I'm no huge fan of Newt Gingrich for all the reasons that have been said time and again in the last month. He has lots of baggage, both politically and personally, and it is hard to nail him down on exactly where he stands. It seems that he far prefers and excels at the role of the underdog, but has no idea how to succeed once he is the victor. For committed political conservatives, that's worrisome, and it explains why he has achieved so much with so modest expectations as a candidate, but could destroy his own presidency once he wins.
He may very well flame out in the coming weeks or days (so I better type fast!). But if he doesn't and if I feel compelled to vote for him in my Texas primary, I will take some heart that he is a Catholic convert and not a recommitted Protestant. I say that as a mainline Protestant, all too aware of the failings of both the mainline branch and the evangelical branch of my side of the aisle. The weaknesses of the Protestant movement do not help men like Mr. Gingrich: restless, intelligent and ambitious men who, in the end, find it hard to have much respect for Protestantism.
Protestantism, especially the American version of it, rarely offers a coherent understanding of man's bondage to sin, his need for forgiveness, and the Church’s role in proclaiming that forgiveness objectively. Therefore, Protestants often find themselves alone with their sin, with little framework and no real teaching authority shy of their pastor. Emotional highs and lows have become the norm for American evangelicals, and for men who are chronically undisciplined, the emotional high of recommitment fades quickly.
For men like Gingrich I suspect, there is also little respect for the historical and intellectual foundations of Protestantism. Sure, it has its giants like Luther, Calvin, Barth, Bonhoeffer, and on and on. But a book of America's Protestant heroes would be thin reading indeed. Even John Wesley was a failed American preacher before returning to England where he would found Methodism. Our history is more often filled with heretics or lone ranger types who stir up crowds, men who create discontent and leave no legacy of vale behind.
This American history finds its triumphant apex in today's Church Growth Movement, as the thin gruel of Joel Osteen and his many, many competitors can turn the most open-minded of men into the most hardened of cynics. “If this is Christianity,” they might say, “it must be for those incapable of complex thought. This is clearly a self-fulfilling, financially motivated operation that has virtually nothing in common with historical Christianity.” They would be right. At some point, I keep waiting for the veneer of this thinly veiled Christianity to wear off. Sadly for those who believe themselves to be in the fold of traditional Christianity, it remains a power.
But is Rome any better? Doesn't it offer the same thing, just with more formality? Certainly, one could quibble with Rome. Protestants and Catholics continue to have theological disagreements, and even Rome's cherished Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church) doesn't always get it right. (That is, if you ask a Protestant.) Indeed, I find myself frequently disappointed that Rome doesn't actually exercise its Magisterium on a more regular basis! So I am not saying that Rome is perfect, or that any expression of the Faith is capable of perfection
But Newt's conversion to Catholicism tells me more about him than it does about Rome. For a man as bright as Newt to consider such a conversion tells me that he did not merely recommit to the Christian principles he already knew he had to live by. It tells me he was willing to place himself under the authority of Rome. For the restless intellectual, Newt and countless men before him finally found his match, an institution he could deeply respect, an institution he was actually willing to repent to belong to. It tells me that for all of his bravado and his ego (which remains healthy), he is a man capable of some maturity, introspection and humility. He is not perfect by any means, but he has found an expression of the Faith that will speak to him in a way Protestantism never did, and never could. It simply didn't have the clout.
To see where a recommitted Protestant may end up, one may only need to look at Mr. Gingrich's former sparring partner, President Clinton. President Clinton no doubt recommitted to his Christian faith many times in the wake of his adulterous affairs. But there is little evidence any such commitment stuck. I suspect it is because there is little real fear of the Baptist Church among men as intelligent as President Clinton. They know its history and theology and techniques are thin, even as in every expression of Christianity resides very bright stars. But for some men like Mr. Gingrich and President Clinton, they will only listen to the authority of Rome. Newt seems to have placed himself under that authority, and for that, I can more easily support him.