by Matthew Raley The victory of Newt Gingrich in South Carolina puts evangelicals and other social conservatives at a crossroads. Gingrich by any measure is morally equal to Bill Clinton, upon whom social conservatives released so much rhetorical lava in the 1990s. Yet one of the GOP's most traditionalist states has just told its delegates to vote for Gingrich at the convention.
The message is hard to misunderstand. South Carolina Republicans could have voted for three family men whose private morality is unquestioned. Ron Paul is one. Mitt Romney lives the way social conservatives say public men should live. His pro-life credentials are weak, but no weaker than George H. W. Bush's were. Rick Santorum also walks the family walk, and has the additional advantage of being publicly acclaimed by evangelical leaders at a summit in Texas.
No deal. It's Gingrich.
According to exit polls, Gingrich won almost every voter category, including independents. Women favored him 38% to Romney's 29%. Married people favored him over Romney 41% to 28%. Gingrich won both "somewhat" and "very" conservative voters by large margins. He swept evangelicals with 44%. Romney and Santorum each took 21% of evangelicals, meaning that even their combined vote wouldn't have beaten Gingrich.
The conclusion is inescapable: the people who wanted President Clinton removed, and who only recently heaved Mark Sanford (R) from the governor's office for his notorious adultery, just said that adultery doesn't matter in Gingrich's case.
The hypocrisy cannot be healed by excuses such as:
1. Christianity is really about forgiveness.
Rick Perry used the line when he endorsed Gingrich. And, to be sure, there's something in this forgiveness thing. But some evangelicals in the 90s, notably Tony Campolo, tried to alert evangelicals to the gospel's potential for President Clinton, and got the smack-down. Is forgiveness only for Republicans?
2. There is a vast left-wing conspiracy that uses the politics of personal destruction.
Yes, the ABC interview with Gingrich's ex-wife was transparently an attempt to sway the South Carolina primary. It was too exquisitely timed. But, when the words were "vast right-wing conspiracy," social conservatives scoffed.
3. The accusations against President Clinton were never about sex, but about his perjury.
Yes, the impeachment process was about perjury. But what really bothered social conservatives at the time was Bill Clinton's cultural significance. He was not merely a 1960s liberal, but a 1960s libertine. He represented the triumph of moral relativism and the mainstreaming of sexual immorality. Or so they said. Why not Gingrich? Why doesn't his behavior equally symbolize the decline of sexual ethics? Symbolize it more?
Bottom line: social conservatives in Bob Jones country voted for Gingrich because they think he can win. And that's always the bottom line in politics, left and right.
I do not believe Clinton's or Gingrich's transgressions tell us much about American culture, in the 1990s or today. In fact, public presidential immorality has been worse in the past. Grover Cleveland assumed responsibility for an illegitimate child in 1884, going on to serve two terms as president. The public shame of such politicians is just the continuing story of power. For the story of American culture, we have to examine what ordinary people do.
I'm one of many pastors have been arguing for years that the evangelical political machine is wrong both about the gospel and politics. Those who believe we can take back our culture through political means, and who have been selling us politicians for the last 25 years, have yet to show one cultural transformation. They keep stumbling over their spin. They have failed to understand that the political process rarely shapes culture, but is culture's slave.
The only hope for transforming our nation is for evangelicals to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to people's hearts. When we get our message clear again, we will see God change lives, and our culture will change as a result. Pastors are doing this with leaders of both parties, choosing to see them as men and women who need counsel, healing, and repentance rather than as enemies who should be crushed. Leaders like Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. If followers of Christ never said another word about pro-family policies and spoke only of the restoring power of Christ through his death and resurrection, we would be amazed at the results.
The power-game will always be with us. It's past time for us to choose Christ instead.