After discussing Gingrich's three marriages (and subsequent conversion) and the "significant House ethics violation" when he was House Speaker in the 1990s, Frank agrees with Rod Dreher that
Christian conservatives, in the toxic atmosphere of the culture wars, cannot afford to have as a public face a figure who for most of his adult life has shunned the virtues and ways of life that Christian conservatives want to advance in the public square.and then adds:
This is not to diminish or call into question Gingrich’s conversion. Quite the opposite. For, as the Catholic Catechism teaches, absolution of sins does not eradicate all the effects and consequences of those sins on the shaping of one’s character. This requires ongoing conversion, including detaching oneself from those things that may provide an occasion for sin.Well let's talk about the ethics violation first. There were 75 charges brought against Gingrich by Democratic House whip David Bonior.
It seems to me that a man whose sins arose as a consequence of the pursuit of political power and the unwise use of it after he became Speaker of the House should not be seeking the most powerful office in the world.
All but one of them was found to be without merit. The one that remained involved an allegedly partisan college class (despite the fact that the words "Democrat" and "Republican" never were used in the lectures and one entire lecture was devoted to praising FDR) he was accused of having funded through tax deductible contributions from nonprofit corporations and lying about where the contributions came from.
These were classes that one former IRS commissioner said were not in violation of IRS rules and to which a member of the ethics committee had given prior approval. And Newt was never even paid for the course. Despite all this, it was ruled an ethics violation.
In regard to the charge of lying, Gingrich had made several filings with the committee, all of which divulged that the money for the courses came from the group "Renewing American Civilization"--except for one, which stated the opposite. It was fairly clear from all the filings that he wasn't trying to hide the fact, but the committee was able to justify its charge by pointing to the one filing, which in all likelihood was made by mistake.
He was charged with an ethics violation. Fair enough. But I'm not sure it could be characterized as a "significant House ethics violation."
This was the same ethics committee that, after all, which after censuring Newt and slapping him with a $300,000 fine then gave Congressman Barney Frank a slap on the wrist for fixing 30 parking tickets and providing a misleading probation letter on behalf of his live-in gay lover who moonlighted as a drug dealer and child pornographer.
The marriage issue seems to me to be the most telling of all the charges Beckwith discusses in his article. But here too, a double standard is being applied.
To say, as Frank does, that a person's sins prior to his conversion will still have consequences afterward is true. Of course they will. But it isn't our prerogative to exact them. The Biblical examples, such as that of David, do indeed demonstrate that sin has consequences, but it nowhere indicates that these consequences are enforced by men.
In fact, the example of David is material here for a number of reasons. Here you have a man whose sins we could certainly say were at least facilitated by the power he enjoyed. And yet God himself does not take his power away. Maybe it's because God saw his heart after his repentance--something that we, of course, have no power to see.
We could multiply examples. If we are going to say we should hold the sins which men commit before their conversion against them, then Gingrich isn't the only one we should be holding them against.
Several Watergate co-conspiritors later became Christians (thought not Catholics) and entered the ministry. These were men who committed, not ethics violations, but crimes that sent them to prison. One of them was Chuck Colson. Did we or should we have applied this standard to them? Someone could respond that these men were not contending for their old positions of political power, but new positions of religious responsibility, but why shouldn't the same standard apply? In fact, shouldn't the bar be higher in the ministry than in the secular world?
The same could be said of St. Augustine himself, who occupied the most powerful academic position in the greatest empire the world has ever known, and professed to have been quite the scamp in his earlier life. And if you consider his journeys through several systems of false belief, you might also say that his intellectual sins were as scarlet. Should he have been disqualified from the position as Bishop of Hippo?
This is not to say that Gingrich is any Augustine--or that character doesn't matter. But what I think it does say is that conversion matters and that the consequences of the sins that preceded it will and should happen with no help from the rest of us. In fact, the consequences of Newt's sins are even now being exacted in the form of the light that is being shone on them and the criticism he is taking.
Clearly, Frank's motivation is a concern for Gingrich himself. He thinks he ought not be put in a position in which the temptations he succumbed to before his conversion could accost him again. I have nothing but respect for that. But I cannot help but believe that the public scrutiny a president's life receives while he is in office makes such things, not more, but less likely.
Do we really think Gingrich would be more likely to commit adultery as president? I think that if we think about it for a moment we would probably conclude otherwise. Yes, it didn't stop Clinton, but by all accounts Clinton (who was not only not contrite about his personal moral lapses, but committed perjury to conceal them) was something of a sexual predator. No one I know has made that charge of Gingrich.
It is not that I think there is not a good case against Newt. But I think that it is his promiscuity in regard to ideas that may be a greater weakness. He flirts with them. He teases them. And sometimes he dumps them after a one night stand. It's an occupational hazard with intellectuals.
Still, there is something unconvincing about the charge that a man can't be president because he is too smart.
Gingrich is a conservative--and the arguments saying he isn't, made against a man who organized a conservative revolution that resulted in the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 and who had a consistently conservative voting record throughout his career, seem to me to be ludicrous.
Furthermore, we know one thing about him: He will not only win every debate he has with Obama but he would be the most aggressive and articulate person to head the ticket.
I've spent much more time refuting the charges against Newt than in stating the positive case for him, but I think I'll just leave it at that for now.
This and the two previous posts originated with Frank Beckwith's mention of our conversations years ago at a little coffee shop in Anaheim, California, when I once recommended he read a book by Gingrich. My only regret is that I cannot flag down a waitress and ask her to pour me another cup so I could continue the conversation with an old friend who I respect and admire.