You don't have to be a political junkie to know that GOP voters are in the midst of primary season, choosing whom they'd like to face off against President Obama in the fall. Many conservative Christians are tuning in and making choices. Politics in America is a necessary evil. We need good Christians in levels of government to help shape society. But politics often plays to our basest instincts, drawing even good people into silly partisan games and blinding them to reality.
Such is the case with Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, architect of the Contract with America and a brilliant man of ideas in the Republican Party. I've often admired Newt for his willingness to think outside of the same set of conservative talking points (low taxes, strong defense, limited government). But as is well known, Newt has significant weaknesses as a leader, not the least of which is a hubris that grates even on those who agree with him the most. Which is why he was tossed as speaker by his colleagues. Most troubling is Newt's public moral failings, having admitted to serial infidelity.
By all accounts Newt is now a changed man. As a 68-year-old grandfather, he seems to have found discipline and grace in his old age. We have no reason to doubt this. As Christians we believe in the power of redemption and life change.
And yet, what is troubling about Newt's candidacy, in my view, may not be Newt himself, but his many conservative defenders. All of a sudden, it's taboo now for the media to probe into Newts background and ask tough questions of him, questions raised by his second wife's interview in which she claims Newt wanted an "open marriage." I'm not sure if Newt asked for that or not and yes, these issues are several years old. However, it is not journalistic malpractice for the media to ask these questions. We are, after all, picking a president. Don't we have the right to inquire of his moral character?
What distresses me most, what prompted me to write this blog post in the first place, was the searing hypocrisy on the part of some on the Right. I distinctly remember when Bill Clinton was being publicly and legally tried for his moral failures while in the White House. I remember his chief defender, James Carville, saying something like this: "Character doesn't matter. Nobody cares about that. It's the economy, stupid." Conservative Christians rightly denounced this. We do believe moral character matters.
And yet I'm hearing this same convoluted defense of Newt Gingrich's indiscretions. Again, I'm not throwing stones at Newt, nor am I saying he couldn't serve as president. But it seems politics has blinded us to what we really believe. Suddenly the character about which we were so exercised in Clinton's day no longer matters. All we seem to care about is getting rid of Obamacare. I'm hearing comparisons to King David, comparisons which we ridiculed when Democrats used him in defense of Bill Clinton. I'm also hearing conservatives justify Newt by saying things like "The Democrats do it and are worse." As if the only way to assess someone's moral failure is through the lens of who is doing it worse. This is the kind of twisted moral logic I thought the Judeo-Christian ethic rejects.
So, there are two conclusions to draw. Either politics has so blinded conservatives to the issues about which they once stood and they operate within a framework that defends their guy at all costs and repudiates the other side at all costs. Or, they've come a long way from their moralist past and are embracing more of the gospel's tone of forgiveness and redemption. I'm cynical, but I believe the former.
I say all of this not to throw stones at Newt. He has very publicly repented. No man is perfect, least of all public figures for whom temptation is much greater. None of us is above the possibility of moral failure. For this, we fall on the grace of God. But what we must realize is that God's grace extends to both Republican and Democrat, that moral failure is wrong no matter who is committing it. And while we should offer forgiveness to those who fall, let's not bend so far backward that we actually defend the actual deed or minimize its importance in the life of our nation.
Maybe this will keep us from two equally wrong political postures: twisting the political knife when an ideological opponent stumbles and reflexively defending bad behavior among those whose policies we affirm.
Because if character does matter, it matters regardless of party. And if grace and redemption are offered in the gospel, they are available even to Democrats.
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