I have a personal policy that prevents me from identifying my choices in an election. I believe that it would be detrimental to my work as a pastor to choose sides publicly in an election contest. Now, I’ll talk issues; as a matter of fact, prophetic preaching demands that issues, including those that relate to public policy, be addressed. And, frankly, sometimes when a pastor addresses public policy issues she or he may come off sounding like one candidate rather than another. I believe, given that possibility, that it is wise to discuss such issues at times as far removed from an election cycle as possible. Of course, that gets harder all the time, since presidential campaigns now last two years or longer.
Because I am going to talk about Newt Gingrich in this post, I am going to make an exception to my policy and reveal that I voted for him once. The year was 1976 and I had absolutely no idea who Newt Gingrich was. As a matter of fact, I was not really voting for Gingrich; I was voting against his opponent, Rep. John J. Flynt. During my freshman year in high school in 1973, I had gone to Washington for a week as part of a government studies program sponsored by the Close Up Foundation. All of the students in our group were from Georgia. During the week we had the privilege of meeting with our congressional representatives. Rep. Flynt was the congressman from my district. During our question and answer session with him, he responded to a query in a manner that made me conclude, with much fourteen-year-old indignation, that he had outgrown his usefulness. I remember neither the question nor the answer verbatim, but a student asked him something about a situation in our district and Flynt’s answer seemed to me to have elements of “that’s a local problem and I’m a national politician.” I may have misheard and I’m certain that I overreacted, but I decided then and there that if I ever had the chance I’d vote against him. That chance came in 1976, the year I turned eighteen. So I voted for Gingrich. Incidentally, Gingrich lost that election. He won two years later; I believe that Flynt did not run for reelection that year.
Gingrich is in the news these days 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 much discussion. He appeared last week on James Dobson’s radio program and in that interview, Dobson asked him about an alleged extramarital affair. Gingrich admitted that he had been involved in an affair during the same period that he was leading the impeachment charge against President Clinton that developed following the revelation of Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. Gingrich expressed repentance 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. I do think that some distinction has to be made between “high crimes and misdemeanors” on the one hand and acts of personal immorality or failing on the other. Wrong is wrong, but we certainly need our public officials to respect and follow the law.
As I said, Gingrich admitted to the affair. He is in his third marriage. He has a new book out entitled Rediscovering God in America. He will be the graduation speaker at Liberty University this spring.
Let me repeat: he has admitted to an extramarital affair; he is in his third marriage; he has written a book called Rediscovering God in America; he is going to speak at Jerry Falwell’s college; and he is probably going to run for president. Many conservatives, including some of the “evangelical Christian" variety, are allegedly excited about the prospect. My first reaction to that is “Wow.” On the other hand, it may show some evidence of what some might consider a developing maturity on the part of religious conservatives. If Gingrich truly represents their positions on public policy issues and if they can trust him to pursue those positions, maybe it says something good about them that they can overlook his moral failings and/or accept his statements of repentance. Of course, when it comes to politicians with whose policies Christian conservative leaders disagree, those leaders usually want to make the case that you can’t separate a leader’s private life from his public life and that it is a slippery slope from personal immorality to public corruption.
Gingrich is not alone 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, too. He has also been married three times and he has been 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." On the other hand, 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 who has been married to the same woman for thirty-eight years.
I find all of this very interesting and I think it’s highly problematic for social and religious conservatives. Giuliani has the leadership credentials but has personal and policy problems. Gingrich has the policy credentials but has personal issues. Romney is the epitome of a family values candidate but, and I say this with all due respect to Mormons, he’s a Mormon, and that’s going to be a problem for a lot of “mainstream” Christian evangelical types.
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. It seems to me that if you’re going to bash any politician for marital infidelities or other personal sins, then you ought to bash all of them—if you have that much time on your hands.
On the other hand, maybe it’s good to be able to see beyond the personal failings of candidates and to focus on the ways in which they would lead and the agendas they would pursue. Maybe it’s good to accept someone’s statement of repentance so long as we are careful not to hear what we want to hear so that we can support someone that we think will promote our priorities. Maybe it’s good to realize that presidents and prospective presidents are real people who have to lead a real nation in the real world.
Still, I think I’ll keep holding out for a candidate who shares my values, who supports my preferred policies right down the line, who thinks just like I do, who looks and talks like I do, and who has a family that looks just like mine.
Heaven help me, I think I just announced my candidacy!
Rest assured—if nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve!