In many ways Newt Gingrich is the poster boy of much of what the Christian Right in this nation claims to condemn: adulterous affairs, multiple marriages, political graft and sleazy lobbying, not to mention being challenged when it comes to truth and veracity. Yet, in South Carolina, these self-anointed and seemingly falsely pious folk supported Gingrich over their other choices. Insane as he might be, at least Rick "Frothy Mix" Santorum seems to more closely resemble what the Christian Right crowd claims to support. As I've noted before, the incredible disconnect between purported support of "family values" and the "sanctity of marriage" and support for Gingrich is mind numbing. And the phenomenon underscores the hypocrisy of those who most like to wear their religion on their sleeves. A column in the New York Times looks at this circumstance and why Gingrich - who is the opposite of what these people should be supporting if they weren't hypocrites - has at least temporarily captured their votes. Here are some highlights:
In 1999, shortly after the Senate voted to acquit President Clinton on two charges of impeachment stemming from his affair with the intern Monica Lewinsky, Paul Weyrich — mastermind of the union of the Republican Party and the Christian right, a founder of the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the Free Congress Foundation — threw up his hands in despair.
In the face of this onslaught of moral corruption, Weyrich counseled withdrawal from society at large. A “legitimate strategy for us to follow is to look at ways to separate ourselves from the institutions that have been captured by the ideology of Political Correctness, or by other enemies of our traditional culture,” he wrote. “We need to drop out of this culture, and find places, even if it is where we physically are right now, where we can live godly, righteous and sober lives.”
What would Weyrich, who died in 2008, make of the fact that Newt Gingrich — who was himself having an adulterous affair during the Clinton impeachment proceedings (one of several conducted by the former speaker, according to his own testimony and a number of lengthy journalistic investigations, including this one and that one) — won the 2012 South Carolina Republican primary with a plurality of voters who described themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians?
Exit polls show that Gingrich beat Romney by 44-22 among born-again and evangelical Christians, and by 46-10 among voters who said the religious convictions of the candidates mattered “a great deal.”
In fact, the Gingrich campaign reveals the current state of the Christian right, its status anxieties, its desperation, its frustration and in particular its anger.
In strategic terms, religious conservatives need to be motivated to turn out in high numbers. Republican consultants have developed tools to identify and inflame what they call conservative “anger points.” . . . it is Gingrich who is the quintessential “anger points” candidate.
Gingrich won the hearts of many devout voters two weeks ago when he exploded in anger as CNN’s John King asked him to respond to the claim made by his second wife, Marianne, that he had refused to give up his six-year affair with Callista Bisek and offered his wife the option of an “open marriage.” Gingrich’s reply to King brought the audience to its feet, capturing one of the most deeply felt conservative “anger points” — hostility to the mainstream media . . .
Gingrich is the first conservative presidential candidate to campaign on a package of traditional values from which he is exempting issues relating to personal sexual behavior. And there are reasons why this strategy worked on Jan. 21: The moral vision of the religious right is collapsing everywhere, including within its own ranks. There are fewer and fewer “traditional” families in the United States; the number of secular voters is growing at a faster rate than the number of those who are religiously observant; women’s rights and homosexual rights have become broadly accepted; births outside of marriage are now routine among whites, Hispanics and African Americans.
Gingrich’s strength as the tribune of conservative rage at liberal elites trumped his long history of personal failings. He violated the very family values and the sanctity of marriage that social conservatives profess to believe in, but it was much more important that Gingrich was the enemy of their enemy.
What does this political volatility say about the conservative movement and the Republican Party?
First, that although the Christian right is now in decline, it remains powerful, making up roughly 35 to 40 percent of the Republican primary electorate. But its preoccupations are less and less those of Americans taken as a whole. The Christian right might become increasingly marginalized and as the movement shifts to the periphery, it becomes more of a liability to the party than an asset.
Second, the Republican Party will, over time, struggle to develop a coherent moral stance that does not conflict with the leftward drift, both in values and behavior, of the electorate.
[T]he country is going through a profound restructuring in moral and economic thinking and the danger for Republicans is that their current coalition might become obsolete. If the party doesn’t adapt, the alternative is that its power centers — the Christian right, anti-immigration forces, and proponents of policies that benefit the affluent at the expense of the less well-off — will refuse to adjust, in which case the party risks going the way of the Studebaker.
Frankly, the GOP deserves to go the way of the Studebaker. For too long of late it has courted the worse elements of the electorate and pandered to hate merchants.