Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and his wife Callista at the centennial… (Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington — Newt Gingrich — the twice-divorced former House speaker and recent convert to Roman Catholicism — is courting evangelical Christians as he lays the groundwork for a possible presidential campaign, hoping to find favor among a group that will play a pivotal role in picking the 2012 Republican nominee.
In recent years, Gingrich has met privately with pastors best known nationally for their campaigns against same-sex marriage, sharing deeply personal details about his marital history as he expresses contrition for his past actions.
Gingrich has also provided financial and strategic support for their causes. Last fall, he played a key behind-the-scenes role in an unprecedented — and successful — campaign to remove three Iowa Supreme Court judges who approved same-sex marriage in the state, helping secure $200,000 in seed money for the effort.
Two years ago, he created a nonprofit organization aimed at religious conservatives, filling the board with evangelical leaders. One board member, Vivian Berryhill, president and founder of the National Coalition of Pastors' Spouses, said Gingrich helped raise money and other resources to advance the group's projects on diabetes and teen sexual abstinence.
Gingrich's moves are meant to allay concerns among influential religious conservatives that his personal history is at odds with their views. In 2007, he admitted during a radio interview with Focus on the Family founder James Dobson that he had been having an extramarital affair with his present wife as he was excoriating President Clinton for lying to a grand jury about his dalliance with a White House intern. As Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, put it, Gingrich has "one ex-spouse too many for most evangelicals."
But as the former speaker moves closer to a potential White House bid, with more details expected Thursday, his wooing of the evangelical community appears to be paying off.
"I think he's just excellent," said Pastor Brad Sherman, who leads Solid Rock Christian Church in Coralville, Iowa. "Everybody brings up his past, but he's very open about that, and God is forgiving," said Sherman, who had lunch with Gingrich last fall.
Jim Garlow, the pastor of Skyline Church, a congregation in a San Diego suburb, called Gingrich "the strongest possible candidate" for the GOP nomination. Garlow led the effort in 2008 to pass Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriage in California.
Last year, Garlow agreed to serve as chairman of Gingrich's faith-based nonprofit, for which he receives what he called a "small stipend." Since then, he has provided Gingrich with entree to evangelical circles nationwide.
Gingrich, who was raised Lutheran and became a Southern Baptist when he entered Georgia politics, was not known for a focus on religious issues during his 20 years in Congress. But friends and Gingrich himself said his conversion two years ago to the Roman Catholic faith of his third wife, Callista, convinced him of the nation's need for spiritual renewal.
Though Catholics and evangelical Christians don't always agree, many share similar viewpoints on abortion and marriage issues. Gingrich characterized both as feeling "deeply under siege."
"I began to realize that what happens with evangelical Protestants and with Catholics is this strong sense of a dual assault," he said in an interview. "On one front they are under siege from radical Islamicists, and on the other they are under siege from radical secularists."
Several months after converting, Gingrich added a new organization to his constellation of for-profit and nonprofit corporations: Renewing American Leadership, dedicated to preserving "America's Judeo-Christian heritage by defending and promoting the three pillars of American civilization: freedom, faith and free markets."
Like several other nonprofits founded by Gingrich, Renewing American Leadership, known as ReAL, promotes his books, films and appearances — and invites donations. Last year, it raised $3 million, a portion coming after a high-profile campaign opposing construction of an Islamic center near the former World Trade Center in New York.
Garlow agreed to head ReAL after a private meeting at which Gingrich acknowledged his past marital failings and began to weep as he spoke of his love for his two daughters.
"In my bleakest days when I was doing wrong, I knew it was wrong," Garlow quoted Gingrich as saying. "There was no attempt to justify his actions."
Garlow's commentaries now appear regularly on the ReAL website, encouraging matrimony, exploring faith and linking economic positions such as ending deficit spending to biblical principles.
Besides providing Gingrich with visibility, the site also gives him a mailing list of potential donors. He personally owns all the e-mail and mailing list information compiled by his network of groups.