When Catholic University announced in January 2005 that Newt Gingrich would deliver a speech on campus, a group of students rose up in protest, accusing the twice-divorced, admitted philanderer of violating the Catholic values that their school was founded upon. Four years later, just last week, on March 24, Gingrich blasted another hallowed institution of Catholic higher learning: “It is sad to see Notre Dame invite President Obama to give the commencement address since his policies are so anti-Catholic values,” Gingrich wrote on Twitter of the president’s scheduled May address. What happened?
During the George W. Bush era, Gingrich rose quietly from the ruins of his failed crusade to impeach President Bill Clinton, trying to transform himself from a Republican pariah into a voice of conscience for the badly demoralized conservative movement. The religious-right elements that helped orchestrate Gingrich’s downfall as Speaker of the House became the catalyst for his resurrection and may now propel him into contention for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012. But winning them over has not been easy. Before earning a seat at their table, Gingrich has had to confess his darkest sins and beg for redemption, first on the radio show of his former nemesis, James Dobson, and then before a priest at St. Joseph’s Rectory, a Catholic church on Capitol Hill.
Indeed, on Sunday, March 29, Gingrich converted to Catholicism, the faith of his third wife, Calista Bisek. Though the ceremony was announced without fanfare, leading Catholic conservatives like Deal Hudson are brimming with excitement. Hudson was the most important Catholic political adviser to President Bush and Karl Rove, founder of the seminal Catholic journal, Crisis magazine, and self-described “theocon.” He contends that Gingrich’s conversion represents more than a concession to his wife; it signals a dramatic break from the past, both personally and politically.
“From a Catholic point of view,” Hudson told me, “Newt’s sins no longer exist—they’ve been absolved. He’s made a fresh start in life. So Newt will continue to sin and confess but there aren’t going to be a lot of Catholics who will hold that against him. They understand why being a Catholic makes a difference.”
Hudson said that while many of his friends are “extremely close” to Gingrich, he and the former Speaker of the House are just friendly acquaintances. But Hudson explains that he relates to Gingrich’s experience on a deeply personal level. Like Gingrich, he is a convert and a thrice-married sinner engaged continually in confession and absolution.
Raised as a Southern Baptist, Hudson converted to Catholicism at age 34 after becoming enraptured by the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. Upon receiving communion, Hudson received an annulment from his first wife, then divorced his second wife four years later. “It’s not unusual to do that in this day and age,” Hudson reflected, “so that sort of angle that Chris Buckley is taking to make fun of Newt is unfair.”
After entering the church, Hudson worked his way up the rungs of academia, eventually earning tenure as a philosophy professor at Fordham University. He was a charismatic figure in the classroom, casting a spell over his students with engaging lectures on natural law. But Hudson was not without his weaknesses. In 1994, after a night of drinking games at a West Village pub, during which he allegedly made out with two female students and took “body shots” with them, Hudson brought an extremely intoxicated 18-year-old student named Cara Poppas back to his office and compelled her to perform oral sex on him. When the student told school authorities about the incident, Hudson promptly resigned and moved to Washington to edit Crisis. Two years later, Hudson settled a sexual-harassment lawsuit out of court with Poppas for $30,000. The incident remained unknown to everyone except Poppas and Hudson’s closest confidants.
At Crisis, Hudson railed against Clinton for his dalliances with Monica Lewinsky. “Over and over again, we hear on the talk shows that we shouldn’t hold the president to a ‘higher standard,’” Hudson wrote in 1996. “I would argue quite the opposite… Those who are not willing to bear the burden of these higher standards should not seek office… After we have stripped away all idealism from offices that bind our culture together—president, father, husband—what will be left for us to aspire to? Who will want to sacrifice personal desires for public responsibilities?”
That same year, a group of Hudson’s closest conservative Catholic allies hosted a symposium, called The End of Democracy?: The Judicial Usurpation of Politics, in which they questioned the very legitimacy of American democracy. One speaker, Princeton professor Robert George, advocated mass civil disobedience to resist federal court decisions protecting reproductive and gay rights. The most influential member of the religious right’s evangelical wing, James Dobson, endorsed these Catholics’ calls for rebellion.
The movement’s apocalyptic mood resonated inside the halls of Congress, where Gingrich advanced impeaching Clinton as his party’s unifying theme ahead of midterm elections in 1998. But away from the limelight of the press, Gingrich was involved in an extramarital affair with Bisek, a young blond Capitol Hill staffer 23 years his junior who he had arranged to be put on the House Republicans’ payroll. The wild mood swings that had always characterized Gingrich’s behavior intensified as the president strengthened his position against the impeachment tribunal. Staffers discovered the Speaker crying at his desk. In the end, Gingrich’s strategy backfired in the 1998 midterm elections, resulting in the worst defeat in 64 years for a party that did not control the White House. House Republicans intimately aware of his affair with Bisek were involved in forcing Gingrich to resign from Congress so they could push on to their apocalyptic impeachment of Clinton without worrying about Gingrich’s exposure.
