In the heart of darkness that is the realm of far right social “conservatives,” there is nothing so thrilling as a man or a woman who has sinned — the more grievously, the better — and been, in self-declared affirmation (the more fervently and loudly, the better) forgiven by God. That’s what Kathleen Parker thinks is Newt Gingrich’s central appeal for Republicans:
If Christian Americans hate a sin, they love a sinner. Let’s face it: Forgiveness feels good. Gingrich not only has been forthright in admitting his flaws, but he also converted to Catholicism. Who knows? In another generation, Republicans may take Mormonism off the cult list.
One doesn’t have to be a Catholic to appreciate the sublime duet of confession and redemption. The ability to shed the burden of sin in a confessional booth, submit to the humility of shame and accept the grace of forgiveness is an appealing exit from the turmoil of personal transgression. No wonder the masses flock to St. Peter’s Square. (I’m feeling a little tug myself.)
Bottom line: Most Americans would rather embrace a man who has fallen and climbed back to his feet than one who has never stubbed his toe on temptation. The successful protagonist is always flawed. In Romney breaking news: He removes the cheese from his pizza but has a weakness for chocolate milk. Mr. Squeaky not only has no skeletons in the closet; he has no closets.
But in my view it’s not the repenting alone that produces that frisson of excitement in Republican hearts — it’s the way the repenting is expressed — in the very specific language of Bible Belt fundamentalist Christian belief. A key element of this language is public confession:
Six months ago, Rick Tyler quit Newt Gingrich cold turkey. He left the former speaker’s entourage after 12 years of serving as his spokesman — part of a mass exodus of campaign aides who had decided that Gingrich was not only unmanageable but unelectable. Now he and Gingrich are allies again.
And here is the kicker: Six months after Tyler quit the Gingrich campaign, the former aide is in a position to help his former boss with a crucial constituency — evangelical Christians — as a top adviser to a Christian activist movement called The Response. Six months ago, The Response drew 30,000 conservative Christians to a rally in Houston. The star of that show was Perry, then at the beginning of a meteoric rise that has since crashed to earth.
On Dec. 6 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, The Response will hold its next event. As in Houston, Tyler is a key organizer, adviser and publicist. Although all the GOP candidates are invited, and several are changing their schedules to get there, the one most likely to benefit could be the man Tyler used to work for.
Whatever else he does in Iowa, Gingrich needs as many chances as he can get to tell his personal story — the mistakes, shall we say, and efforts at redemption — before a crowd of evangelicals. In the state’s 2008 caucuses, evangelicals comprised an estimated 40 percent of GOP caucus goers. Gingrich will get that chance again on Dec. 6.
And he’s grabbing it. The guy cannot confess his sins, repent, and inform his audiences that God has forgiven him often enough or publicly enough. The naked cynicism of this play for God voters could not be more obvious, but it doesn’t bother his target audience at all. But that’s precisely because neither the sin nor the repentance matters to that audience as much as the fact that it’s couched in that fundamentalist language. Steve M puts it really well:
To put it mildly, I’d question whether Gingrich has been “forthright” or merely opportunistic with regard to his love life and his latter-day expressions of faith. …
I think right-wing Christians like this talk from Gingrich because it tells them that he accepts their belief system. He defers to their moral worldview. He accepts that they’re entitled to judge him. That’s what makes them feel good about themselves.
Parker sees Gingrich’s sin-and-redemption talk as a reason that Republican voters prefer him to Romney — but maybe it’s also a reason they prefer Gingrich to the utterly sanctimonious Rick Santorum. He’d probably be doing better if, somewhere along the line, he got nasty with an aide, then wept as he told us how horrible the memory of that makes him feel.