When Paul M. Weyrich coined the term “moral majority” in the mid-1970s, he was certain that more than half the American population embraced conservative religious values and could be mobilized politically to stamp out the moral relativism spawned in the 1960s. Now, a quarter-century later, Weyrich says he was wrong.
Not only has the political activism of the religious right failed to impose traditional moral values on society, but Weyrich doubts there is any longer a majority of Americans who share his reverence for traditional morality.
The disintegration of that majority became apparent to Weyrich recently, after President Bill Clinton was acquitted by the Senate of alleged crimes stemming from his affair with White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. “If there were really a ‘moral majority’ in the country,” he wrote recently in an open letter to his supporters, “Bill Clinton would have been driven from office a year ago.”
As often happens when Weyrich makes bold pronouncements, his declaration of defeat in the so-called culture war has gotten him considerable media attention. At age 56, he is seen as a senior statesman of the conservative movement, whose cogent comments and fund-raising prowess helped launch many organizations, including the Heritage Foundation and the Free Congress Foundation. While not responsible for organizing Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, he likes to tell how he contributed its name.
Despite his success and sophistication, Weyrich, who does not have a college degree, still relies heavily on the lessons of his childhood in Racine, Wis. He remembers being in 7th grade when he asked his parents to explain why U.S. senators had denounced actress Ingrid Bergman. His parents were embarrassed to explain about Bergman’s highly public affair with Italian movie director Roberto Rossellini.
Like his parents, Weyrich is horrified by the indiscretions of public men such as Clinton. In 1989, he spoke out against the nomination of former Sen. John G. Tower, a conservative Republican and well-known womanizer, as secretary of defense. He feels certain Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy would have been forced to resign if their philandering had been known.
A church deacon and father of five children, Weyrich lives with his wife, Joyce, in suburban Virginia. His small, well-appointed office is near the Capitol.
Question: Why does the acquittal of President Clinton represent a final defeat for religious conservatives in their political struggle?
Answer: Clinton is only emblematic. Clinton represents a whole set of people now governing--not just in the federal government, but also in many major institutions in the country and, in some cases, in the church, but certainly in business--who have the same kind of mentality, which is that moral and ethical boundaries do not apply.
Q: So you think the religious right should just declare defeat and go home?
A: What I’m saying is that under these kinds of circumstances, particularly with Clinton’s acquittal, the fact is that it is unrealistic to expect we are ever going to elect anybody that is going to fight for these values. Even if a Gary Bauer, for example, should be able to get the nomination and be elected--a dubious proposition--as I told him the other day, “Even you would not be able to put forth our agenda, because the gap in the country is too wide.” You can only enact those things where there is a general consensus. You don’t have to have unity, you don’t have to have 100%, but you have to have a general consensus, because otherwise laws don’t work.
Q: What are you telling religious conservatives to do now?
A: What I am saying to them is, “Put your time and energy into things that will have an ultimate impact in positive terms on the culture.”
I cite home schooling, because it is a prototype of what I am talking about. Had the parents of the million kids now being home schooled kept their kids in the Sara Fritz is managing editor of Congressional Quarterly’s weekly magazine.
public schools, and fought the battles over values and curriculum and standards and everything else, they would have lost. We don’t have a single example in the country where conservatives have taken over a major school district and then completely turned around the values, standards, instruction and everything else. You have examples of conservatives winning but then immediately getting embroiled in such battles that it made it impossible for them to enact their agenda.
So had these parents stayed in, their kids would have been educated in the defective public-school system and therefore, I contend, be not as valuable to the society as they are now, having been taught at home the kind of values and abilities to read and write and think that they have.
Q: Are you essentially adopting the model of the 1960s liberals, who dropped out of the political process and sought other ways to influence society?
A: Yes. The left had a strategy called the long march through the institutions, and they took over the culture gradually, institution by institution by institution.
Q: What do you see happening now that your opponents are a majority?
A: The society becomes more and more unlawful. You see greater and greater disintegration. You have only to read the papers in any metropolitan [area] in the country and you will see examples every day of the kinds of disintegration we are talking about. You will have, to varying degrees, chaos.
At that point, you will either have a totalitarian government, in which all of our freedoms will be lost because people will demand order, or we will be able to argue that we can be entrusted with freedom. But freedom requires certain limits, certain barriers, certain kinds of behavior.
Q: Are you telling Americans they are bad people?
A: We have to look at who is on which side of the cultural divide.
Q: Could there be some good people on the other side?
A: Only God is in a position to determine who is a good person and who isn’t. I am not in any position to make that judgment; I have never made that judgment. What I am in a position to say is certain principles and certain values work. Other values, carried to their conclusion, are destructive. Therefore, those people who, although they may give lip service to one set of values, live another set of values are going to end up not achieving what they profess to believe in.