Gingrich promptly turned to matters of the heart, dumping his second wife, Marianne Ginther. He announced his intention to divorce her just as he had done with his first wife, Jackie Battley—while she was lying in a hospital bed, immobilized after a major medical procedure. (Battley was recovering from cancer surgery; Ginther’s appendix had ruptured.) He never bothered to tell his wife in person that he was leaving her for another woman. He called her on the phone, delivered the news, and hung up.
While Gingrich bided his time in the political wilderness, Hudson brought the Catholic right to the peak of its influence during George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign for re-election against the Catholic Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry. A confidant of Karl Rove, Hudson became Bush’s Catholic point man, enlisting a network of antiabortion bishops to threaten their congregants with excommunication if they voted for Kerry. Meanwhile, Hudson intimidated Catholic Democrats from inside the church, persuading the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to fire a low-level employee, Ono Ekeh, for hosting a “Catholics for Kerry” event. (“If you’re going to play in the sandbox,” Hudson told a reporter, “then you have to take the consequences of your public utterances and your public actions.”) Hudson’s crusade worked. In 2000, Bush won 46 percent of the Catholic vote; in 2004 he carried 52 percent—a decisive swing.
But at the height of the campaign, Hudson’s own past came back to haunt him when journalist Joe Feuerherd published a lengthy story in the National Catholic Reporter about Poppas’ sexual-harassment lawsuit. Hudson responded in a column on the Web site of the National Review, casting himself as a victim of “personal attacks” intended to undermine his conservative activism, but added, “No one regrets my past mistakes more than I do.” He quit the Bush campaign soon after, and then resigned from Crisis, which is now defunct. “Every single Catholic who has ever lived has violated church doctrine,” Hudson told me. “That’s called sin. That’s my situation too—it’s a matter of public record.”
With Bush back in the White House, Gingrich ignited his comeback campaign. He focused his efforts most intensely on reaching out to the religious right, beginning with a March 2007 phone call to the country’s third most popular radio show, Focus on the Family, hosted by Dobson. A producer promptly transferred Gingrich to a studio line, and the public confession he and Dobson had planned a month earlier began.
“I believe you to be a confessing Christian and you and I have prayed together,” Dobson reminded Gingrich, “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?”
With Dobson’s questioning of Gingrich’s faith, the sinner turned reflective. “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.”
Dobson seemed pleased with Gingrich’s confession and especially the image of the sorry politician on his knees before the Lord. Meanwhile, Hudson listened intently to the confessional interview. He was richly gratified. “Whether he is going to run for president or not, he has done the right thing for himself and the country,” Hudson wrote on his personal blog. “Gingrich will endure the predictable brickbats, but I admire his willingness to put this on the table, saying in effect to the country, ‘Here is who I am, and what I have done, if you still want me to run for president, I am ready.’”
After some early feints, Gingrich stayed out of the presidential race in 2008, observing it as a commentator for Fox News. (“[T]here is a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us,” Gingrich warned during an on-air discussion of California’s anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8.) He would not be ready to consider running until his absolution was granted by Father Milton Jordan, the senior priest at St. Joseph’s Church in Washington.
With this act and Gingrich’s subsequent conversion, Hudson said Gingrich has ratified his devotion to the “theocon” agenda. “Newt’s conversion represents about as radical a rejection of secularism and relativism as you can make,” Hudson told me.
With more than $5 million from right-wing casino baron Sheldon Adelson, Gingrichrecently founded a conservative nonprofit called Renewing American Leadership. Among the group’s planned activities, which appear coordinated with a who’s who of the Christian right, are a series of “tea party”-style protests against Obama’s economic plan, and the production of a film about Pope John Paul II’s role in bringing down the Soviet Union.
According to Hudson, Gingrich’s outrage over Obama’s speech at Notre Dame was his first act as a Catholic politician. “When I learned he was about to convert, I understood his concern,” Hudson said. “He was worried about the Church he was about to enter.”
With his sins officially expunged, Gingrich appears poised to play a decisive role in the 2012 Republican presidential sweepstakes. Whether or not Gingrich declares his candidacy, Hudson, who advised John McCain in 2008 and plans to participate in the next campaign, says he believes Gingrich has consolidated his influence in the party. “[Gingrich] has gone through a change in his life through his third marriage and he has decided to settle down,” Hudson said. “You’re never too old to settle down.”