Gingrich spends Sunday at church, as awkward remarks are issued from pulpit

Chris Moody
Political Reporter
The Ticket

LUTZ, Fla.--Near the front row in an auditorium that seats 5,500 worshipers, before a 135-member choir and a 40-person orchestra complete with four guitars, full brass and string sections, a golden harp, and a bongo, Newt and Callista Gingrich bowed their heads in prayer.

The former House Speaker and his wife spent much of the Sunday before the Florida primary in a pew, meeting with the faithful in two of the largest Baptist churches in the area and attending an evening Mass at a Catholic church in Jacksonville.

Gingrich, a convert to Catholicism, began the day in the sanctuary of Idlewild Baptist Church, a megachurch north of Tampa. As Gingrich's image flashed on two giant screens hung on both sides of baptistry before the sermon, the pastor introduced the special guest, thanking Gingrich for putting "his name on the line," and being careful to say that the church endorses "the process" but not the candidate. The worshipers applauded while Gingrich nodded and smiled.

It was "Sanctity of Life Sunday," and the sermon, delivered by guest speaker Rev. Russell Moore, focused on the importance of redemption, something Gingrich finds himself discussing on the campaign trail whenever a journalist or supporter inquires about his two failed marriages and adulterous past.

After the choir sang "Not Guilty" during the offering, the pastor spent part of his message listing a series of sins that some in the congregation may have committed: There are some in this room who have had abortions, he said. There are others who have pressured a woman to have abortions. There are some who have paid for them.

And then, the pastor dropped the conditional tense and immediately got every reporter's attention: "Someone in here has broken up a family."

After the altar call, the candidate's handlers escorted Gingrich out toward the back of the church, where he met with worshipers in the lobby and took questions from reporters in the parking lot.

After a rally in central Florida later that day, Gingrich plowed north toward Jacksonville, where thousands of evangelical pastors were meeting for a conference at the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville. Gingrich was an hour late, and he and his wife quietly slipped into a pew near the back. This church was similar to the one they visited that morning, also with a giant robed choir, full orchestra and space for thousands.

As he arrived, Gingrich updated his FourSquare account to announce the occasion, saying, "Tip: Don't be just a pew sitter."

The reporters following him pulled up to the church about a half hour before he arrived, some grumbling about having to sit through yet another church service. "Church again?" one reporter groaned stepping off the press bus. "This is like doubling my yearly church output here."

Inside, the topic of the evening discussion, led by Joel Rosenberg, a novelist who writes about Islamic terrorism, focused partially on how to convert Jews to the faith.

"As a Jewish person," Rosenberg, who was raised by a Jewish father and a Gentile mother, "our people really didn't get it the first time Jesus came."

He urged the audience not to be bashful, and to act quickly in case the End Times were nigh. "I know you know Jewish people," he told them. "You have an accountant, you have a lawyer..."

Gingrich, perched in the back, waited patiently to be introduced to the nationwide audience of pastors. When Rosenberg finished his talk, a pastor announced to the crowd that the presidential candidate was in attendance.

Gingrich and Callista stood up, waved, and received a standing ovation.  The duo rushed out the back door immediately once the applause died down, and sped off to Mass.

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