My friend Joshua Mercer is concerned with Newt Gingrich’s three marriages and their effect on Newt’s ability to defend DOMA and promote the traditional definition of marriage.
As I tend to do ’round these parts, I disagree. I’m not sure Mercer is doing this, but I fear too many conservatives are trying to find an angel by whom to be governed. We will not find one, so we must choose from among the sinners we live with.
As for the sinner named Newt Gingrich, while his example is not one up for emulation, I do not believe Gingrich’s case is as problematic for Gingrich-as-nominee as Mercer does.
First and foremost, the primary battlefront on this topic is the personal, not the political—it’s you and me convincing others of what marriage is and why it is worth protecting in law. So the discussion about which politician would be the best one to champion this cause is, to my mind, a secondary consideration.
That said, since one of them *will* be the standard bearer, and thus “don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good” is in full effect, here is my response to Mercer’s concerns about Gingrich.
We believe that marriage is, by definition, between one man and one woman, and that this definition is unchangeable. Newt’s offense is in having three different wives, all of whom are still alive.
But given a culture that accepts divorce, and recognizing that until his 2009 conversion he accepted this bug of our culture, his offense was not against what we are at present trying to defend in law regarding marriage—after all, he only had one wife at a time, and all of his wives were women. As Catholics we hold that divorce is a severe problem, and that those who are sacramentally married, get divorced but who attempt remarriage while their (actual) spouse still lives incur automatic excommunication live separated from the Church in some way.* But in today’s fight to defend marriage we are not fighting the divorce fight.
Since the case we’re making at present is not against divorce, Newt’s marital issues are not a reason for him to recuse himself from the battle over marriage. Nor, in my opinion, are they a good enough reason for us to hesitate to support him as a standard bearer. He’s flawed, just like the rest of us. Opponents will undoubtedly use them as a cudgel with which to beat him about the head and shoulders, but I think that line of attack will have limited traction, especially if we at whom it is aimed shrug it off as a red herring “gotcha” attack. And it certainly will not throw Gingrich off his message—he wouldn’t be running if he and his wife didn’t expect that sort of criticism.
Those who ardently push for gay marriage do not honor the “man and woman” part of the definition, nor do they think divorce is particularly a problem, given the separation rate among gay couples, including the “marriages” that have taken place in those jurisdictions that have approved gay marriage laws. And you’re not going to win over those who simply reject the traditional definition of marriage anyhow, even if your candidate married his high school sweetheart at 20 years old, is still madly in love, and hasn’t even looked at another woman since.
For one, if not Newt, they’d point at others in the pro-marriage side who have been divorced and gotten remarried, including lawmakers. It’s going to happen anyhow, so why not have a strong leader at the helm whose personal issues don’t paralyze him?
Also, yes, Newt cheated on his second wife, Marianne, with Callista, who is presently his wife. That’s bad. But it wasn’t the end of the story (we are Catholic, after all). His sins have been public, but his conversion sincere, and in spite of his very public bruised past he is putting himself forward for the presidency and all the scrutiny—being beaten about the head and shoulders—that such an endeavor brings with it. I actually somewhat admire him for that. He could have continued in a comfortable living as a spokesman, pundit, writer, professor, perhaps getting appointed to a commission here and there, but he decided there is something more important that he could be doing and he isn’t going to let past disappointments and sins derail that possibility. He is ambitious—they all are, or they wouldn’t be running—but I do not believe his ambition is unhealthy. And his wife is on board, which is important because he expressed early on that if Callista was not keen on the idea he would not do it. The idea that he would check his ambition for the sake of his marriage says something, no? His present marriage is really the first time he has entered into marriage with eyes mostly open (only “mostly,” because no one’s eyes, save Christ’s and His mother’s, are fully open this side of the grave) so it seems he sees things he did not previously see. And he’s not the same man he was when he was in the mid-nineties. A friend of mine who knew him when she worked on Capitol Hill back in the days of his speakership did a sit-down interview with him and Callista a few months back. She commented on the marked difference in his demeanor—far more calm and statesmanlike, she said. And among the GOP contenders he is, by far, the most articulate, focused, and deeply knowledgeable conservative on the topics of the day. I don’t always agree with the exact policy prescriptions he settles upon, but I always stop to see what is his point.
And he may well be the best candidate. A quick comparison of Gingrich to the other top GOP contenders: Consider that Newt’s dirty laundry is already hung on the line for all to see so there won’t be anything like what we’re seeing with Herman Cain. This is no small thing in this day and age when the news organizations want to latch onto what’s salacious, not what’s substantial. Newt has been the best performer, or at least tied, in pretty much all of the debates and has an unmatched grasp of the issues. This is a great advantage over Perry, who, though I believe he is soundly conservative in his principles, seems to lack the depth of knowledge and quick access to what he does know that he would need in debates with the chameleon and nephew of lies, Barack Obama. And Newt is not the super-packaged, slick, play dough candidate that Mitt Romney is.
(Note: the preceding paragraph should not be construed as a “best of bad options” analysis. I could pro-actively support more than one of the candidates.)
So I’m not as worried as Mercer is about Gingrich’s ability to lead on the protection of marriage in law.
And though it may seem like it, I’m not fully settled on Gingrich as my preferred candidate. However, since the beginning of this campaign season, he has been in my top few and neither his marital issues of the past nor anything he has done during the campaign has changed that.
*A commenter, Lewis Kappel, shared an important clarification of a point which I lazily generalized. He wrote:
Here is what then-Cardinal Ratzinger said in “Salt of the Earth”. – “I must make a purely canonical clarification, namely, that these married people are not excommunicated in the formal sense. Excommunication is a whole cluster of ecclesiastical penalties; it is a restriction of Church membership. This ecclesiastical penalty is not imposed on them, even though what you might call the core that immediately catches the eye, the fact of not being able to receive Communion, does affect them. But, as I said, they are not excommunicated in the juridical sense.” – cited from[here.]
Apologies for any misunderstanding I may have caused.