Why Newt Gingrich's Affairs Might Get Him Elected

How the adulterous candidate tweaks the repressed libidos of the Bible belt.

by Carrie Hagen

If Newt Gingrich wants to regain his GOP standing after losing Florida's primary, then he needs to air more of his dirty laundry.

Gingrich owes his South Carolina primary win to his ex-wife Marianne. Two weeks ago, hours after she told ABC about his request for an open marriage, the Bible belt voted for him. Why? Because her story swung the spotlight away from Mitt Romney and made her philandering former husband an evangelical hero. Because "engaging in sexual immorality" is the church's most forbidden sin, fundamentalists confine their sexual appetites to their fantasy lives. So when they hear about a Christian who had an affair, asked God's forgiveness, and emerged with more power, they secretly envy him.

I grew up surrounded by these people. And like many of them, I first had imaginary sex in church. Just after I turned ten, my family joined a small, evangelical church that met in a suburban community center. Every week, my brother and I walked to our Sunday-school room, our shoes sometimes sticking to gummy globs of apple juice and butter-cookie crumbs, remnants of a senior-citizen social the night before. Our teacher Janice was a single woman in her thirties who loved Christian rock music and hot pink lipstick. Each week, she read aloud a Bible story from her teacher's workbook. 

Sunday-school curriculums use action-packed narratives from the Old Testament to teach kids about faith. A good number of these cautionary tales highlight the sexual sins of biblical characters, like Samson's lust for Delilah and King David's seduction of the married Bathsheba. In spite of Janice's flat reading voice, these stories came alive in my mind. More interested in the passion than in God's punishment, I pictured myself in the narratives with the teenage boys across the hall. 

Over the next several years, the male leads in my daydreams had various faces: new kids at church, my classmates at school, Wil Wheaton's character on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Still, I was shy with actual men, in spite of my X-rated biblical fantasies. My evangelical upbringing had me convinced that dating would lead to sexual immorality, which would incur the wrath of God. If I felt this way at fifteen, how much more repressed were those married men and women who sat in services next to me? As kids, we knew who the unfulfilled married couples were: those whose smiles disappeared when they sat with their families, those who lingered a little too long during coffee hour with visiting singles. When an affair did come to light, the church ostracized the cheater and embraced the unfortunate partner. From a young age, Christians learn that physically indulging their sexual desires isn't worth the stigma. 

These are the voters that Newt Gingrich needs to reach. In an October article for The Huffington Post, political strategist Rob Stein said, "approximately 35 million white Christians self-identify as Right-wing political adherents, roughly 28 million of whom are Protestant (including Mormon) and about 7 million of whom are Catholic." Repressed fundamentalists make up a large part of the Christian Right, and the ones opposed to Mormonism could easily send their votes towards the Catholic Rick Santorum. By emphasizing God's forgiveness and mercy, Gingrich gets the attention of evangelicals. By letting them know about his past transgressions, he acts as the varsity quarterback to their members of the debate team. The debate team may not like the varsity quarterback, but they still nominate him class president because his prowess both intimidates and inspires them. 

Yesterday, The Washington Post reported that Newt Gingrich has been talking to industrial workers near Las Vegas in preparation for Nevada's primary, and phoning potential donors in anticipation of next week's Super Tuesday. Unless his former conquests are on the other end of the line, reminding him of their former trysts, Gingrich is wasting his time. He can attract a far greater voting base by capitalizing on his virility and God's redemption. In doing so, he would be casting himself as Samson, Solomon, and David, Old Testament archetypes whose libidos brought turmoil to their lives but also earned them a place among the heroes in Sunday-school curriculums. 

Two decades after my last Sunday-school lesson, I'm married to a Christian man who has worked through some rough patches with me. We don't go to church much, but our evangelical upbringing still has a hold on us. During one particularly difficult time, I chose not to get a divorce because I feared the wrath of God. What helped me through that episode more than prayer? The arms of Keanu Reeves, a master imaginary lover.

Make-believe relationships are lonely. But in the Christian community, where "sexual immorality" is a grave sin, they run rampant. Guys like Newt Gingrich represent the rebel in the repressed. He isn't sexy, and he's certainly not savvy, but he falls into a category of rich and powerful men who do what they want and their communities promote them for it.

When Newt Gingrich's ex-wife spoke out about his real-life indiscretions, he'd just lost the New Hampshire primary to Mitt Romney. The Bible belt rallied, and Gingrich won the next contest. Now, after a loss to Romney in Florida, the Gingrich campaign needs to release another skeleton. Fundamentalists will respond with watering mouths and envious votes. Their motives may not be pure, but that's okay — God will forgive them.

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Commentarium (9 Comments)

Feb 03 12 - 9:09am

So the only thing keeping her marriage together is fear of an imaginary being and flicking the bean to Keanu Reeves? It might still be in trouble.

Feb 03 12 - 11:25am

Keanu Reeves has saved more than one marriage.

Feb 03 12 - 4:46pm
DB Sayers

You ARE kidding, right Carrie?

Feb 08 12 - 4:26pm
Bill Clinton

Worked for me.

Feb 09 12 - 8:46am

I dislike that monogamy and marriage are usually and immediately associated with sexual repression. Though I do agree some marriages are mistakes, they really don't have to be. In order for it to be sexually oppressing, one or both parties in the marriage/relationship is doing it wrong or in it for all the wrong reasons.

Feb 10 12 - 2:46am
Chad in Baptistland

Brilliant. No kidding. Absolutely brilliant insight.

The problem of analyzing this multifaceted phenomenon -- fundamentalism -- is that, like the psyche of any one human being, it is a great boiling cauldron of secret desires, both passive and active, and powerful resentments. Taking account of them all may well be a never-ending prospect but the unfortunate reality is that we've yet to even begin. As a former academic in the field, I've come to feel that the majority of scholarly works on the subject of these extremities of religious experience miss the boat right from the start; they must turn on a thesis, a unifying theme. The story of this or that fundamentalism comes down to this or that statement of belief, or some cultural shift, social mechanic or charismatic figure. But what is most magnetic, powerful and at times volatile about the evangelical/fundamentalist reality is not its structure, dogma, creed or distilled theological expressions -- it is its communal id or unconscious. I would argue that this is true perhaps for religion writ large, but as you so deftly demonstrate, the fevered commitments and contradictions of religious life burn brighter at the extremes and the so unknown and hidden forces becomes ever so slightly more easy to see.

If there were to be an adequate psychoanalysis of religion it would be infinite, comprised of an unending collection of clever, humble, wry and honest vignettes like this one. The real weight in this piece has little to do with satirizing the politics of the day (although I admit enjoying that part of it just fine), but is in its function as a Hipstamatic snaphot of American religion and a very fine addition to that, as yet unwritten, psychoanalysis. Because at the extremes, we have a fleeting opportunity to see a real truth - that religion is _about_ exactly what everything else is _about_: desires and dissatisfactions.


Feb 12 12 - 2:06am
gao xia en

Newt Gingrich? Virility isn't the first word that comes to mind.

Feb 14 12 - 11:38pm

I think you're spot-on, Carrie! I've been trying to figure out the Newtster's appeal, and I think there really is something to the idea that the fundamentalist masses envy his ability to swap partners with abandon, at the same time as he is crucifying Clinton for fooling around with Ms. Lewinsky, then get the blonde, get religion, and have all be forgiven! It's that success factor--he got away with it and everyone else wishes they could, too.