Newt Gingrich, Redemption, and the Presidency

I have a confession to make. Newt Gingrich changed my life. It was 1984 and my friend, Martin Cothran, recommended that I read a book by a young Republican Congressman from Georgia, Newt Gingrich. Marty’s suggestion occurred in the middle of a discussion over coffee and pie in a diner in Santa Ana, California. We were both M.A. students in the Christian apologetics program of what was once called Simon Greenleaf University (which has since merged with Trinity International University). As was our routine, we would, every Friday night after our Koine Greek class, retire to a close-by coffee shop, where the conversation would inevitably turn to politics.

At the time, I was a self-described moderate:  liberal on issues of economic justice while conservative on moral issues such as abortion. I was, for the lack of a better term, an FDR Democrat, though I was becoming more convinced that my 1980 vote for Jimmy Carter was a colossal mistake. I grew to like Ronald Reagan, the man who defeated Carter, even though I was allergic to what seemed to me to be Reagan’s weakness on the welfare state. For I was, like most young liberals, convinced that free markets were detrimental to those in poverty.

After I explained to Marty why I was a moderate and I why could not fully embrace President Reagan’s conservatism, he told me about two books I should read. One was Wealth and Poverty by George Gilder. The other was by Gingrich, Window of Opportunity: Blueprint for the Future. Both books were equally instrumental in my becoming an economic conservative.

Like Gilder, Gingrich convincingly shows that, without the creation of wealth by entrepreneurs and investors willing to risk their capital, there would be far fewer jobs for those in poverty who need them most. In fact, the surest way to hurt the underclass is to put them in a place of permanent dependency on government programs while providing perverse incentives that increase the sorts of behaviors – e.g., out of wedlock births with diverse paternities – that help to perpetuate a culture of poverty and hopelessness.

It was clear to me that Gingrich’s defense of free markets was driven by his desire to extend our nation’s prosperity to those that the welfare state has neither the power nor the resources to lift out of their condition.

My stereotype of the “heartless” conservative was shattered. Here was a writer showing compassion for his fellow citizens, while offering a remedy that I had never entertained. And he was making real arguments for his case.

Nearly twenty-eight years later, Gingrich is the front-runner for the Republican nomination for the presidency of the United States. Much, of course, has happened since he published that book in 1984, and over the years we have learned many things about Gingrich. His many achievements include his leadership role in the 1994 Republican take-over of Congress and his subsequent ascendancy to the office of Speaker of the House. His many foibles include a significant House ethics violation and personal moral failures that resulted in two broken marriages.

In 2009, Gingrich was received into the Catholic Church, the faith of his third wife, Callista Bisek. Because Catholic conversion requires the sacrament of confession, Gingrich has been absolved of his sins. This, of course, suggests to many, including me, that one cannot evaluate Gingrich’s candidacy and character without taking his conversion seriously. It is a mistake for Christians to emulate the world and treat a man’s conversion as if it were the metaphysical equivalent of a change in hobby.

On the other hand, Rod Dreher raises an important point in suggesting that Christian conservatives take care in their choice of standard-bearer. Relying on insights by New York Times writer Ross Douthat, Dreher argues that Christian conservatives, in the toxic atmosphere of the culture wars, cannot afford to have as a public face a figure who for most of his adult life has shunned the virtues and ways of life that Christian conservatives want to advance in the public square.

This is not to diminish or call into question Gingrich’s conversion. Quite the opposite. For, as the Catholic Catechism teaches, absolution of sins does not eradicate all the effects and consequences of those sins on the shaping of one’s character. This requires ongoing conversion, including detaching oneself from those things that may provide an occasion for sin.

It seems to me that a man whose sins arose as a consequence of the pursuit of political power and the unwise use of it after he became Speaker of the House should not be seeking the most powerful office in the world.

Newt Gingrich, to be sure, changed my life, and I am grateful for that. But it is far more important that Gingrich’s new life change his soul, and for this reason, I will not support him in the Republican primary.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).