposals on immigration reform, for instance, because at first glance they have much in common with the church’s admonitions to uphold the rule of law but also to respect the dignity of illegal aliens and allow families to stay intact whenever possible.
On religious liberty, where the current administration is encountering increased criticism, Gingrich has generally been very careful to underscore his respect for conscience protections and the positive role of religious communities in public life and social services. And in the way he answers religious liberty questions with practical examples of recent encroachments on them it is clear that he is making an effort to stay informed.
From the above examples I think we can deduce that many Catholics see in Gingrich someone they can visualize themselves working with, and someone they want to believe can help address the very deep problems facing the country today, while also respecting their deepest Catholic convictions.
What remains to be seen – and what I sense is causing Catholics to say right now that they support Gingrich while still holding on to the right to change their mind before entering the voting booth--is how Gingrich performs now that he is a frontrunner.
After all, many Catholics, especially working-class Catholics, are hurting economically and feel that President Obama’s offered solutions are out of touch, inadequate, or just plain wrong. They are looking for a better alternative. And Mitt Romney’s inability to grow support among a wide swath of conservatives as anything more than the last chance conservatives have to defeat Obama in the general election is currently helping Gingrich as it has helped previous GOP frontrunners in the nomination race -- but such support is not solid, it’s provisional, and I think that is a good description for his Catholic support as well.
So, while Gingrich’s positions on issues important to Catholics and his well-known past failings do not necessarily preclude him from receiving the Catholic vote, I would argue that Gingrich’s actions over these next critical few weeks and months will decide if he retains the support of Catholics into the primary voting season and beyond.
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