Newt Gingrich's Catholic Conversion Is Part Of A Larger Spiritual Shift In His Life And Politics

As former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich's star continues to rise ahead of GOP Republican primaries, he has had less time for what in recent years has become a calming, soothing Sunday tradition: sitting in the pews at the cavernous National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, praying to Jesus and the Virgin Mary during noon Mass while listening to his wife sing in the choir.

The ritual, he has said in interviews, makes "the week go better." His faith and connection to God have made him "the most relaxed" that he's ever been. And through the church, he says, he has come to realize that "you cannot explain this country if you erase God from the picture."

Over the three-decade span of his career, Gingrich has played a host of roles: shrewd slayer of Democrats, welfare reformer, compassionate conservative and ethically tarnished Republican leader who resigned from Congress. But Gingrich, who faces his first big test next month as the prospective front-runner at the Iowa caucuses, has in recent years carefully carved another role for himself: a religious conservative in fear of an increasingly secular America.

During Gingrich's years as House Speaker in the mid-1990s, pundits typically characterized his relationship to religion as a mere flirtation that other politicians also engaged in at their convenience. But today, Gingrinch runs a campaign in which faith plays a central role, and few doubt that his commitment is authentic.

That commitment includes speaking candidly about his own spiritual transformation from Southern Baptist to Catholic two years ago -- and Gingrich's religious gravitas could be a boon to his campaign in Iowa, where 40 percent of caucus-goers were evangelicals during the last presidential election. Rick Perry is already running ads in the state in which he proudly declares his own religious commitment.

Since announcing his candidacy, Gingrich has stumped at prominent churches, given speeches to conservative evangelical and Catholic groups, and made promoting the notion of the United States as a nation founded upon Christian values a hallmark of his campaign.

At a November forum hosted by the The Family Leader, an influential Iowa religious right organization, Gingrich broadly endorsed religion as the solution to the nation's ills. "A country that has been now since 1963 relentlessly in the courts driving God out of public life shouldn't be surprised at all the problems we have," he said, referring to a Supreme Court decision that struck down school prayer.

While religion has long played a role in presidential elections, it has reared its head in this contest in a way it rarely has before. "I think there's now an evangelical tri-lemma," Texas pastor the Rev. Robert Jeffress, who has made headlines for calling Mitt Romney's religion a cult, said in an interview to Slate before Herman Cain suspended his campaign. "Do you vote for a Mormon who's had one wife, a Catholic who's had three wives, or an Evangelical [Cain] who may have had an entire harem?"

A Gingrich spokesman did not reply to a request for comment for this article, but Gingrich has spoken out in various venues about his faith. "People ask me when I decided to become Catholic," he said in the spring at a breakfast gathering of prominent conservative Catholics in the capital. "It would be more accurate to say that I gradually became Catholic and then realized that I should accept the faith that surrounded me."

For Gingrich -- who was born Lutheran, became Southern Baptist in college and joined the Catholic church in 2009 after almost a decade of marriage to a Catholic -- religion seems as much an experience of personal salvation as it could be politically beneficial. He has spoken frequently of his reverence for Pope Benedict XVI. He credits attending one of the pope's services during his 2008 visit to the U.S. as the decisive event that moved him to join formally. A video production company he founded has made a documentary about Pope John Paul II. Gingrich has said his views about the dangers of American secularism were inspired by conservative Catholic author George Weigel.

Most simply, he has said he feels peace and a deep connection to God during Mass.

Yet, heading toward caucuses in a state where family values-oriented voters call the shots, it's unclear if Gingrich can win them over. Prominent evangelicals have questioned his character. Twice-divorced, he resigned from Congress amid an ethics scandal. His reputation further eroded after he admitted to cheating on his wife with a congressional staffer while vowing to impeach Bill Clinton. That former staffer is now his wife.

In a recent poll, the Washington, D.C.-based Public Religion Research Institute found that 72 percent of Americans, and 82 percent of white evangelicals, said it was a "very serious moral problem" when an elected official cheats on his wife. While the general population was evenly divided, 64 percent of white evangelicals disagreed that an elected official who acts immorally in his personal life can still be ethical in his professional life.

But in a primary race that will likely pit him against Romney, some evangelicals may favor Gingrich over a follower of Mormonism, which they generally see as non-Christian.

"Despite historical antipathy between evangelicals and Catholics, favorability of Catholics is quite high among evangelicals, considerably higher than favorability of Mormons," said Robert P. Jones, CEO of the institute. In a separate poll, the group found that 84 percent of white evangelicals have a favorable view of Catholics, compared to 66 percent who have a positive view of Mormons.

"Concerns remain" about Gingrich, says Marvin Olasky, a prominent evangelical author who was a unofficial Gingrich adviser in the 1990s. In a recent article in WORLD Magazine, a Christian publication where he is editor-in-chief, Olasky was critical of Gingrich's past but cautioned readers not to be resolute in their judgment.

"That many of Gingrich's views are mine as well does not allow me to ignore his record. This doesn't mean we should hiss Gingrich now. Even the apostle Paul wrote about his own ongoing struggle with sin," Olasky wrote. "This means that we cannot choose sinless political leaders -- they don't exist ... We need to look for leaders who not only vote the right way and say the right things but see themselves as sinners relying on grace."

Despite his personal shortcomings, Gingrich has aggressively positioned himself as a social conservative. He is one of four candidates that The Family Leader is considering endorsing, along with Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. He has called for defunding Planned Parenthood and has said gay marriage is a "temporary aberration."

