A thrice-married, twice-divorced, Southern Baptist-turned-Catholic would not seem a good fit for evangelical voters, a key bloc of the Republican electoral base that will play an outsized role in the critical Iowa caucuses next month. But several evangelical leaders say that despite Newt Gingrich’s faith and personal history, they are not writing off the former House speaker for 2012.
A little-noticed shift in the once-hostile attitudes between evangelicals and Catholics may prove a significant aid to Mr. Gingrich, who has been surging in recent polls around the country.
“Evangelical-Catholic relations are better than at any time in my lifetime,” said First Redeemer Church pastor Richard Lee, founder of the Atlanta-based evangelical church that is one of the largest and fastest-growing churches in the South. “We have so many common causes - moral issues like marriage and family. We still have our differences theologically, but we have a renewed sense of brotherhood among evangelicals and Catholics.”
Tim LaHaye, the Southern California pastor and co-author of the hugely popular “Left Behind” novels, said the convergence of evangelical and Catholic voters behind a single candidate would be a noteworthy event - and almost surely of immense help to Mr. Gingrich, who converted to Catholicism in 2009 after marrying his wife, Callista, a practicing Catholic.
The Mormon faith of Mr. Gingrich’s chief rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, could pose a bigger obstacle for evangelical voters than Mr. Gingrich’s Catholicism, Mr. Lee noted, despite the conservative stands on social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion espoused by the Mormon church.
“I don’t know that evangelicals and Mormons have much of a relationship outside of the family values,” said Mr. Lee. “Theologically, we are very far apart, but in relationship to a president we don’t have to be that close together in our religious convictions. Possessing American values and understanding who we are as a country of religious freedom and Judeo-Christian morals - these are the commonalities that we look for.”
Recent polling by the Public Religion Research Institute found that roughly half of white evangelical Protestants say they would have difficulty voting for a Mormon for president, largely because of doubts that the Mormon faith is a Christian religion.
By contrast, historical skepticism over Catholicism seems largely to have melted away, with some 84 percent of white evangelicals now saying they have a favorable view of the religion.
The huge importance of the evangelical vote in 2012 was underlined by the 2008 elections.
“Evangelical Christians represented a majority of 2008 GOP primary voters in 11 of the 29 states in which exit polls were conducted,” National Journal’s Ron Brownstein reported after the election. “In Iowa and South Carolina, two states that along with more-secular New Hampshire have proved decisive in Republican nomination contests since 1980, evangelicals provided exactly 60 percent of the vote. In 10 other states, including many outside the Deep South, evangelicals represented between one-third and 46 percent of the vote.”
Not all evangelicals are ready to forgive and forget when it comes to Mr. Gingrich.
In an open letter to Iowa Family Leader head Bob Vander Plaats, one of the state’s most influential evangelical voices, a group called Iowans for Christian Leaders in Government warned recently against endorsing Mr. Gingrich.
“He is not an acceptable choice among Christians,” the letter said.
Cary Gordon, a minister at the Cornerstone Church in Sioux City, recently told the Des Moines Register, “Newt is famous for being all over the board. He is admirable in many ways, but I won’t back him. I don’t trust him.”
But other prominent evangelicals tell The Washington Times that they think the bulk of their fellow evangelicals have forgiven what they see as a repentant Mr. Gingrich for past marital transgressions.