James Dobson’s slam on Newt Gingrich at the recent behind-closed-doors meeting of evangelical Christian leaders grabbed a lot of attention in the press — almost as much as the group’s eventual vote to get behind Rick Santorum. Grace Wyler at Business Insider described Dobson’s comments like this:
Influential evangelical leader James Dobson set off the fireworks at this weekend’s Christian Right summit, giving a speech that lavished praise on Karen Santorum and asked whether Americans really wanted Callista Gingrich — “a woman who was a man’s mistress for eight years” — as their First Lady, according to sources who attended the meeting.
Sources told Business Insider that Dobson’s speech was a “startling moment” that left many in the audience — particularly those who support Gingrich — floored. One source described Dobson’s tone as “angry,” and said it seemed like Dobson was blaming Callista Gingrich for the couples’ affair, which began while the former House Speaker was still married to his second wife (this is Callista Gingrich’s first marriage).
“It was clear that, to him, the villian in this story is Callista Gingrich,” the source said. “And he was announcing it to 170 ministers with huge mailing lists and television ministries.”
That’s gotta sting. What no one seems to remember — not Wyler or anyone else — is that five years ago, when Gingrich was looking to reenter the political fights but knew he needed to address the adultery issue, it was to James Dobson that Gingrich turned. Gingrich and Dobson had a memorable radio conversation in which Newt admitted his adultery publicly for the first time (you can listen to the audio at the link). Folks like the late Jerry Falwell clamored to commend Gingrich for his confession:
“He has admitted his moral shortcomings to me, as well, in private conversations,” Falwell wrote in a weekly newsletter sent Friday to members of the Moral Majority Coalition and The Liberty Alliance. “And he has also told me that he has, in recent years, come to grips with his personal failures and sought God’s forgiveness.”
CNN’s Bill Schneider speculated at the time that this was a signal from Gingrich that he wanted in the presidential race and wanted the whole adultery question neutralized. In contrast to Rudy Giuliani’s interview with Larry King admitting his own rather substantive marital problems, Gingrich went to a major — perhaps the major — figure in the TheoCon movement, looking for absolution and a blessing.
And he got it.
But three weeks after that radio broadcast, Dobson made an unsolicited phone call to author and blogger Dan Gilgoff (then at US News), adding another layer to the conversation with Gingrich:
Focus on the Family founder James Dobson appeared to throw cold water on a possible presidential bid by former Sen. Fred Thompson while praising former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is also weighing a presidential run, in a phone interview Tuesday.
“Everyone knows he’s conservative and has come out strongly for the things that the pro-family movement stands for,” Dobson said of Thompson. “[But] I don’t think he’s a Christian; at least that’s my impression,” Dobson added, saying that such an impression would make it difficult for Thompson to connect with the Republican Party’s conservative Christian base and win the GOP nomination.
At the time, Fred Thompson was the up-and-coming flavor of the month. Very Serious People asked questions like “Will he get in the race or won’t he? Can he save the GOP from the likes of Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain?” A couple of days later, Dobson’s spokesperson tried to backpedal a bit on the Gilgoff interview, saying
[Dobson's] words weren’t intended to represent either an endorsement of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich or a disparagement of former Sen. Fred Thompson. Dr. Dobson appreciates Sen. Thompson’s solid, pro-family voting record and his position that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided.
In his conversation with Mr. Gilgoff, Dr. Dobson was attempting to highlight that to the best of his knowledge, Sen. Thompson hadn’t clearly communicated his religious faith, and many evangelical Christians might find this a barrier to supporting him.
Still, the implications were clear. For whatever reason, Dobson was clearly more comfortable supporting Newt Gingrich, a repentant serial adulterer, than Fred Thompson.
That was then, but my how things have changed.
Today, it seems as if Dobson is repenting a bit for his 2007 comments about Gingrich. In that Business Insider piece that I linked to at the top, Wyler goes on to describe a division among the participants:
In the wake of the conference, Christian Right leaders have publicly split into two camps — a bad sign for a coalition whose strength has always come from its solidarity. In one camp, powerful evangelical scions like Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family; Family Research Council President Tony Perkins; and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, have thrown their support behind Santorum. On the other hand, influential California megachurch pastor Jim Garlow, evangelical activist David Lane, and Christian marketing guru George Barna have teamed up to support Gingrich.
So what’s changed?
(a) Not much. In 2007, Dobson used Gingrich as a way to undercut Fred Thompson, hoping to energize the TheoCon community to get behind someone more religiously acceptable. He wasn’t praising Gingrich as much as slipping a knife into Thompson, to try to build up support for a candidate the TheoCons could really get behind. Not necessarily Gingrich in 2008, mind you, but perhaps someone like Mike Huckabee or Sam Brownback. In 2012, Dobson’s found a more acceptable candidate, and is quite willing to use Gingrich again, this time to derail Mitt Romney’s campaign.
(b) Everything. In 2007, Dobson allowed Gingrich to use Dobson’s radio show as a means to reenter politics, proclaiming himself to be a reformed, repentant, and renewed Christian. Those are words to warm every TheoCon’s heart. But in the five years since then, what has Gingrich done to show his faith credentials? What has he done to promote the TheoCon cause? He’s done lots of lobbying and consulting, promoting the bank account of Newt and Callista Gingrich, but nothing to get the TheoCons cheering. Neither Dobson nor Gingrich has said much publicly about the other since then (until recently, that is), but there is one little public thing that might be in play. In 2009, Gingrich left the Baptist church and became a Roman Catholic — not something that went down well with many TheoCons. If this was part of Dobson’s problem with Gingrich, it’s not as simple as saying “TheoCons don’t like Catholics.” After all, Dobson recently endorsed the very Roman Catholic Rick Santorum. Instead, it may be that Dobson sees Gingrich’s conversion to Catholicism as yet another sign that Gingrich views religion as a political tool to be used to manipulate others, not as a way of life for one’s self, and yet another indication that the 2007 interview was more calculated than sincere. In other words, Dobson now sees that he got played in 2007, and doesn’t like that one bit.
(c) Both of the above. Dobson used Gingrich in 2007 to torpedo Thompson, and wants to do the same now to torpedo Mitt Romney. If Dobson thinks he was played by Gingrich in 2007, that would certainly explain the anger with which Dobson spoke out against Newt and Callista last week. Being able to pay Gingrich back for being fooled by him in 2007 while at the same time trying to boost a “real Christian conservative” like Santorum as the alternative to Romney is icing on the cake.
It’s mostly a wild guess, but put me down for (c).
photo of a portion of the John the Baptist window in Glasgow Cathedral h/t to Glasgow Amateur