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A Political Portrait of Conservatism

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Deal Hudson’s new book Onward, Christian Soldiers is not well served by its title. Hudson is not militant and his book is not a bible thumper. Hudson has written a book as versatile as its author.

Reflecting over 50 interviews of the opinion leaders of the conservative movement, and containing responses to leading voices of the Religious Left, the book is a work of journalism. It paints a political portrait of America on the eve of the most pivotal presidential election regarding the two issues that matter most to conservatives: national security and the Supreme Court. Hudson offers evidence more than advice, useful to both the campaign of John McCain, needing to understand the mind and culture of committed voters of faith, and to Democrats, newly eager to gain the favor of this vital demographic.

Hudson also lays out fair warning to both. He reminds each that Americans of faith rallied to Ronald Reagan over an Evangelical Jimmy Carter not just for the ideology Reagan favored but because of the liberal cultural transformation he stood firmly against.

I admit to being drawn to the chapter entitled “Hello, This is Karl Rove.” But it is the chapters before and after that are worth the purchase. Hudson has written the first comprehensive history of the political impact of religious conservatives and the emergence of the Religious Right in a way that only a Thomist philosopher, turned Catholic magazine publisher, turned Republican political outreach leader could do. The book is surprising in its completeness; merging causational analysis and history at the start with contemporary politics at the end.

In a way that perhaps only an evangelical Southern Baptist turned orthodox Catholic could do, Hudson understands and lays out the causes for the overwhelming coalescing of Evangelical voters under the Republican banner, and joins to this a revealing history of Catholic influence on public policy in modern times, including the foreign policy of Ronald Reagan, and especially in the formation of the Religious Right, widely perceived as a solely Evangelical movement.

Most significantly, in the wake of a large cottage industry of books attacking and caricaturing religious conservatives and heralding the collapse of the Religious Right and a new liberal appeal to believers, Hudson lays out the first reasoned rebuttal to the Religious Left in its tireless effort to defend liberal politicians from the demands of authentic Christian humanism, and explains why it will not succeed.

Hudson’s background is important to understand his book’s value. Hudson describes how he got involved in the Republican efforts in 2000 and 2004 and the outcome of his efforts, but he is confined by modesty.

I first met Deal Hudson in the basement office of Crisis magazine sometime in the late 1990’s when I was the president of the Cardinal Newman Society for Catholic Higher Education. We were both fighting in the trenches yet neither of us gave the other a second thought. A subscriber to Crisis, I read the result in 1998 of the Catholic Voter survey that put Deal Hudson, and his colleague Steve Wagner, on the political map. The result documented the migration of Catholics away from the Democratic Party and identified a substratum of Catholics as the key Catholic “swing” vote: church-going Catholics.

The survey’s then groundbreaking results, discussed in Hudson’s book, reflected my own experience and move to the Republican Party. Like many Catholics, I had been a natural Democrat, researching for Glenn and then campaigning for Hart in 1984. Like many Catholics, it was Reagan’s unequivocal anti-Communism that led me right, and the Democrats’ evident commitment to radical cultural and moral transformation that closed the deal.

I read the results of the Crisis survey as a Catholic opinion leader. Karl Rove read them differently. They proved his conclusion that Republicans could win presidential elections even if only by small margins by securing vital swing votes, first among them active Catholics. Hudson helped Rove accomplish this in two elections by giving Republicans a missing insight into the Catholic mind, which became reflected in both the speech and accent of George W. Bush and a historic outreach to Catholic opinion leaders that went far beyond previous GOP appeals to Catholics as either blue collar voters or Episcopalian wannabes.

Hudson’s insight helped George W. Bush invite Catholics to join Evangelicals, not just in voting again for the same presidential nominee, but to do it for the same reason: a reaction to years of daily affronts to their faith and morals. Washington is full of people who have made important bricklaying contributions to history and, with regard to politics, this was Deal Hudson’s most evident “but for me” but not the most impacting.

In leading Catholic outreach before and after the 2000 election, Hudson accomplished two long-needed things. He wrested the Catholic voice from two groups of Catholics who had stunted Catholic political activism. First, Hudson replaced the myopic leadership within the Republican Party of country-club Catholics, mostly lace curtain Irishmen, who treated Catholic outreach as little more than an opportunity to socialize with people much like themselves, without offering any heavy lifting of intellect. Hudson then accomplished something else.

Lay Catholic leaders had allowed themselves to be overly concerned with our bishops’ sanction over our activities. Deal Hudson ended that. His Catholic Working Group, formed after the 2000 election, and his efforts to mobilize Catholics to advise the Bush administration, including like-minded bishops, ended the monopoly of the liberal United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and their Washington lobbying staff as the political voice of Catholics. Notably, the Conference wrote letters to President Bush objecting to the very existence of Hudson’s group.

Deal Hudson’s new book offers a silent retreat that helps us put into context the events of our lifetime, and to understand how irreligious bigotry, secularism, relativism, and carnality have caused both popular reaction and a reaffirmation of faith into action that has shaped our politics and the choices of our lives.

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