Feb 8, 2008
This week, Deal Hudson reviews his upcoming book: “Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States.”
Many books have been written about the so-called "Religious Right" in American politics. What makes Onward, Christian Soldiers distinctive is my exploration of its Catholic dimension. What is usually treated as an exclusively Evangelical movement is closely intertwined with the travails of the post-Vatican II era in the United States. I look not only at the Catholic contribution to the beginning of the movement in the 70s but also at the specifically Catholic controversies that arose along the way involving figures like Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, Gov. Mario Cuomo, Sen. John Kerry, Fr. Robert Drinan, S. J., Fr. Frank Pavone, Archbishop Raymond Burke, and, of course, John Cardinal O'Connor.
Catholics don't consider themselves part of the Religious Right. When I give lectures, I often ask Catholic audiences a series of questions. First, I usually ask, "Raise your hand if you consider yourself a social conservative." I remind them that a social conservative is
someone who votes primarily on issues such as abortion, the defense of marriage and the family, opposition to euthanasia, and the need for traditional values in education. Most of the Catholics I talk to raise their hands.
Then I ask how many consider themselves religious conservatives. "Are your socially conservative attitudes rooted in your Catholic faith?" Again, most will raise their hands. But then I ask, "How many of you consider yourselves members of the political movement known as the Religious Right?" The number of raised hands drops at least to half, sometimes there are only a few still raised.
Even those Catholics whose voting behavior, and the reasons for it, are identical to their Evangelical counterparts resist being stuck with the Religious Right label. One of the stories I tell in Onward, Christian Soldiers is how Catholics were integral to the dramatic increase of religious conservative influence in American politics. I also explain why Catholics fail to recognize that fact.
Catholics still haven't quite become comfortable with Evangelical piety, as evinced recently in the weak Catholic response to the candidacy of former Baptist minister, Gov. Mike Huckabee.
More importantly, at the very moment Evangelical leaders were forming groups like the Moral Majority the Catholic bishops were marching to the political left, using the then newly-created United States Catholic Conference as their political mouthpiece. The late 70s and early 80s began the migration of Catholics from the Democratic to the Republican Party. Alienated by the McGovern revolution, put off by the feminist agenda of the Carter administration, and attracted to the traditional patriotism of Ronald Reagan, Catholics started becoming loyal Republicans at the very moment their bishops ramped up their efforts to mobilize them for "social justice."
While the effect of the Reagan presidency was to legitimize and empower Evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, the effect on Catholics was to leave them caught between their newly-discovered regard for the Republican Reagan and their respect for the authority of their bishops. These same bishops made it clear that Reagan's domestic and foreign policies were at odds with Catholic social teaching as interpreted by their Conference. The problem for the bishops, in their constant diatribe toward Reagan, was the looming presence of the new pope, John Paul II, who obviously respected Reagan in spite of his low esteem among American bishops.