Newt, Newsweek, evangelicals & Rome

Before we get to one of the Beltway issues of day -- the surging Newt Gingrich and the evangelicals of Iowa -- I have a question for GetReligion readers who are, or have been, Newsweek subscribers in recent years. My question: What is Newsweek, right now?

Is it a journal of news and opinion, sort of The New Republic Lite, with an emphasis on opinion? Is it a celebrity publication, where topics leap out onto the cover because of THE NAME of the author more than the topic? Is it still a news weekly in the American news model?

I ask these questions because I read the publication quite closely and it is, after all, the home of Peter J. Boyer, one of the long-form journalists I most admire. And everyone has to read Howard "Howie" Kurtz, right?

The problem is, I can find evidence to support any of those journalistic labels in just about any recent issue of Newsweek. What we have here is a confusing case of multiple journalistic personality syndrome.

This leads me back to Michelle Goldberg's piece on Newt and the evangelicals. This report started out looking like a rather mundane drive-by journalistic shooting. Ho-hum. But then I kept reading and, by the end, I found that this story had bravely included some very interesting voices and they were raising some of the key Newt questions that I hear being discussed in Christian circles from time to time.

The current media template, of course, focuses on Gingrich and his private life. That is supposed to turn off the evangelicals. When you put this in print, it looks like this:

After all, it’s not just that Gingrich is on his third marriage. He famously divorced his first wife while she was suffering from cancer -- a cancer he’d previously used to garner sympathy in campaign speeches. He cheated on his second wife with congressional aide Callista Bisek, now his third wife, while leading the impeachment battle against Bill Clinton. Like Sen. Larry Craig, he of the attempted airport-bathroom tryst, Gingrich’s personal life has become a liberal punchline, proof of Republican hypocrisy on family values. How can voters whose main priority is the restoration of the traditional family rally around him?

Now the X-factor in this is, of course, that Newt has improved his Godtalk game in recent years, finding a way to fuse it into his established love of lofty soliloquies about history, Western civilization, rampant secularism, etc. In the Newsweek piece that all adds up to "theocentric" rhetoric. The key, readers are told, is Newt's conversion to Catholicism, which has turned into the official faith of bookish conservatism -- especially on topics of law and politics.

This is pretty standard stuff. What fascinated me, of course, was that the Catholic angle in this story simply vanishes -- poof. The Iowa storyline, after all, is about Newt and evangelicals. That's what matters.

Later on, the story -- to my surprise and pleasure -- actually includes materials based on real, live evangelicals talking about how their religious beliefs affect their views of Gingrich. For example, there is the question of whether or not Newt will enthusiastically sign a document called "The Marriage Vow," which states the following: "We acknowledge and regret the widespread hypocrisy of many who defend marriage yet turn a blind eye toward the epidemic of infidelity and the anemic condition of marriages in their own community."

Apparently, many of the evangelicals are convinced that Newt has signed on for real.

Why do they believe that?

Gingrich benefits, of course, from the powerful Christian narrative of sin and deliverance. "These voters believe in forgiveness, they believe in redemption," says Ralph Reed, who leads the Faith and Freedom Coalition. After all, as he points out, it was evangelicals who helped elect Ronald Reagan, our first and only divorced president.

The redemption narrative allows evangelicals to see themselves as fundamentally different from the feminists who rallied behind Bill Clinton because he was able to advance their agenda despite his personal failings. Tamara Scott is the Iowa director of Concerned Women for America and recently became a co-chair of Bachmann’s campaign, but she has nothing bad to say about Gingrich and resists Clinton comparisons. "Here’s the difference," she says. "Bill Clinton denied what he did. He didn’t repent."

Yikes. An actual theological context for this discussion! For these voters, in other words, the big issue is whether Gingrich meant what he said when he talked about the sin in his life. For some, it is enough that he publicly repented.

This is the point at which I wanted to ask a question that is very close to being out of bounds, in terms of journalism and privacy. Newt is now a Catholic. Who is his confessor? How is he walking his talk? Would he like to discuss that?

Then there is this related question: At what point is some media type going to ask conservative and middle-of-the-road Catholics what they think of his conversion, repentance and public professions of a changed life?

Obviously, the thoughts of the evangelicals matter. But what about the Catholics? We know that liberal Catholics are almost certainly rolling their eyes at all of this. But what do other Catholics think of this man? Consider this, for example: Newt angered many GOP hardliners with his more moderate stance on immigration. Might there be some Catholic intellectual DNA, in his stance? Will that hold up? Where are the other Catholic fault lines and questions?

Someone needs to write that story. The evangelicals are not the only people studying the allegedly new Newt Gingrich.

IMAGE: From the liberal Catholic site Bilgrimage.

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