Newt and Santorum in the Pulpit | Features | Charleston City Paper

Newt and Santorum in the Pulpit 

Gingrich's appearance at a local worship service inspired a small exodus for the door

Newt Gingrich, seen here in a frame from a YouTube video, spoke on the history of Christian influence in American politics at Cathedral of Praise in North Charleston.

Newt Gingrich, seen here in a frame from a YouTube video, spoke on the history of Christian influence in American politics at Cathedral of Praise in North Charleston.

During a recent Sunday-morning appearance at a North Charleston church, Newt Gingrich went nearly 40 minutes without addressing what is arguably his biggest liability with evangelical voters: his multiple, well-publicized affairs and divorces. Finally, as he wrapped up a talk on the place of Christianity in early American history, he made a passing reference to the topic that was surely on many people's minds.

"I don't come here today as a perfect person. I don't come here today without — I guess the advertisement is — baggage," Gingrich said. "I am a person. I've lived a fairly long life. At 68, I'm a grandfather ... I am coming to you today as somebody who has the courage to stand up for the truth, somebody who is prepared to fight for the America you and I believe in, and somebody who, in the words of Pope John Paul II, really does believe, 'Be not afraid.'"

Cathedral of Praise, a nondenominational megachurch on Ashley Phosphate Road, recently posted videos to its website from speaking appearances by Gingrich and Rick Santorum. The two contenders for the Republican presidential nomination were invited by the conservative Summerville 9-12 Project to speak on the weekend before South Carolina's first-in-the-South Republican primary election.

Although the two candidates spoke in place of Pastor Mike Lewis' sermon — Santorum at an evening service on Sat., Jan. 14, Gingrich at the 11 a.m. service on Jan. 15 — neither man delivered a homily. John Hull, who is the chairman of Summerville 9-12 and a member of Cathedral of Praise, says his political group sent an invitation to all of the Republican candidates to speak at the church on the principle of American exceptionalism. The talks weren't sermons, he says, but they were "definitely not campaign speeches" either. Michele Bachmann had also accepted the invitation, but she backed out after suspending her campaign Jan. 4.

Hull says the church was not endorsing either of the contenders. "Biblically speaking, we have a responsibility to be involved with our governance, and that is the role of the church, not to pick candidates," he says.

Not everyone in attendance was thrilled to see politicians on the stage that weekend, though. Jimmy Sprague, of Goose Creek, says he had been absent the previous Sunday and was not aware that the candidates would be speaking. He attended the 9 a.m. Sunday service, during which the church showed clips from Santorum's talk the night before and then held a phone conference with Gingrich before his in-person appearance at the 11 a.m. service.

"I go to church to praise God," Sprague says. "After my week, that's where I get my sanity or whatever you want to call it. ... I don't go to church to hear political people, and I don't go to political events to hear people talk about God."

Apparently, Sprague was not the only one who was upset. About halfway through the service, when he heard Gingrich's voice coming through the church's loudspeakers, he headed for the door and saw a cluster of other people leaving at the same time.

"I don't like Newt Gingrich," Sprague says. "I don't believe anything he says if he's standing on a stack of Bibles or in my church." Sprague, who is not a member of Cathedral, had planned to attend a new members' class the following week, but after seeing Gingrich's face on a projector screen, he changed his mind.

Hull says he does not know what motivated people to walk out of the service, but he believes there are "major myths about our Constitution" — specifically on the topic of separation of church and state — "that have been promulgated by either a malicious or an indifferent press." He points out that Thomas Jefferson opened up executive branch buildings for church services and that Patrick Henry gave his famously stirring "Give me liberty or give me death" speech in a Richmond, Va., church.

The Professor and the Confessor

Gingrich and Santorum gave markedly different talks. Gingrich was "much more like the professor," Hull says, giving an outline of the influence of Christianity in early American history. Santorum, on the other hand, told a remarkably vulnerable and emotionally charged story that linked his family's childbirth struggles with his political crusade to end partial-birth abortion.

Gingrich spoke about the Christian beliefs of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, decrying the academic world's tendency to downplay the Founding Fathers' religious faith. He got in several digs against what he called the news, media, and academic elites, offering a foretaste of the verbal onslaught he would unleash later in the week when CNN debate moderator John King confronted him about his second wife's allegation that he had requested an open marriage.

The former speaker of the House also bemoaned the removal of prayer from high school graduation ceremonies, argued that the Supreme Court had overstepped its bounds in interpreting Constitutional law, and warned of a threat of radical Muslims imposing sharia law on U.S. soil.

Santorum said he was invited to a Senate Bible study when he was elected to a Pennsylvania seat in 1995, and it was there that he began to transition from an "intellectual" to a "personal" faith. He said he began to recognize his own shortcomings as a husband and father, and he committed to improving at both. It was around the same time that he became a vocal opponent of late-term abortion. He recalled the dripping sweat and clammy palms that accompanied his first speech on the topic on the Senate floor.

"There's one thing to be pro-life," Santorum said. "It's another thing to actually say it and step out for it."

Later, as he and his wife dealt with pregnancy complications that would ultimately lead to the death of their prematurely born son Gabriel, he recalled weeping in the family car and expressing his anger to God.

"How could you do this?" he said. "I'm doing what you want me to do ... This is your answer? Take my son?" He said the Rev. Lloyd John Ogilvie, then the Senate chaplain, told him to pray for understanding. Today, he says, families on the campaign trail thank his wife for her book, Letters to Gabriel, which she wrote in response to the loss of their son.

Pastor Lewis said Santorum's talk was "the first time in the history of the world that a politician has made me cry." Lewis also offered a prayer for both candidates and their families. At the end of Gingrich's speech, he said, "Whoever you vote for, I think you will have to attest that there's a man who loves his country and knows this country. Regardless of who you vote for, he's one of us, and I think we ought to pray for him."


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