Third: A primary voter might reasonably vote for another candidate on the grounds that a candidate known to have had extramarital affairs would have a harder time winning the general election. The voter might himself place a low weight on the candidate’s moral offenses, that is, but fear that many other voters will place more weight on them. Here, obviously, the candidate’s other electoral strengths and weaknesses, and those of his rivals in the primary, would also come into play. It seems indisputable that the difference in marital circumstances between President Obama and Gingrich would redound to the credit of the former should they face each other in a general election. How much it would matter is of course the stuff of speculation.
One way to clear away some of the confusion about how penitence and religious conversion should affect our treatment of a candidate is to remember that worse sins than extramarital sexual activity can be forgiven. Imagine a candidate who, in the past, was given to fits of volcanic rage that eventually led to manslaughter. Imagine further that he did his time, sincerely repented, and perhaps spent years doing charitable work before entering (or reentering) politics. Opinions might in that case differ about how to evaluate that candidacy. But nobody would be arguing that sincere penitence, recognized by the Church, ended the discussion, even for members of the Church. So here.
A candidate’s conversion and repentance of past sins thus cannot erase voter concerns that arise from those sins. Those concerns rightly remain an obstacle on Gingrich’s path to the White House. What real repentance means is that the sins are no longer an obstacle on his path to Heaven, which is after all more important for him.
— Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review.