In the news coverage of Newt Gingrich’s rapid rise, there is wonderment that evangelicals are willing to forgive his serial offenses against the Seventh Commandment. It is like being surprised that Catholics feel guilt, or that Unitarians put “coexist” stickers on their bumpers.
Evangelicals like nothing more than a good conversion story — even, evidently, when the road to Damascus also leads to Rome. Religious right leaders have compared Gingrich to the Apostle Paul and to King David, who managed to put that whole Bathsheba episode behind him. Gingrich, who has previously compared himself to Charles de Gaulle, Margaret Thatcher, Henry Clay and the Duke of Wellington, can only be pleased.
For evangelicals, moral failure is an expectation and conversion a qualification. Their primary judgment is not the depth of the sin but the sincerity of the repentance. And many have found Gingrich’s repentance to be durable and sincere.
But the idea of conversion as a political qualification represents a confusion about the purpose of politics. In a presidential race, the main concern is not private conduct but public character. The two are related but not identical.
In some jobs — say, a priest or rabbi— adherence to all Ten Commandments is an expectation. It matters less to us if our brain surgeon covets his neighbor’s ox or ass or wife. A president of the United States lies somewhere in between. We do not require a saint. But we still expect virtues such as self-discipline, compassion, honesty and constancy. The presidency is not merely a technical job. Leaders such as Washington and Lincoln succeeded by their skills and their character.
The assessment of political character is complicated. Some moral failures are clearly irrelevant. Others spill over into the public realm. Avarice is reasonably associated with corruption. A candidate caught purposely cheating on his or her taxes would be judged harshly. A candidate who shot dogs for fun would be disqualified for cruelty.
Matters of sex and relationships are more private than most. On the historical evidence, it can’t be argued that a president who betrays his wife will betray his country. There are good reasons to respect a zone of privacy, even for public figures. The end of a marriage is often too complex for outsiders to make an easy assessment of blame. And it doesn’t take a knowledge of Shakespeare to realize that love and desire can turn most mortals into fools. Tolerance for the failures of others is the proper recognition of our shared frailty.
But even here there is a continuum. An affaire de coeur ended a decade ago should have no public significance. In contrast, John Edwards — who conducted and concealed an affair during his presidential run and is accused of using the gifts of contributors to cover his lies — was engaged in disqualifying recklessness. Edwards betrayed not only his vows but also his supporters — people who had placed their trust in him and his message. The problem was not merely the absence of self-restraint, but a surplus of self-destructive arrogance.
So adultery is not disqualifying for high office, but it can reveal character traits that might be. Recklessness is relevant. The exploitation of an unequal power relationship — say, with an intern — is relevant. Selfishness and compulsiveness are relevant.
Gingrich’s transgressions were more than a decade ago. But they were not merely private. As speaker of the House, he conducted an affair during the impeachment of a president for lying under oath about an affair. It helped undermine a movement Gingrich had helped to build.
And this indiscipline was not an aberration. It indicated an impulsiveness found elsewhere in his career. Gingrich has a history of making serious charges that turn out to be self-indictments — witness his recent attack on congressional advocates for Freddie Mac, despite having been one of its well-paid consultants. Gingrich’s language is often intemperate. He is seized by temporary enthusiasms. He combines absolute certainty in any given moment with continual reinvention over time.
These traits are suited to a provocateur, an author, a commentator, a consultant. They are not the normal makings of a chief executive.
Everyone deserves forgiveness for the failures of their past. But the grant of absolution does not require the suspension of critical judgment. Gingrich’s problem is not the weakness of a moment, it is the pattern of lifetime.