"A good name is better than fine perfume" (Ecclesiastes 7:1). Wise words from a wise man. I imagine words that Newt Gingrich probably wishes he had considered a few decades ago and something we can all learn from today.
Do Newt Gingrich's failed marriages and adulterous relationships matter? Well, obviously, yes, or else people would not be talking about them. Recent events may have brought the issue to the surface, but the questions have been discussed for years.
The timing is certainly suspect. And, ABCNews is rightly being questioned about the timing and tone of their reporting-- on the eve of a primary when the accusations are so personal and hard to disprove. Yet, the issue remains because it is one of reputation, not just a random accusation.
Newt is a brilliant and complex person, and his story is worth reading. He was an outspoken evangelical who committed adultery, not once, but twice, while leading a revolution that campaigned on a platform associated with, in some ways, family values. Now, Speaker Gingrich is a Roman Catholic convert which, to many who know him, has led to real life change.
As best we can tell, Newt Gingrich is, indeed, telling the truth and has changed. Hopefully, his indiscretions are behind him. At 68 years of age, living in the public eye, and running for president, he understandably desires to put these issues behind him. But does it matter how he lived when he had power and fewer people were watching?
I do not know the details of Gingrich's past, many of which are disputed, but here are three things we all know: 1.) Gingrich has committed adultery at least twice. 2.) Adultery is terrible, heartbreaking, and complex. 3.) Adultery has a long term impact on many things, including reputation.
It is not my job to parse the actions of specific public figures, but I would like to consider the issue of moral character in general terms, as it relates to leadership in the public square and long lasting reputation. Many of the readers of this blog live public lives, as church leaders and pastors, so there are areas of overlap for all to consider.
What can we learn?
1. What we do when we are not being watched tells more about our character than what we do when we are being watched. In other words, you are who you are when no one is watching you. When the world was not watching, Gingrich left one wife for another. Now that the world is watching closely, he has signed a fidelity pledge. Yet, the reputation is hard to shake.
2. Bad decisions haunt us for a long time. We live in age when things are remembered long after we wish they would be forgotten. Furthermore, our opponents pick the time and choosing of their resurfacing, not us. Reputations last.
3. Reputations are hard to fix. That is why "reputations" aren't called "momentary remembrances." Reputations stick and are hard to scrub off. A whole industry has developed to defend reputations on the web and in the real world, but a better course of action is to guard your actions which create a reputation.
Past actions can be forgiven--by God, spouses, and even the public. For example, most of the public has forgiven Bill Clinton for his admitted affair with an intern while in office, and his initial denial of it. Yet, reconciliation and restoring your reputation are not the same thing. The Bible reminds us that, "A good name is to be chosen over great wealth; favor is better than silver and gold" (Proverbs 22:1). God forgives and reconciliation can be achieved, but reputations often remain marred.
For many voters, past adultery does not seem to be a big factor into their decision to support a political candidate. Although 92% of Americans consider adultery "morally wrong," Gallup explained that in a 2007 poll:
[W]hile 54% of Americans said it would bother them at least moderately if a presidential candidate has had an extramarital affair, another 46% said it would bother them either "not much" or "not at all."
Is this a statement about what you should do with your vote? No.
Personally, I have no difficulty believing that a person can change his moral and political convictions. For me, past mistakes do not automatically disqualify a candidate from office. I will venture to speculate, however, that Newt Gingrich wishes he had the marital reputation of President Obama, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, or Ron Paul. Perceptions and impressions matter... and last.
Newt Gingrich is a brilliant man who made mistakes. May we all learn what, I think, he would have us to learn: remember that brilliance does not excuse bad behavior, and reputations are hard to undo.
Guard your life and reputation well.
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay's Missiologist in Residence. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council of Sermon Central and Christianity Today's Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. Ed is Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and Visiting Research Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Ed blogs daily at EdStetzer.com.