Most conservatives seem to have adopted a sensible view about the relevance of Newt Gingrich’s history of adultery to his presidential campaign: It is a negative factor but not a dispositive one. Conservatives who agree on this point may differ on just how much weight to give that factor. Here and there, however, one hears arguments to the effect that Gingrich’s past sins should not affect our judgment of his candidacy at all. The point is put with special force by, and to, some of Gingrich’s fellow Catholics: Since he has been absolved of his sins in the process of conversion, hasn’t the slate been wiped clean? Aren’t we obligated to forgive him for any past transgressions?
Christians are certainly obligated to love him and to will the good for him, obligations that do not depend on his repentance. We are not to shun him. Nor need we take any action to encourage him to express contrition, since he has already done that. But there are at least three reasons to hold a candidate’s past infidelities against his candidacy — whether or not one ultimately decides to support him — that forgiveness and repentance do not nullify. Note that I have shifted from speaking of “Gingrich” to “a candidate,” because my purpose here is not mainly to discuss the extent to which these reasons apply to him, but rather to establish the principles that apply generally in such situations.
First: Absolution does not perfect character, and even a sincere penitent may have demonstrated, by his past behavior, characteristic weaknesses that could lead to a repetition of the offense. Gingrich has said that his adultery resulted, at least in part, from getting so caught up in his work for the American people as speaker. If that is true, then high office would seem to be an occasion of sin that Americans have a reason of charity to spare him. (If there are stronger reasons on the other side of the case — for example, we think that he’s really the only person who can save the country — they could defeat this charitable obligation.)
Second: Catholic teaching and practice wisely seek to avoid “scandal,” which in this context might be best understood as actions that inadvertently spread moral misunderstanding. Making a known adulterer president might run the risk of teaching the false lesson that adultery (or immorality generally) is not important. Considerations of scandal lay behind the old Catholic practice of avoiding large weddings or Masses in the case of marriages after annulments. The Church was not trying to convey the view that the new marriages were somehow not real marriages. Nor was it saying that, in cases where the marrying parties had begun their relationship under sinful circumstances, the repentance of those sins was insincere, untrustworthy, or worth only partial credit. The point was to maintain, as much as possible, the public’s (or at least the Catholic public’s) understanding of Church teaching about marriage. So (in principle!) here. All else equal, a president with no history of adultery would be preferable.
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.