Written by Bill Berkowitz
His public confession on Dr. James Dobson’s radio program nearly five years ago, the speech at the graduation ceremony of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, his much publicized conversion to Catholicism, his insistence on writing, making films and speechifying about the threat of a secularized America, may all have contributed to re-branding Newt Gingrich, from womanizing miscreant to redeemed sinner, in the eyes of the Religious Right.
Now, the personal endorsement of his run for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination by the Rev. Donald Wildmon, the founder and chairman emeritus of the Tupelo, Mississippi-based American Family Association — one of the most powerful Religious Right organizations in the country — and the founder of American Family Radio, may indicate that the disgraced former Speaker of the House’s long hard slog through the minefields of the Religious Right may be over.
Wildmon, who is expected to campaign for Gingrich in Iowa in the coming days, could provide a much-needed boost to his campaign.
“Newt Gingrich recognizes the threat to our country posed by judges and lawyers imposing values upon the country inconsistent with our religious heritage, and has proposed constitutional steps to bring the courts back in balance under the constitution,” Wildmon said in a statement.
“We need someone in the White House who can balance the budget and get the economy moving again,” Wildmon said. “Newt has done it before and I believe he can do it again. I am proud to endorse Newt Gingrich for president.”
Upon hearing of Wildmon’s endorsement, the provocative and often reckless Gingrich said he was “humbled and honored” and he called Wildmon “one of the most important leaders in the country in the battle to uphold our founding principles.”
The Los Angeles Times’ Kim Geiger reported that Gingrich had been paid “$8,000 in fees last year to speak at a number of policy briefings, according to a report by Politico…. [And he] also helped raise money for a group that later donated $125,000 to American Family Assn. Action, a social welfare nonprofit that spent heavily in Iowa to defeat judges who supported gay marriage, according to the Associated Press.”
Gingrich’s redemption has now come full circle. From the day he bowed down to Dr. James Dobson on his radio program, to the speech he gave at Liberty University, shortly after the death of Jerry Falwell, Gingrich has Hailed Mary-ed his way into the arms of the Religious Right.
Given Wildmon’s virulent anti-gay politicking since the founding of the AFA, his endorsement called to mind the endorsement of Sen. John McCain by Pastor John Hagee in 2008, which ultimately McCain was forced to reject.
However, interestingly enough, in this case Wildmon’s endorsement has ignited a veritable firestorm at the website of OneNewsNow, the American Family Association’s daily news service, as all sorts of AFA supporters are expressing their anger and dismay at the endorsement.
While there were a few commenters who approved on Wildmon’s endorsement, many were mystified and angered. One person wrote: “I guess this ‘family organization’ is so infatuated with throwing out ‘activist judges’ that the most heinous of crimes against the family (i.e. Newt’s walking out on his dying wife for another babe) doesn’t mean a thing…what a sad future for AFA!” Another commented: “Why on earth would he do such a thing? I won’t believe Tim from here on out, nor will I believe anything this group says.”
A woman said: “Remember the Contract with America? Exactly! Newt is just another globalist who will not put our liberty above the will of the new world order.” Another man wrote: In his endorsement, he says nothing about Newt’s character. I cant believe he would endorse a man that has been married multiple times because he had cheated on his wives and talked about divorce with his second wife on the day she was in the hospital recovering from surgery. I’m Out.” And another said: “Didn’t Newt cheat on his wife while she was dying of cancer? For an organization that talks about morals over and over I’m surprised you would endorse Newt. I thought the Christians liked Rick Perry? Why did everyone suddenly turn on him?”
Gingrich and Dobson
Nearly five years ago, Gingrich took his first major steps toward redeeming himself with the Religious Right. Scorned for years by stick-in-the-mud Religious Right leaders, Newt took his full-bodied/full-throated arrogance, his multiple marriage certificates, and a copy of the divorce notes he had brought to the hospital room when visiting his wife who was recovering from a cancer treatment, and let it all hang out on a radio broadcast of Dr. James Dobson, then the head of Focus on the Family.
In March 2007, Gingrich called into Dobson’s radio program and was immediately “transferred … to a studio line,” Max Blumenthal reported in his book Republican Gomorrah: Inside The Movement That Shattered The Party. This wasn’t an unexpected drop-in; the appearance had been “planned a month earlier during a meeting in Washington.”
The interview began with some perfunctory questions about a recent Gingrich speech about “restricting the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.” Then, Dobson turned to the elephant in the room: “Let me ask you about your family life,” Dobson said. “You’ve been married three times under some circumstances that have disappointed your supporters. There are some questions of that era that remain unanswered with regard to an affair and maybe more than one.”
Gingrich was pissed: “This is one of the things the Left tries to do,” he said. “The challenge I was faced with wasn’t about judging Bill Clinton as a person,” Gingrich continued. “I wasn’t going to cast the first stone because I can’t cast the first stone. Because I have in fact as every member of every jury of America has had weaknesses. And if that was the standard our whole system would collapse.”
This wasn’t by any means an amicable discussion. Gingrich was angrily defensive. Dobson was getting more and more irritated. “You answered that question in regard to Bill Clinton instead of referring to yourself,” Dobson reminded Gingrich. “May I ask you to address it personally? I believe you to be a confessing Christian and you and I have prayed together, but when I heard you talk about this dark side of your life when we were in Washington, you spoke about it with a great deal of pain and anguish, but you didn’t speak about repentance. Do you understand the meaning of repentance?”
Gingrich’s tone suddenly changed: “They say when you’re younger you want justice and when you’re older you want mercy,” Gingrich said. “I also believe there are things in my own life that I have turned to God and got on my knees and prayed to God and asked for forgiveness. I don’t know how you could live with yourself without breaking down and trying to find some way to deal with your own weaknesses and to go to God about them.”
Blumenthal pointed out that “Dobson seemed pleased by Gingrich’s confession, and especially by the image of the sorry politician on his knees before the Lord. The depth of Gingrich’s sincerity was beside the point. What mattered most was that Gingrich, like a modern-day Lazarus, had given Dobson the power to lift him out of darkness and depravity. Having given his host ultimate satisfaction, Gingrich was worthy to receive the good graces of Dobson’s empire.”
Getting back into the Religious Right’s good graces
Gingrich’s “confession” – which he’s repeated numerous times since the Dobson show, and he’s been creative enough to develop several addition narratives to define/excuse his behavior, including that the affairs resulted from working too hard and loving his country too much – drew the attention of Jerry Falwell. Falwell, no longer the seminal figure he once was, but who still wielded some clout, stated that he “was pleased to hear Mr. Gingrich state, ‘I’ve gotten on my knees and sought God’s forgiveness.’ He has admitted his moral shortcomings to me, as well, in private conversations. And he has also told me that he has, in recent years, come to grips with his personal failures and sought God’s forgiveness.” Falwell invited Gingrich to deliver
Although Falwell died soon after, Gingrich delivered an address at Liberty’s commencement ceremony.
This year, Gingrich also appeared on Bryan Fischer AFA program, where he told Fischer’s audience that he had “been very open and very direct about the fact that there were times I have fallen short, there are times I have failed, and that I have gone to God and asked for forgiveness, …I’m not asking you to vote for who I might have been 20 years ago, but I am asking you to look at the total person.”
It is more than interesting that Wildmon, whose American Family Association helped organize Rick Perry’s “The Response” event in August, has backed away from the Texas governor.
ABOUT THE AUTHORBill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.