POLITICS
05/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

McCain's Catholic Committee Full Of Controversial Figures

Religious affiliations have proven, in the course of this campaign, to be a tricky business for politicians -- none more so than Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the controversial former pastor of Sen. Barack Obama.

But John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, also has religious figures associated with his campaign that could pose problems for his electoral hopes. And they extend beyond the two infamous endorsers who have received the most attention: Pastor John Hagee -- who once called the Catholic Church the "great whore" -- and Reverend Rod Parsley -- who accused the government of enabling "black genocide" through legalizing abortion.

McCain's own "Catholics For McCain National Steering Committee" includes several figures that, while not personally connected to the senator (a la Wright to Obama), nevertheless create thorny issues for his candidacy.

Chief among these individuals is Deal W. Hudson, publisher of the Roman Catholic journal Crisis, and one of the more influential Catholic figures in Republican circles. Hudson rose to political fame during the Bush administration as he worked with Karl Rove to target Catholic votes from a strict anti-abortion and anti-gay posture.

But in August 2004, it was revealed that Hudson had an affair with an 18-year-old Fordham University student while he was a teacher at that institution. The sordid story, reported first by the National Catholic Reporter, involved Hudson joining a group of students at a pre-Lenten "Fat Tuesday" party in Greenwich Village, bringing the drunk student back to his office, and ultimately, exchanging sexual favors. When the affair, which cost Hudson his tenured position, was exposed, he resigned from the Bush reelection team.

Of course, Hudson was never McCain's personal pastor or religious adviser. In fact, his work with the senator, at least recently, has been focused on helping him counter the negative perception that came with Hagee's backing. But unlike, say, William Ayers (the unrepentant Weather Underground whose tenuous link to Obama has come under fire from McCain), Hudson is, in fact, directly associated with the Arizona Republican. Moreover, he is not the only figure with past controversy with ties to the Senator.

Frank Keating, the former Oklahoma governor, serves as one of two Catholics For McCain Co-Chairs. In June 2003, Keating was forced to resign from a Catholic Church review board after he suggested that the bishops were engaging in Mafia-like activities in their efforts to obstruct investigations into the child sexual abuse scandal. "To act like La Cosa Nostra and hide and suppress, I think, is very unhealthy," he told the Los Angeles Times. The comments earned him some plaudits among critics (and there were many) of the church. But they were also viewed as unnecessarily antagonistic. Keating refused to apologize.

Another member of McCain's Catholic Steering Committee -- Martin Gillespie, formerly the Republican National Committee's Catholic Outreach director -- called the Democrats the party of "drug legalizers."

And yet another, Robert Destro, built a career battling any and all efforts to legitimize same-sex marriages. A controversial appointee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission during the Reagan administration, Destro's Marriage Law Project has tirelessly pushed an anti-gay-marriage platform in numerous states.

"Their role has been to try to give the veneer of scholarship and objectivity onto what is really an attack effort to cement discrimination against gay couples into the law," Evan Wolfson, executive director of New York-based Freedom to Marry, told the National Catholic Reporter.

Taken together, these Steering Committee members, in addition to Hagee (who blamed Hurricane Katrina on the "sinfulness of New Orleans' residents) and Parlsey (who has urged Christians to wage a "war" against the "false religion" of Islam) present an interesting political dilemma for McCain. After all, this was the candidate who railed against "agents of intolerance" on all sides of the political spectrum during the 2000 primary.

But for religious and political observers the real issue lies not simply in political associations, but a matter of policy.

"These are the usual suspects," said Chris Korzen, Executive Director of the liberal Catholics United and co-author of the forthcoming book, A Nation for All: How the Catholic Vision of the Common Good Can Save America from the Politics of Division. "In general terms, these are folks who have a history of putting partisan politics ahead of the teachings of their faith. It is more of the same, and if they were serious about being engaged Catholics they would be challenging McCain on the war and torture where McCain is not on the side of Catholic theology."