There are people who live the values that I believe in but profess the other set of values. Ultimately, those people will make a greater contribution to the society because the fact that they have an intact family, that they bring up their children correctly . . . will impact society more than lip service given.
Q: Are there any misguided people on your side?
A: Yes. Early in my career I was confronted with a situation where a guy who was helping to fund what we believe in told me that he had been running around the country for two or three years, pushing the political agenda; and he told me that his wife told him, “If you don’t come home and start acting as the head of this household, I am leaving you and taking the children with me.” He told her, “What I am doing is more important for the country.”
I told him then, “You are dead wrong. Quit what you are doing and go home. Ultimately, if the family disintegrates, the society disintegrates.” He never understood that point. And he went through a couple more families after that, all the time professing absolute adherence to family values.
Q: With such a diverse society as we have today and a fragmented marketplace of ideas, is it really possible for one set of values to dominate the culture?
A: There is one truth. The values that the traditional Judeo-Christian culture has represented--functional, workable societal values--work for everybody, regardless of ethnic background, regardless of religion, regardless of their point of view. This is not an attempt to have one religion dominate over another religion. This is an attempt to have a workable societal model.
In this country, everybody, for the most part, when I was growing up, agreed on those principles, no matter where they came from, no matter what their background. We need to return to that because the absence of that is going to make for a society that you won’t want to live in.
Q: You have predicted that the forces of amorality will drive religious conservatives out of the Republican Party. What are you expecting?
A: What I think is clear is that on a wide variety of issues where values questions come into play, that the gulf within the Republican Party is great enough, that you can’t bridge it anymore because these people, after all, are reflective of the people who elect them. If not, they would be replaced. . . .
What I’m saying is that, even if internally within the Republican Party you could win the battle--at a caucus or convention or something of that sort--the margin always defects. What you will have, just as you had in Clinton’s trial, [is that] a certain number of Republicans will always go with the other side because they don’t adhere to the same value structure.
Look at the National Endowment for the Arts as a prototype. Here’s a piddling little organization--about $100 million budget out of a $2 trillion budget--and rather inconsequential in national significance. Republicans surely could have been able to shut that down given the fact that it had offended many, many people with the kind of art it had subsidized. Art gets about $12 billion a year from various sources, so it isn’t as if art would have dried up in the country if the National Endowment for the Arts had gone away.
But the culture overwhelmed the political process. Why? Because upper-crust, suburban Republican women in the districts of Republican congressmen defended the filth. They said, “This is an example of free thinking, and we can’t be dictating what kind of art is done with our money.” As a result, we lost 75 Republican votes from these suburban districts. It’s a perfect example of the culture overwhelming the political process.
Q: What does this tell you about the person the Republican Party is likely to nominate for president in the year 2000?
A: It means the nominee is not going to be able to make substantial and meaningful promises to the religious right about enacting the cultural agenda. They can make substantial promises about the kind of government they would conduct. They can talk about things perfectly within the purview of constitutional government, such as the kinds of Supreme Court justices they would nominate. But the sorts of promises that, for example, Ronald Reagan made in 1980--what he told everybody from Nellie Gray of the March for Life, where he took the hardest line on abortion, to insisting that he would push for prayer in the schools--you will not see those kinds of promises being made by any of the candidates that will end up being substantial candidates.
Q: How will this affect what social issues are debated in Congress?
A: I got reports from the Republican retreat, a term absolutely appropriate when it comes to Republicans, that was held in Williamsburg [this month]. Time after time, not liberal Republicans, but people who have been identified with our movement, said, “Don’t bring these cultural issues up. It only causes problems, it divides us, it’s a loser issue.”
The sentiment is there not to do this. We can spend an enormous amount of energy and effort to force the leadership to push these issues. To what end?
The same with the platform. There was a horrific fight in 1996, and it took all the energies of several major political figures on the right and all their troops. They came out with this wonderful platform, which was then dismissed by the Republican nominee [Robert J. Dole] in one sentence: “I haven’t read it, and I don’t intend to read it.”
Q: To the degree that you disengage from the political process, what becomes of the traditional flash points in the culture war, such as abortion?
A: You have to fight defensively to make sure that what you have is not taken away. I am not telling people to drop out of the process because, if they do, they will be overwhelmed. All I’m saying is we cannot advance the cultural agenda. Anybody who expects Congress is going to outlaw abortion is fooling themselves. Can you keep federal funding from occurring? Yes, I think you can. Can you do small incremental things, such as was affirmed by the Supreme Court on parental notification? Yes, you can.*
“Clinton represents a whole set of people now governing. . .who have the same kind of mentality, which is that moral and ethical boundaries do not apply.”
“Even if internally within the Republican Party you could win the battle--at a caucus or convention or something of that sort--the margin always defects.”
“I am not telling people to drop out of the process because, if they do, they will be overwhelmed. All I’m saying is we cannot advance the cultural agenda.”