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Neocon Catholic leaders on their heels

Neocon Catholic leaders nurtured by GOP and Conservative Philanthropy on their heels

by Bill Berkowitz

Catholic voters migrated back to the Democrats in the 2006 midterm elections. Was it a temporary move or are they heading home for the long term?

In the 2004 presidential election cycle, Catholics, whose vote was considered open to both parties, were carefully courted by the Republicans. GOP organizers -- accompanied by their neoconservative Catholic brethren -- brought the "traditional family values" mantra to the table, highlighting supposed agreement between Catholics and conservative evangelical Christians on two major issues -- abortion and same-sex marriage.

The GOP, working hand-in-glove with conservative philanthropy, sought out, found and funded a number of Catholic neo-cons who would essentially become spokespersons for the Party

In the actual election, Republican George W. Bush wound up receiving 52 percent of the Catholic vote, up from 47 percent in 2000, to John Kerry's 47 percent.

In 2006, however, Catholics, who compose a 67 million-person slice of the electorate, favored Democrats by 55 percent to 45 percent, according to National Election Pool exit polls. Jeff Diamant of Religion News Service reported that "Catholic voting patterns varied by state, but the overall shift helped Democrats in several big states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, according to John Green, a senior fellow at Washington's Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life."

"For much of the 20th century, American Catholics were loyal Democrats, but in recent elections their voting patterns have been largely indistinguishable from the general population," Diamant pointed out. "And for the last quarter-century, conservative Catholics and white evangelicals have increasingly voted Republican, making opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage their top political issues."

GOP builds Catholic leaders and institutions

Prior to the 2006 election, the GOP's multi-year organizing effort to woo Catholic voters paid off in part because, working hand-in-glove with conservative philanthropy, it sought out, found and funded a number of Catholic neoconservatives who would essentially become spokespersons for the Republican Party.

Michael Novak, a neoconservative author and philosopher who currently holds the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute, Ralph McInerny, a University of Notre Dame Professor of medieval studies, Richard Neuhaus, the publisher of First Things (website), Deal Hudson, a Bush/Cheney liaison to Catholic voters, and others became indispensable allies.

Novak and McInerny brought years of conservative investment to the George W. Bush presidential campaign, and then to his subsequent administrations. In 1982, they launched Catholicism in Crisis (website), a conservative magazine that provided a profoundly partisan "voice for conservative critics of the American hierarchy at a time when the U.S. Bishops Conference was preparing pastoral letters on war and the economy," the National Catholic Reporter's Joe Feuerherd reported in the August 19, 2004 edition of NCR:

As the American bishops moved to the left politically, Crisis (as the name would eventually be shortened to) argued the morality of nuclear deterrence, supported Ronald Reagan's policies in Central America, and defended U.S.-style capitalism against its critics.

Theologically, Crisis was conservative, backing Pope John Paul II and critical of those whose interpretations of the Second Vatican Council differed from those offered by Rome. Over the years, the magazine's contributing editors and publication committee would become a who's who of conservative Catholicism: papal biographer George Weigel, Nurturing Network president Mary Cunningham Agee, former Drug Czar William Bennett, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, CEO J. Peter Grace, former Secretary of State Alexander Haig, former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Thomas Melady, Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, novelist Walker Percy, former Treasury Secretary William E. Simon, and political activist Paul Weyrich among them.

Deal Hudson entered the scene in the mid-1990s. He left his academic career at Fordham University to become senior editor of Crisis in 1994 and editor the following year. He became the Republicans' go-to-guy for all things Catholic.

In a National Catholic Reporter story dated August 19, 2004, Feuerherd described Hudson as a "thrice-married former Baptist minister ... a regular White House visitor, a leading Bush campaign Catholic proxy, and a widely quoted partisan unafraid to use his pen to serve the Bush cause."

At Crisis, Hudson found his calling: Feuerherd reported that he managed to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars from such right wing foundations as Bradley and Scaife. Tom Monaghan, then the owner of the Domino's Pizza chain, signed up for 1,000 subscriptions.

"Hudson further boosted circulation through improved professional direct mail solicitations and raised the magazine's profile by hosting radio and television programs on the Eternal World Television Network," Feuerherd reported. "The drably designed monthly became a four-color glossy and established an Internet presence. Fundraising was no longer a matter of last-ditch solicitations to stave off financial disaster, but a series of well-planned and well-attended 'partnership dinners,' golf outings, and cruises."

By 2004, the Republican Party's Catholic project was firing on all cylinders.

Then came the story that detailed the circumstances under which Hudson was forced to leave New York's Fordham University.

According to Feuerherd, Hudson's "rise to influence and his status as public arbiter of Catholic morals is all the more remarkable given that almost 10 years to the day of the 2004 St. Patrick's Day celebration, the then-Fordham University philosophy professor stood accused of breaching the bounds of the professor-student relationship."

Documents obtained by NCR found that Hudson had "invited a vulnerable freshman undergraduate, Cara Poppas, to join a group of older students for a pre-Lenten 'Fat Tuesday' night of partying at a Greenwich Village bar. The night concluded after midnight in Hudson's Fordham office, where he and the drunken 18-year-old exchanged sexual favors. The fallout would force his resignation from a tenured position at the Jesuit school, cost him $30,000, and derail a promising academic career."

