By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
Although he converted to Catholicism six months ago, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has kept more or less mum about his new faith, declining interview requests on the subject. Gingrich talked to me about his conversion in May, but that was during the course of a longer interview for a profile I was writing. Now, he's sitting down with the Catholic news media for the first time since being received into the Roman Catholic Church.
The occasion: Gingrich is talking up his forthcoming documentary on the role of Pope John II's 1979 trip to Poland in helping to bring down the Soviet Union.
I don't doubt the sincerity of Gingrich's conversion—the decision was arrived at over the course of a decade, and he appears to have given it lots of thought—but it is unavoidable that there are political benefits to having found a new spiritual home.
Though Gingrich has become one of the most high-profile spokesmen of the Republican Party, he's got a lot of personal baggage standing in the way of a 2012 presidential nomination, should he decide to go for it. He's thrice married and has admitted to carrying on an extramarital affair even while, as speaker of the House in the late 1990s, he was leading the impeachment charge against Bill Clinton. Many so-called values voters and influential Christian leaders see him as morally challenged.
The conversion gives Gingrich the chance to reintroduce himself as a spiritually reborn and deeply religious man. That may make it easier for voters to forgive his past indiscretions as those of the "old" Gingrich. And because Gingrich came to Catholicism by way of his wife, Callista, his conversion can also help him paint a portrait of a man spiritually bound to his spouse. Family values in action.
I'm not arguing that Gingrich's conversion is politically motivated. Just like other shows of public piety, however—include those of President Obama—the political benefits are impossible to ignore.
Gingrich hopes his film will be an "evangelical vehicle" to combat the "secularist moment" in our culture. Telling the story of how John Paul's visit led Poland to overthrow Communism, Gingrich said the film will contain a clear message: "Our true humanness is found only in a relationship with God." Added Gingrich, "I hope people will see the film and think about their relationship to Christ and the importance of courage."
. . . The moment came when Pope Benedict XVI visited the United States in April 2008. Gingrich was seated in the basilica, where his wife's choir was to sing vespers for the Holy Father, when he was suddenly able to see the pope up close. He recalled, "It was clear he [the pope] was having the time of his life, and the joy in his eyes belied his reputation as an austere German. As he walked past me, I knew I wanted to become a Catholic."
"I knew that I belonged here," he went on. "No—as a Catholic, I should put it: Here is where I belong." As Gingrich parsed his sentence, his eyes teared up, and he excused himself for getting emotional. He changed the subject, but the emotion remained in his voice as he talked about Benedict's visit to New York City.