A longtime conservative friend sent me an email after reading something positive I had written about Newt Gingrich: "Whoever votes (for) or supports Newt for president is out of their mind."
It wouldn't be the first time I've been called crazy.
He continued: "You can believe in redemption, as I do, but you are not thinking seriously if you support a person for president with the baggage he is carrying. What an example for our children and future generations when we dismiss character as the foundation for leadership."
There's more, but I get his point.
The evangelical Christian population of South Carolina apparently believes that while character is a good thing, the ability to defeat President Obama and dismantle the welfare state is more important.
Here, in part, is how I responded to my friend: What is the standard for selecting a president and who decides? Franklin Roosevelt cheated on Eleanor with Lucy Mercer and perhaps others, yet he helped to win World War II and led us out of the Great Depression. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson used a questionable encounter between U.S. and North Vietnamese vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin to ram a resolution through Congress that sucked us deeper into the Vietnam War, which needlessly killed more than 58,000 Americans. Johnson had one wife, but allegedly had a roving eye.
Richard Nixon by all indications was faithful to Pat, but unfaithful to the Constitution. Gerald Ford and Betty (who was divorced) were pro-choice on abortion, which is anathema to social conservatives. Jimmy Carter was a faithful, church-going, Sunday school-teaching, born-again man. He was a profile of what social conservatives say they want in a president, yet they now judge him a failure. Ronald Reagan was divorced, but a good president.
Bill Clinton kept the tabloids, talk radio and mainstream media busy with his marital transgressions. His apologists said sex was a private matter between him and his family and had no bearing on his ability to do his job. George W. Bush spoke of being "redeemed," as Gingrich does, but from alcohol, not women. The judgment of history is yet to be rendered on his eight years in office.
And now we have Barack Obama, who is the husband of one wife and seems to love her and their two daughters. But conservatives don't like his policies.
A New York Times editorial last week castigated Gingrich, not for his three marriages and acknowledged adultery, but for his "sermonizing." The newspaper thinks that because of his past sins Gingrich has no right "to tell Americans how to run their lives."
To say that Gingrich has not always lived up to the ideals he professes does not diminish those ideals. When Thomas Jefferson wrote and delegates of the Continental Congress edited the Declaration of Independence, some of those assembled owned slaves. Did writing "all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights" ring less true because of slavery? No, it simply set an ideal in place that nearly 90 years later Abraham Lincoln (and 100 years after that, Martin Luther King Jr.) would reference in successful efforts to force government to recognize the rights of African-Americans.
As America grows more secular, less religious and less married, appeals to "morality" will increasingly fall on deaf ears. Charles Murray wrote about this "new American divide" in last Saturday's Wall Street Journal.
Voters on one side of the divide -- the "traditionalists" -- are conflicted. They remind me of the film "It's Complicated" in which Meryl Streep has an affair with her remarried ex-husband (Alec Baldwin), while entertaining the amorous intentions of her architect (Steve Martin).
Social conservatives seem similarly conflicted in the Romney vs. Gingrich vs. Santorum contest. Two of the candidates have had just one wife and they are religious. And then there's Newt.
Conservative voters are being forced to make a pragmatic choice between their "traditional values" and who can best defeat President Obama. If Gingrich's convincing victory in the South Carolina primary is any indication, they appear to be making that choice.