Hudson resigned from his position as chair of the Republican National Committee's "Catholic Outreach" effort as soon as he got wind that the story was about to be published.

Catholic-boating John Kerry

In 2004, John Kerry was not only "Swift Boated" over his military record, but he was "Catholic Boated" as well. GOP officials, and their Catholic neoconservative surrogates, continuously mocked and demeaned his religious beliefs.

In March 2004, George Neumayr, managing editor of the American Spectator, wrote that Kerry was "a more checkered Catholic" than John F. Kennedy. "Unlike Kennedy who had some residual sense of respect for the Church, Kerry uses his Catholicism as a campaign prop while sabotaging its teachings."

"When people openly and persistently say, 'Well, I don't intend to be a faithful Catholic' on matters X, Y, or Z, then the bishop and the parish pastor and every priest has to say, 'You've got a spiritual problem,'" The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor-in-chief of First Things, told Focus on the Family's Family News in Focus.

At around the same time, a Bishops task force, headed by Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, Chairman of the Domestic Policy Committee of the Conference of Catholic Bishops, basically joined forces with Judie Brown, the head of the American Life League, in an attempt to discipline progressive Catholic politicians.

Hudson, who at the time was one of George W. Bush's most trusted and influential Catholic advisors, wondered whether "individual bishops [would] continue to publicly challenge pro-abortion politicians and will they be willing to challenge Sen. Kerry directly? Will they allow the church's symbols to be associated with a candidate who has gone to some length to portray himself as the most pro-abortion candidate?"

Two months before the election, the Republican National Committee launched a website called "" The Boston Globe's Michael Kranish reported that the effort was aimed at "tak[ing] the Massachusetts senator to task for voting against the Defense of Marriage Act, favoring civil unions for gays and lesbians, opposing vouchers for private schools, and taking stands on abortion and other issues that are contrary to church teachings."

Kranish also pointed out that Priests for Life had "announced a $1 million campaign, including television commercials, aimed at persuading voters to support candidates who oppose abortion," and Catholic Answers, another non-profit group, would be "issuing millions of voter guides that list five 'nonnegotiable' issues for Catholic voters: abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, and 'homosexual marriage.'"

Winds of change

The 2006 mid-term election brought about another shift amongst Catholic voters as they began drifting back to the Democratic Party. During the campaign, Democratic candidates appeared to be more comfortable talking about their religious beliefs, they attempted to broaden the "values" debate to include poverty, health care, the environment, and care for those with AIDS, and they devoted significant resources to the election organizing effort.

Catholic voters were clearly disturbed by the Bush/Cheney quagmire in Iraq; disgusted by the administration's horrifyingly slow response to Hurricane Katrina; appalled by the epidemic of corruption and cronyism within the administration; dismayed by the Bush administration's disregard for the constitution; and distrustful of the growing power of conservative Christian evangelicals.

Votes, however, don't just fall from the sky. It takes deep pockets and organizing know-how to turn things around.

U.S. News & World Report's Dan Gilgoff recently pointed out that in 2006, "a new Catholic voter turnout operation work[ed] to reverse the wilting Catholic support Democrats had seen in 2004."

....As the 2006 election cycle got underway, a Democratic consulting firm called Common Good Strategies emerged, and new liberal religious groups like Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good worked in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Kansas to prevent a few conservative bishops and the GOP from defining the "values" debate.

In light of the midterm elections, "Democrats are now waging a multi-front offensive to shore up what was once a bedrock constituency," Gilgoff reported. "The Democratic National Committee has hired its first director of Catholic outreach. The DNC is also slated to soon unveil an organizing hub for Catholics on its website, and it's planning to supply state parties with Catholic voter lists before the 2008 election. Catholic Democrats in Congress are introducing legislation to reduce demand for abortion, a top issue for the Roman Catholic Church. And some Democratic presidential candidates are already devising Catholic outreach plans."

Hudson returns

As might be expected, we haven't heard the last from Deal Hudson. At his website, Hudson aims to convince Catholic voters that they are part of the Christian right. He is peddling a new 5-CD set called "The Truth About The Religious Right," which he claims will give listeners "every fact" they "need to expose and refute the Left's attacks on Christians in politics."

Hudson believes that the 2006 election cycle "saw an unprecedented assault on religious voters. Over a dozen books were released warning Americans about the 'coming Christian Theocracy.' And the media has been spinning the Republican's loss in November as America 'saying no' to traditional values voters. The truth is, the Left and their allies in the media couldn't be more wrong."

Hudson maintains that "an attack on the religious right is actually an attack" on faithful Catholics. Furthermore, if you answer yes to the following three questions: 1. "Are you a faithful Catholic, loyal to the Magisterium? 2. Do you believe your faith should inform your voting?; 3. Do you believe you have a duty to help renew culture and society through your voting?" "you're a member of the religious right."

While they might agree with the Christian right on some basic issues, it is probably not true that most Catholic voters really see themselves as part of the Christian right. And, to the dismay of such partisans as Hudson, many of the issues that were on the table in 2006 -- war on Iraq, Bush Administration incompetence and corruption -- which caused Catholics to come back to the Democrats, will undoubtedly still be on the table in 2008.


For more please see the Bill Berkowitz archive.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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