Richard Land, the influential president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has said evangelicals need to hear Gingrich atone for his past, above and beyond espousing those positions. Land recently challenged Gingrich in an op-ed to "find 'a pro-family venue and give a speech (not an interview) addressing your marital history once and for all.'"

"There are a number of evangelicals who will give him a second chance. We're a redemptive people, but one has to claim that redemption and express regret," Land said in an interview.

Several prominent evangelicals, including Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and Tony Perkins of Family Research Council, have indicated that many evangelicals have already forgiven Gingrich. Powerful evangelical groups in Iowa, such as The Family Leader and Iowa Right to Life, have been strategizing over how to stop Romney from winning the nomination -- a potential nod to Gingrich. Since Cain, a former part-time Baptist minister who has considerable support in conservative black churches, suspended his campaign, there have been murmurs that he may endorse Gingrich.

Though he's not an evangelical, Gingrich's spiritual journey represents the kind of born-again conversion experience many evangelicals identify with.

While born to a Lutheran family in central Pennsylvania, Gingrich has said he was raised more broadly Protestant.

"I grew up in a time when you prayed every night" and "God was a fact of life," he once told a Catholic magazine. "I've always thought of myself as a person who believed deeply in God and the power of prayer, and that you had to be saved through faith because you were inadequate yourself."

With a father who was an army officer, the family moved frequently before settling in Georgia, and young Gingrich tended to follow various strains of mainline Protestantism, according to what the local military chaplain practiced.

When he first enrolled as a graduate student at Tulane University in New Orleans, Gingrich did not regularly attend church, but one day he struck up a conversation with a local Southern Baptist preacher.

"He said that in his study of political theory, he noted how much influence the church had had on political theory and asked if I could explain," the former pastor of St. Charles Avenue Baptist, the Rev. G. Avery Lee, wrote in a letter to the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1994. "We talked often. Newt began coming to church" and was baptized by immersion.

The church exposed Gingrich to the "the basic Baptist principle of freedom: personal freedom before God, an open mind before an open Bible, the separation of church and state, and compassion toward other people as sinners saved by the grace of God," wrote Lee, who died in 2009. The congregation was the first Baptist church in the state to ordain women as deacons. In 1980, nine years after Gingrich had graduated from Tulane with a Ph.D. in European history, the increasingly liberal church ordained a female minister. It left the Southern Baptist Convention in 2001.

While a history professor at West Georgia College and a congressman from the state after his election 1979, Gingrich continued to appear at Baptist churches, often ones of a more conservative strain. Besides a short-lived push in 1995 to promote a constitutional amendment to allow school prayer -- one that religious conservatives later accused him of abandoning -- Gingrich's religious reach was largely seen by political observers as posturing for the religious right. After resigning from Congress in 1998, Gingrich returned to writing history books and taking lucrative political consulting contracts.

Gingrich has said it was a 2002 appeals court decision calling the the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional that reinvigorated his religious fervor (the decision was later overturned). Around the same time, he began more frequently to attend Mass with his wife, whom he married in 2000.

Religion quickly took on a central role. At conservative gatherings, he bashed court decisions against public displays of the Ten Commandments. He and his wife penned a book, "Rediscovering God in America," on the nation's Christian roots. Gingrich founded Renewing American Leadership, a nonprofit that aims to "preserve America's Judeo-Christian heritage." He left the group this year, but is still close to its board. That includes David Barton, an evangelical Texan who is frequently sought by politicians for his books and speeches about the country's Christian foundations.

"It's certainly the case that Gingrich has in recent years thrown himself into religion talk, but it's very much in the heavy-breathing culture wars sense that's more like David Barton than conservative Catholics," says Mark Silk, a professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. "It's right-wing civil religion, not natural law."

Gingrich is a friend of Washington, D.C. Archbishop Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who performed his reception ceremony into the Catholic church, yet Wuerl has distanced himself from culture wars. Gingrich was one of the first Catholics to criticize the University of Notre Dame, a Catholic institution, for inviting President Barack Obama to speak on its campus despite his pro-choice stance. Wuerl is known to take a less heavy-handed approach to pro-life politicians and has refused to deny politicians communion because they support abortion rights.

And while Gingrich has taken heat from conservatives for his recent call for a more "humane" policy toward undocumented immigrants, his position is more conservative than that of the church, which has long advocated on behalf of migrants. But in some areas, Gingrich is more liberal than the church. In an interview last week with ABC News about embryonic stem cell research, Gingrich said life begins at "successful implantation," not when an egg is fertilized, which is the position of the church.

When it comes to his theology, Gingrich has shown an ability to negotiate between his newfound faith and that of his past. In a 2007 interview, when he was rumored to be considering a presidential run, he opened up about his ongoing spiritual transformation to WORLD Magazine.

He said he was "psychologically a Protestant" because of "the opportunity to go directly to God," but attracted to "the depth of the Catholic church." He was fond of reading the Psalms, the book of spiritual poems that illustrate the beliefs of the ancient Jews. Gingrich, still coming to terms with his past shortcomings and pondering his potential future, said he put his fate in the hands of God.

"The degree to which salvation is ultimately based on faith," he said, "is in fact a leap of faith."

Gingrich isn't the only politician who has talked about religion. Here are other politicians on matters of faith:

The Republican Presidential Candidates Talk God And Religion