Exclusive: Newt Gingrich Opens Up on Catholic Conversion and Embracing 'Overt Christianity'

As he heads off to Rome, the former House speaker discusses his reasons for converting to Catholicism.

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Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

Former House speaker and Republican überstrategist Newt Gingrich is off to Europe next week to shoot a documentary on Pope John Paul II's 1979 trip to Poland and how it helped to lay the groundwork for bringing down the Soviet Union. The film, Nine Days That Changed the World, is slated for release this fall.

The trip will take Gingrich and his wife, Callista, to Poland and to Rome for the first time since he converted to Roman Catholicism in March.

I caught up with Gingrich this morning and asked if he expected this trip to be different from previous visits to Rome. He gave a long answer that had him opening up about the reasons for his conversion to an extent he hasn't done publicly before: 

I don't know that it's much different. That's part of what led to my conversion is the first time we [he and Callista] went to St. Peter's together. It's St. Peter's. I mean, you stand there and you think, this is where St. Peter was crucified. This is where Paul preached. You think to yourself, two thousand years ago the apostles set out to create a worldwide movement by witnessing to the historic truth they had experienced. And there it is. The last time we were there we were allowed to walk in the papal gardens and you get this sense that is almost mystical.

The moment that finally convinced me [to convert] was when Benedict XVI came here [to the United States] and Callista in the church choir sang for him at the vespers service and all the bishops in the country were there. As a spouse, I got to sit in the upper church and I very briefly saw [Benedict] and I was just struck with how happy he was and how fundamentally different he was from the news media's portrait of him. This guy's not a Rottweiler. He's a very loving, engaged, happy person.

I'd first seen Pope John Paul II when he came to the U.S. when Carter was president and I was a freshman congressman. And I [later] met him as Speaker.

The other sense is that the church has had two of its most powerful popes back to back, in their intellectual ability to engage the secular world on behalf of Christ. And the weight of all that, and going with [Callista] to church every Sunday to the Basilica [in Washington, D.C.], a magnificent church with a wonderful mass. In that sense I felt differently a long time ago, which is why I converted.

And part of me is inherently medieval. I resonate to Gothic churches and the sense of the cross in a way that is really pre-modern.

Callista, who is Catholic and who was key to Gingrich's conversion, added that it was "10 years in the making," starting around the time Gingrich left the House in 1999. I asked Gingrich if his conversion had changed some fundamental political beliefs for him. He said it was the other way around—that political developments had made him more overtly Christian:

The whole effort to create a ruthless, amoral, situational ethics culture has probably driven me toward a more overt Christianity. I'll give you an example. As a college student at Emory when the Supreme Court ruled that school prayer was unconstitutional [in 1963] after 170 years of American history, I didn't notice it. As a graduate student at Tulane I probably would have said it's a good decision.

I've now had an additional 40 years to think about it. And I think about the world of my grandchildren. I don't think American children are healthier, safer, and better off today than they were in 1963. So I have actually become more conservative in response to the failure of the liberal ethos to solve problems.

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