On Seeking the Standard Bearer for Social Conservatism
Ross Douthat has a smart post warning religious and social conservatives against anointing Newt Gingrich as the standard bearer for their worldview, which is what Gingrich would be upon winning the GOP nomination for the presidency:
Conservative Christianity in America, both evangelical and Catholic, faces a looming demographic challenge: A rising generation that is more unchurched than any before it, more liberal on issues like gay marriage, and allergic to the apocalyptic rhetoric of the Pat Robertson-Jerry Falwell era. To many younger Americans, religious conservatism as they know it often seems to stand for a kind of institutionalized hypocrisy — a right-wing Tartufferie that’s incensed by the idea of gay wedlock but tolerant of straight divorce, forgiving of Republican sins but judgmental about Democratic indiscretions, and eager to apply moral litmus tests only on issues that benefit the political right.
Rallying around Newt Gingrich, effectively making him the face of Christian conservatism in this Republican primary season, would ratify all of these impressions. It isn’t just that he’s a master of selective moral outrage whose newfound piety has been turned to consistently partisan ends. It’s that his personal history — not only the two divorces, but also the repeated affairs and the way he behaved during the dissolution of his marriages — makes him the most compromised champion imaginable for a movement that’s laboring to keep lifelong heterosexual monogamy on a legal and cultural pedestal.
But hasn’t Gingrich shown contrition for his past sins? That’s debatable, but it’s also irrelevant. Gingrich would play the king of the culture warriors, whether he intended to play this role or not, and both he and those championing him would be seen as hypocrites, their cause unserious or sinister. As Douthat says, “his candidacy isn’t a test of religious conservatives’ willingness to be good, forgiving Christians. It’s a test of their ability to see their cause through outsiders’ eyes, and to recognize what anointing a thrice-married adulterer as the champion of ‘family values’ would say to the skeptical, the unconverted and above all to the young.” There’s no getting around the fact that selecting a presidential candidate is, for religious conservatives, an evangelical act. It sends a message about their religious beliefs and values.
Granted, there will always be the Amanda Marcottes among the socially progressive who will depict even the most morally upright conservative individual as a cleverly disguised, insidiously-patriarchal monster, but they’re not “the skeptical, the unconverted, and the young” that religious conservatives have more than a snowball’s chance in hell of persuading. Morally upright individuals tend not to run for President of the United States, but there are better options for religious conservatives than Newt Gingrich. Any of the other candidates may be preferable. Well, maybe not Perry. Huntsman, although more of a moderate on gay rights, might be the best choice for social conservatives to reach, or at least not alienate, the persuadable of the republic. Michael Brendan Dougherty thinks so.