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Flocking to the right

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Evangelical Protestants don't have a monopoly on the religious right. Conservative Catholics belong there, too, said Deal W. Hudson, author of a new book on the political power of evangelicals and Catholics.

"The Catholic dimension of the religious right is ... everywhere you look," Mr. Hudson said, adding that Catholics have served as conservative leaders and populated religious right organizations.

But many socially and religiously conservative Catholics do not identify with the religious right, he said. As these Catholics work with evangelicals on common issues, they will form "a united movement," he said at the kickoff for his book "Onward Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States."

Mr. Hudson noted the coordinated effort of Catholic and Protestant evangelical leaders under conservative activist Manuel Miranda in forcing the withdrawal of President Bush's nomination of then-White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court. Mr. Miranda opposed the Miers nomination in part because of her unclear and untested position on abortion, according to a 2005 column on the Web site of Human Events, a weekly conservative newspaper.

Joint efforts by Catholics and evangelicals continue despite regional differences in style between Catholics in the Northeast and Midwest and evangelicals in the South and Southwest, said Mr. Hudson, a one-time Southern Baptist minister who converted to Catholicism.

"They just don't trust each other very much. I know that. I've seen over and over again, when the Southerners go to the Northeast to talk about their beliefs, you can just see the Irish Catholics rolling their eyes. They just don't connect with that approach," he said.

Southern evangelicals must "learn a different language, a different rhetoric and a different accent" if they want to speak in the Northeast, Mr. Hudson added.

But Catholics migrated to religious right organizations like the Moral Majority and Focus on the Family because the Conference of Catholic Bishops was uninterested in important social issues such as abortion in the late 1970s, Mr. Hudson said.

In his book, Mr. Hudson notes that Catholics made up an estimated one-third of the Moral Majority and an estimated one-fourth of the Christian Coalition, according to the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the founder of the Moral Majority, and Ralph E. Reed Jr., former executive director of the Christian Coalition.

The religious right is searching for new leaders to replace people like Mr. Falwell and Mr. Reed, but the movement will continue because issues such as gay marriage will remain important to society, Mr. Hudson said, countering liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., who has pronounced the end of the religious right's importance in politics.

"I think there's an exhaustion in the country of religious influence in politics," Mr. Dionne said in an interview Thursday.

War and economics are becoming more important than social issues, he said in an earlier interview.

But Mr. Hudson said liberals keep "writing the obituary of the religious conservative movement, not because it's actually happened, but as an attempt to kill it. You can't kill something by declaring it dead. It has to really die."

The religious right can still affect elections because of its organizations' "deep roots in the Republican Party," he said. This commitment will continue in November as the religious right votes for Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, because of his pro-life record in Congress, Mr. Hudson said.

He denied that religious conservatives will withhold their support for Mr. McCain, whose religious rhetoric pales in comparison to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama, the remaining Democratic candidates. Mr. McCain's rhetoric has been the second-least religious among all Republican candidates, only ahead of former Sen. Fred Thompson, according to Beliefnet.com's God-o-Meter, edited by its politics editor, Dan Gilgoff.

Nevertheless, Mr. McCain "has sort of taken over the party of the religious conservatives," Mr. Hudson said.

Mr. Hudson, a former Bush political adviser on Catholic outreach, resigned in 2004 after a Catholic newspaper reported on his 1994 sexual contact with an 18-year-old college student, which led to his departure from a tenured position at Fordham University in New York.

Mr. Dionne criticized the religious right's focus on abortion and gay rights at the expense of Christian teaching on war, peace and social justice. Many conservative Christians now want to expand this agenda, he said.

In interviews, Mr. Hudson and Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, said the historic Catholic commitment to service has expanded the religious right's agenda to include issues such as poverty and prison reform.

"Typical movements go in on a narrow issue, but then once they get in, they broaden out," Mr. Brownback said.

The religious right started with two issues, abortion and gay rights, he said.

Mr. Hudson and Mr. Brownback pointed to the Rev. Richard D. Warren, author of the best-selling book "The Purpose Driven Life," as the prototype for a new leader of the religious right. A believer in the religious right's views on abortion and gay marriage, Mr. Warren is fighting the AIDS crisis in sub-Saharan Africa, where an estimated 22.5 million people carry HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Among politicians, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who competed for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, represents this new breed of conservative Christians with his traditional views on abortion and gay marriage and his commitment to social justice issues, said Mr. Dionne, a columnist and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank.

But not everyone agrees about the religious right's commitment to a broader agenda.

"I think a lot of that talk is overblown," said Robert Boston, assistant director of communications at Americans United for Separation of Church and State.