Visitors to the Basilica of the National Shrine in northeast Washington often do a double take when they see Newt Gingrich and his familiar shock of white hair slip into a pew for the noon Mass on Sundays. The former Speaker of the House is known for many things, but religious zeal is not one of them. In fact, the social conservatives who fueled his Republican revolution in 1994 often complained about Gingrich's lack of interest in issues like abortion or school prayer.
This past spring, however, after several decades as a nominal Southern Baptist, Gingrich converted to Catholicism. With the fervor of a convert, he has embraced the role of defending both his new faith and religious liberty. In his 2006 book Rediscovering God in America, Gingrich lambasted what he calls the "secular effort to reject any sense of a spiritual life as mattering." And days before he officially joined the Catholic Communion on March 29, he was among the first to criticize the University of Notre Dame for inviting Barack Obama to speak, Twittering (of course): "It is sad to see notre dame invite president obama to give the commencement address since his policies are so anti catholic."
Gingrich's spiritual awakening has struck more than a few political observers as a bit of positioning for the GOP nomination in 2012. (In the first half of 2009, the former Speaker raked in $8.1 million through his political committee, far outpacing his party rivals.) While he wouldn't be the first to experience a conversion on the road to Des Moines, there are simpler ways of understanding the new godly Gingrich. American Catholicism has been losing members at a remarkable rate; an April 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life report found that for every person who joins the Catholic Church, four others leave. But a steady stream of high-profile political conservatives have bucked this trend by converting in the past decade, including columnist Robert Novak, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback and CNBC host Larry Kudlow. Unlike Evangelicals, for whom conversion is often an emotional, born-again experience, Catholic converts tend to make more of a considered decision to join a theological and intellectual tradition. "Conservatives are especially receptive to the promise of there being some capital-T truth that one can embed one's convictions in," says Damon Linker, a former editor of the Catholic journal First Things.
Gingrich describes the appeal of Catholicism for him in just these terms. "When you have 2,000 years of intellectual depth surrounding you," he told me on a recent summer morning, "it's comforting." There's also cachet in conservative political circles to being Catholic. Until their deaths in the past year, Father Richard John Neuhaus and National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. presided over an intellectual haven for conservatives put off by Evangelicals who rail against experts and élites.
Catholicism offers Gingrich not just a strong religious tradition and community. It also gives him peace at home. His wife Callista is a lifelong Catholic who sings in the basilica's professional choir. After the two married in 2000, Gingrich found himself dragged to church whenever they traveled "she's adamant that we go to Mass" and started attending services at the basilica to hear Callista sing.