Forgiving Newt: Peace or Politics?

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

The phenomenon that is Newt Gingrich continues to amaze, even as he and the remaining three Republican candidates for president descend upon Florida this week. In the Jan. 31 primary, Republicans will decide whether Gingrich’s past and personality are insurmountable or simply don’t matter.

Which raises an interesting question about the nature of forgiveness, on political and spiritual levels.

First, let’s be clear about one thing. A man who is a known adulterer, is on his third marriage and has been fined $300,000 for violating Congressional ethics rules would not have passed moral muster through most of our nation’s history. Even 50 years ago, Gingrich would have been considered a scoundrel, unworthy of holding any elected office.

Yet here we are. Have times changed so much? Are we so much more tolerant of personal failings now? Have we as a society left Calvinistic judgmentalism behind? If so, is it a change for the better?

Religious conservatives – those keepers of the moral flame in the Republican Party – ought to be denouncing Gingrich the loudest, in no uncertain terms. Instead we hear a muted expression of unease about his “baggage” and murmurs that nobody’s perfect. Some religious leaders have voiced their preference for former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, but in last week’s South Carolina primary, many conservatives cast aside their moral qualms to carry Gingrich to a convincing win.

Why is that? Gingrich repeatedly has offered up the f-word – forgiveness – as the rationale for his political rehabilitation. In recent years, he converted to the Catholic faith. The adultery, the lying, all that is in the past, he says, a past for which he has sought and received forgiveness.

On a spiritual level, we have no reason to doubt this. The Catholic Church has about 2,000 years of experience dealing with sinners with worse records than Gingrich. If he says he has received absolution for the wrongs he has done, we should accept that.

Indeed, from a religious point of view, forgiveness is something we all need and crave. Without it, there would be no hope and no point in believing in something higher and purer than ourselves.

But should such forgiveness give us confidence in Gingrich the politician? Just because he has made spiritual peace with his past, should we reward him with the presidency?

There is an old saying, “The greater the sinner, the greater the saint.” That means those who have found mercy in the depths of depravity are better able to ascend the heights of holiness. But such conversions are apparent to others. Great saints who were previously great sinners – people like St. Augustine and John Newton – radiated faith, humility, compassion and peace.

I think it’s fair to say that we have not seen those qualities in Gingrich this campaign season. As a result, it is worth asking whether there has been any alteration in the characteristics that led to his political downfall.

This may sound like the moral calculus of an earlier, Puritan era. But the Puritans were not wrong on every count.

Just because forgiveness is something universally desired, just because it is something we want for ourselves and therefore something we may hope that Gingrich has found, does not mean we should give him a pass when it comes to his ambitions for political office.

Jesus once cautioned his followers about discerning saints from charlatans. “By their fruits you shall know them,” he said.

With Gingrich, we taste not the sweetness of a man with newfound peace, but the mouth-puckering sourness of the old Newt.


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