March 14, 2011
Newt Gingrich's Comic Repentance
— Martin E. Marty
After a week of tsunamis, earthquakes, Libyan horrors, Philadelphia clerical sex scandal news, National Public Radio disasters, and National Football League lock-out threats, we the people look for some comic relief. Celebrity politician Newt Gingrich provided this as he gave the Christian Broadcasting Network audience a rationale for his having committed a plethora of adulteries with, evidently inter alia, three wives. “[P]artially driven by how passionately I felt about this country. . . . I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate,” he said. Things didn’t “happen,” everyone but Mr. Gingrich knows; he “happened” them. The rationale, people across the spectrum agree, related to Mr. Gingrich’s political efforts to gain support for a probable—or, at least, once probable—presidential nomination candidacy.
“I felt compelled to seek God’s forgiveness. Not God’s understanding, but God’s forgiveness,” Gingrich said. Had he been talking to God in private repentance, what he said would have been no one’s business except God’s and his. Since he was talking publicly to the media and to the evangelicals he was courting, it is legitimate to note the comic dimensions of what he said. Remember what showman George M. Cohan once observed: “Many a bum show has been saved by the flag.” Mr. Gingrich, in his bum show, reached for the flag and pleaded the patriot excuse.
“Talk about a forgiving God?” he asked, or said, as he shifted into biblical mode. The template for politically-motivated repentance is the story of King David of old, who felt “passionately about his country,” enough to have something “happen in his life that was not appropriate.” That was having his general Uriah killed so that David’s adultery with Mrs. Uriah could be covered up. Serious evangelicals, and there are millions of them, are rightfully offended by this ploy. They may see similarities in the plot of David’s and Newt’s careers. Chapter headings in Steven L. McKenzie’s King David: A Biography include “Holy Terrorist: David and His Outlaw Band,” “Assassin,” “Like Father, Like Son: The Bathsheba Affair and Absalom’s Revolt.” Yes, many things in David’s case, though on a lesser scale, had also happened and were not appropriate.
McKenzie summarizes the record, including: “One of David’s wives is his best friend’s sister and his enemy’s daughter. . . . Some of his brides were new widows whose husbands had very recently died under suspicious circumstances.” We read that he’d “sent for Bathsheba and ‘lay’ with her.” (II. Sam. 11:4. Nothing is said of her feelings.) The King, “feeling passionate about [his] country,” had “worked too hard,” as evidenced when he brought Uriah on the scene. “All David could think to do was ask general questions about the welfare of the army and the war,” questions whose answer he knew.
Evangelicals believe that Psalm 51, a classic, the classic, of repentance literature was later written by David. They take their cue from an ancient subtitle, Psalm 51: “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” The climactic Psalm line, to God: “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight.” The stakes were high, but no match for those today, when a possible candidate has to make his case before a more stern judge: a bloc of voters in an American election. That Mr. Gingrich tried to be forgiven while using the “patriotism” and “overworking” excuses is what leads many to see a usually serious act turning out to have been what we called “comic.” Now, back to the serious matters of the week.
Steven L. McKenzie, King David: A Biography (Oxford, 2000).
UPI, “Gingrich: Working Too ‘Hard’ Led to Affair,” March 9, 2011.
Maggie Haberman, “Newt Gingrich: ‘I Was Doing Things That Were Wrong’,” Politico, March 8, 2011.
Matt Sullivan, “How Newt Gingrich Misplaced His Member,” Esquire, March 9, 2011.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.