This Week in God

First up from the God Machine this week is a look at evangelical Republicans and their willingness to tolerate — and possibly even embrace — Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign.

Of all the GOP presidential candidates, Gingrich would appear to be the one least likely to garner evangelical support. He is, after all, a thrice-married adulterer. There were all kinds of fair jokes this week about Christian conservatives bailing on Herman Cain over his alleged infidelity, only to move to Gingrich, who cheated on at least two of his wives.

But among evangelical Republicans, adultery is a bit like college football — it matters whether you lose, but it matters even more when you lose. Dave Weigel had a good report on evangelicals’ evaluations the other day.

They were accidentally disagreeing with Bob Vander Plaats, chief executive of the FAMiLY Leader. “There’s been a sincere life change for Newt Gingrich,” he says. “Now, if Newt would have had a Road to Des Moines conversion this year, it might be hard to take him seriously. But since four or five years ago, he’s shown a very transparent grace and maturity. He’s been married to Callista for over a decade. He’s healed his relationship with his children.”

What happened with Newt four or five years ago? Knowing this is important to understanding how he’s calmed the various Vander Plaatses of the plains. In March 2007, Gingrich called in to James Dobson’s radio show to atone for his sins. The timing was perfect. Gingrich didn’t end up running for president that year. After 2008, Dobson retreated from the active political role he’d taken in the Bush years.

“It’s a very painful topic and I confess that directly to you,” said Gingrich to Dobson. “There were times when I was praying and when I felt I was doing things that were wrong. But I was still doing them.” He had fallen short of his “own standards.” He had moved on. “I’m not trying to be a leader in the sense of rising above my fellow Americans,” he said, “but I am trying to serve, particularly as a teacher and as a developer of solutions.”

In the years after that, Gingrich wrote two books about “Rediscovering God in America,” and produced two films with that title. He grew deeply involved in the conservative battle to unseat Iowa judges who legalized gay marriage. Gingrich’s network funneled $350,000 into an $850,000 campaign, and the campaign won.

That’s proving compelling with evangelical leaders, but the rank-and-file may need some additional persuading. Southern Baptist leader Richard Land published an open letter this week, urging Gingrich to give a big speech addressing his “marital past,” acknowledging misdeeds, and asking evangelical voters for their forgiveness.

No word yet on whether Gingrich would be so inclined, but it’s a campaign angle to keep an eye on.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* President Obama was plenty religious at the ceremonial lighting of the National Christmas Tree in Washington this week. Even Fox News didn’t complain.

* The chief exorcist for the Vatican believes practicing yoga is “satanic,” and reading Harry Potter novels “leads to evil.” Good to know. (thanks to R.P. for the tip)

* Televangelist and Texas megachurch leader Joel Osteen is developing a faith-based reality television show. Seriously.

* A Baptist church in Kentucky this week decided it would not accept interracial couples as members. It’s the 21st century. Just thought I’d mention that. [Update: the church is revisiting its decision.]

* And Fox News apparently believes it’s won the “war on Christmas.” Here’s hoping, then, that the network will shut up about it.