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Why Are American Politicians Always Switching Religions?

If Newton Leroy Gingrich becomes the Republican candidate for president of the United States, then the 2012 election will be a contest between two men who found new religions fairly late in life. Gingrich is on his third religion: He was raised a Lutheran, later became a Southern Baptist, and in 2009 was received into the Roman Catholic church. President Obama, having been raised in an irreligious home, famously found faith as an adult in Chicago, where he was baptized in 1988 by Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. (of great controversy).

Gingrich and Obama are hardly unique in the annals of contemporary politics. Major American politicians seem unusually promiscuous in their religious affinities, not just switching houses of worship but totally altering the substance of their worship. Beyond Obama and Gingrich, there is George W. Bush, raised by old-line, old-money Episcopalians but born again as an evangelical Protestant in 1985, after an apparently profound talk with Rev. Billy Graham; he and his wife attend a Methodist church. Like many sons of the wild west, Harry Reid, Nevadan and Senate majority leader, is of Protestant stock but was raised largely without religion; as a young newlywed he converted to Mormonism along with his wife, who was Jewish. The list goes on. Bill Clinton was not from a churchgoing family, but growing up “he would walk, Bible in hand, down the street to the Park Place Baptist Church,” writes David Shribman in a Pulitzer-winning article from 1994 about the religiosity of presidents. Ronald Reagan was raised in the Disciples of Christ, a mainstream denomination, but later developed a penchant for referencing apocalyptic prophesies straight out of the Left Behind novels, thus taking a detour into the world that many mainline religion folk would refer to—using the technical term—as far-wackadoo fundamentalism.

But it’s not just that Americans don’t mind a politician who switches religion: It almost seems as if we like it when they do. In that way, it’s natural to wonder whether the two converts of the day, Gingrich and Obama, were actually motivated by a particular electoral strategy. If your mind had a cynical bent, you might ask whether they found religion simply in order to make themselves more electable. But the more interesting question may be how we can gauge the authenticity of any politician’s conversion at all.

DISCLAIMER: I HAVE NO IDEA what magic God has wrought in the hearts of other men. It’s hardly unusual for mainline Protestants to move between Congregationalism and Presbyterianism, or for lapsed Catholics to join up with the Episcopal Church. But politicians’ conversions do tend to be particularly dramatic: One need only contrast American politicians’ public religion-switching with the quieter path taken by Tony Blair, who did not become a Roman Catholic until 2007, when he was no longer prime minister of Britain. And it’s fair to assume that politicians think of everything at least partly in terms of politics. (Again, take Blair as an example: he undoubtedly considered the fact that it would have been potentially scandalous for a sitting prime minister to leave the Church of England, his country’s official church.)

I suspect that Gingrich had several motivations for his conversion to Catholicism. Having shredded his reputation in all sorts of ways, not least by conducting an affair with a Hill staffer during the exact years he was persecuting, and prosecuting, President Clinton for lying about sexual indiscretions, Gingrich was certainly in a position to benefit from a spiritual public face-lift. In 2006 he wrote a book called Rediscovering God in America; in 2007 he went on the radio with evangelical leader James Dobson to apologize to his second wife for his infidelities. In 2009—his current presidential bid drawing ever nearer—he converted to Catholicism.

When Obama, for his part, found Jesus in his Chicago community-organizing days, it likewise must have occurred to him, ambitious fellow that he was, that Christians do somewhat better in national politics than the unchurched. (In a 2007 Gallup poll, only 45 percent of Americans said they would vote for an atheist for president, below the number who would vote for Mormons and even the number who would vote for homosexuals.) And in the short term, Obama must have suspected that his organizing work would be enhanced by his membership in a prominent, black, urban mega-church.

Of course, when considering why people convert, genuine belief is always a possibility. Gingrich might, in 2009, have decided that Roman Catholicism was the one true church. In fact, political right-wingers of an intellectually curious bent are often drawn to the Catholic church. The late columnist Robert Novak was a late-in-life convert to Catholicism; the young columnist Ross Douthat was an early-in-life convert. The Catholic priest C. John McCloskey III, who helped prepare Gingrich for Catholicism, has made something of a specialty of ushering conservative machers into Catholicism: Novak, Sen. Sam Brownback, and Lawrence Kudlow all studied with McCloskey before converting. (There is a whole other article to be written about the cerebral types who find a home in Eastern Orthodoxy: columnist Rod Dreher, the late church historian Jaroslav Pelikan, the historian Albert Raboteau, the writers Andre Dubus III and Frank Schaeffer.)

But there’s reason to doubt that Gingrich’s conversion was motivated by the attractions of doctrinal purity. Though Gingrich’s marriage to his current wife, Callista Bisek, took place in 2000, he did not even ask the Catholic Church to annul his previous marriage until 2002, two years later—and it is still totally unclear if he ever sought an annulment of his first marriage.

There are plenty of other reasons that people choose a new religion, of course. Less cynical than political fortune, if still not as pure as the priest or rabbi might wish, is family comity. People often desire to be of the same religion as their spouse. In 2005, Harry Reid told The New Yorker’s Elsa Walsh that his and his wife’s conversions to Mormonism were intentionally a joint project: “Before we got married, we had talked about it and decided we were not going to let religion divide us after what we’d been through”—her parents had initially not approved of him. “If we found something, we were going to find it together.” Surely relevant to understanding Gingrich’s conversion is the fact that his third wife, Callista, is Catholic.

But there is still another way to look at the question of conversion. Conversion is not just what happens when somebody finds a religion that fits—it’s also what can happen when the old religion did not fit, or when there was no old religion. Fifty years ago, when Barack Obama was born and when Gingrich, Bush, and Reid were all still young, American religion was beginning a transformational shift away from religious loyalties. It’s not just that church attendance fell in the 1960s; it’s also that even those who kept going were less loyal to the churches they were born into.

Fifty years ago, you might go off to college to find a Protestant spouse of your particular denomination: a Presbyterian kid went off to Davidson to meet a Presbyterian, a Baptist went to Wake Forest, a Lutheran went to … actually, a Norwegian Lutheran went to Luther College or St. Olaf, while a Swedish Lutheran to Gustavus Adolphus. Dutch Calvinists went to Calvin College. And so forth.

And after they graduated, they settled in cities where churches had strong cultural identities. The Presbyterians were the elite of Pittsburgh. The Mormons ran Salt Lake City. Many old Philadelphia families were Quaker. In any given city, the Methodists and the Baptists were likely to have distinct communities, different social circles, specific points of pride and also definite stereotypes of outsiders. Leaving one Christian tradition for another happened all the time, of course, but not nearly so often as it happens today, and the psychic and communal prices that one paid were far greater. Back in the day, giving up one’s religion was giving up a lot more.

We can expect, then, that candidates like Mitt Romney, who has staunchly kept the faith of generations of his ancestors, will increasingly become the exception in national politics, as in American life. Many voters perceive his Mormonism as something of an oddity, possibly threatening. But his loyalty to one religious culture, comprising a regional and social identity as well as a faith, is truly old-fashioned. Romney is known for changing his mind, but he has had two fewer wives, and two fewer religions, than Newt Gingrich. So who’s the flip-flopper?

Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for The New York Times and speaks nationally on his book Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate. He can be followed at twitter/markopp1 or at