The Newt Gingrich who talks about finding ways around the U.S. Supreme Court ban on school prayer and says public schools should be required to “teach the Creator” is not immediately recognizable to those who knew the former House speaker when he was not much of a church-goer. These days, Gingrich is running an overtly faith-based presidential campaign with echoes of televangelist Pat Robertson’s run in 1988.
But on a quieter tour of Catholic America that began more than a year ago, the GOP candidate has been sounding religious themes for some time. Since 2010, Gingrich and his third wife, Callista, have been showing their documentary film about Pope John Paul II, “Nine Days that Changed the World,” in Catholic churches and schools across the country. And as an announcement for a September screening at Trinity Heights in Sioux City, Iowa, made clear, politics, faith and commerce come together in these outings: “Newt and Callista will be available after the film for DVD signing and a signing of the book, ‘Rediscovering God in America.’ ”
GOP endorsement game: Guess which presidential candidate each Republican insider will support, and come back later to track your progress.
Gingrich’s critics look askance at this busy intersection of personal and public, new faith and old, tribal politics, Roman practice and American commerce. They question the timing and sincerity of the former speaker’s conversion to Catholicism two years ago, especially in light of the Gingrich’s unspoken but unmistakable “I’m one of you” message in the venues where he shows his film to fellow Catholics, who are a key swing voting bloc.
That’s perhaps especially the case because the candidate, who was born a Lutheran and previously a Baptist, did come to his third faith through his third wife. His second wife, Marianne, whom he left for Callista shortly after Marianne received a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, has called her ex-husband’s most recent metanoia “hysterical” and said, “It has no meaning.”
Some of Gingrich’s fellow conservatives who are Catholic have worried that his personal history of “double spousal abandonment” reflects poorly on the church as a whole. Others want to know whether his admission to the communion of saints was somehow fast-tracked.
Gingrich’s defenders, however, argue that it’s impossible to understand the 2012 candidate today without looking at his faith — just as Gingrich himself insists it is impossible to understand America without appreciating the central role faith played in the country’s founding.
And even one fellow Catholic who does not hold a high opinion of the way Gingrich entered the church, “through the Catholic he was having an affair with,” said this about seeing the now-presidential candidate at Mass frequently at the Basilica: “He goes faithfully and takes it seriously; some [prominent] people put on a show” and seem engrossed in noticing who’s noticing them. Gingrich “doesn’t.’
At a minimum, the thrice-married Gingrich’s metamorphosis from someone who rarely attended religious services to a zealous promoter of God’s central role in the public square does suggest he’s personally capable of the kind of radical transformation he’s urging on the country as a whole.