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This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. As GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich competes for the evangelical vote in Iowa and South Carolina, he's putting his Catholicism front and center. Gingrich left the Southern Baptists when he converted in 2009. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports on his newfound faith.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: Any discussion of Newt Gingrich's journey to Catholicism begins with his wife.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV INTERVIEW)

CALLISTA GINGRICH: I have always been a very spiritual person, and I start each day with a prayer. And I pray throughout the day and I pray at the end of the day, because I am grateful for the many blessings that God has bestowed upon us.

HAGERTY: That's Callista Gingrich, speaking on the Christian Broadcasting Network.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HAGERTY: She's a devout Catholic who sings in the professional choir at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. After they married in 2000, Gingrich told the Catholic TV network EWTN he attended Mass practically every week to watch her.

NEWT GINGRICH: And I was doing that, frankly, as a supportive husband, and it sort of caught up with me, I mean, in a way that I could never quite have imagined.

HAGERTY: Gingrich did not convert to Catholicism in a sudden swell of emotion. Rather, says political scientist Mark Rozell at George Mason University, it seemed a slower and headier process. Like many adult converts, Gingrich was drawn by the philosophical richness of the Catholic Church.

MARK ROZELL: Let's not forget this is a Ph.D., a former professor, a man who loves books and loves big ideas. And there is, of course, a very deep intellectual tradition within Catholicism. And perhaps Gingrich just found a natural connection there. It connects with his persona.

HAGERTY: Gingrich began studying the history of the Catholic Church and its influence on Western civilization, especially the church's role in the fall of communism. In 2010, Gingrich and his wife produced a documentary about John Paul II's historic trip to Poland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

N. GINGRICH: It sparked a great movement of human liberation throughout Eastern Europe.

C. GINGRICH: Revolution of conscience that confronted the lies of Marxism and Leninism.

HAGERTY: But for Gingrich, the turning point was Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the U.S. in 2008. Gingrich says he was affected by the, quote, "joyful and radiating presence of the pope." He decided to join the church, and was confirmed in March, 2009. That conversion, he told EWTN, has made him a different man.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

N. GINGRICH: I understand when you give the sign of peace and when the priest says peace be with you in a way I never did 10 or 15 years ago. I have a deep, personal sense of what that means.

HAGERTY: But his conversion doesn't erase his past, says Mark Rozell. After all, Gingrich has a history of marital infidelity. He cheated on his first wife, and his relationship with Callista, his third wife, began six years before the end of his second marriage.

ROZELL: Without a doubt, many people will find it rather strange, ironic, whatever, that his religious journey that led him to convert to Catholicism began with an affair he had with a young woman while he was still married to his second wife.

HAGERTY: That has become satirical fodder for some conservative Christians, including video commentator Molotov Mitchell.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

MOLOTOV MITCHELL: Oh, yeah. Callista's quite the missionary, first lady material all the way.

HAGERTY: Gingrich acknowledges his sins, as he did in a recent debate in Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

N. GINGRICH: People have to render judgment. In my case, I've said upfront, openly: I've made mistakes at times. I've had to go to God for forgiveness. I've had to seek reconciliation. But I'm also a 68-year-old grandfather, and I think people have to measure who I am now and whether I'm a person they can trust.

RAYMOND ARROYO: There is a marked change in Gingrich.

HAGERTY: Raymond Arroyo is news director of EWTN.

ARROYO: He does seem more settled, more comfortable in his own skin - not as pugnacious, if you will. Surely part of that's political, but I think part of it might be spiritual, as well.

HAGERTY: But Mathew Schmalz, a political scientist at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, isn't so sure.

MATHEW SCHMALZ: It seems to me that his grandiosity for which he's been well-known has been kept very tightly in check during the campaign. But nonetheless, there have been glimpses of what one would call the old Newt Gingrich.

HAGERTY: He cites as an example Gingrich's response to rival Mitt Romney, when Romney suggested Gingrich return the $1.6 million he'd received from Freddie Mac.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

N. GINGRICH: I would just say that if Governor Romney would like to give back all the money he's earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain, that I would be glad to then listen to him. And I'll bet you $10 - not 10,000 - that he won't take the offer.

HAGERTY: Whether or not Gingrich's style and character have changed, Mark Rozell says his conversion from Southern Baptist to Catholic is playing well with many evangelicals.

ROZELL: They would prefer to have somebody who's a very devout Catholic and strong on the social issues than, say, a lukewarm Southern Baptist, as many perceived Gingrich was in his past, and perhaps a little bit soft on some of the issues that they care about very deeply.

HAGERTY: And Rozell says Gingrich's type of culture-warrior Catholicism - pro-life, anti-gay marriage, decrying the rise of secular America - aligns him nicely with the conservative voters he needs to win in the early contests.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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