Paul Weyrich, the architect of the religious right, died last week.
I’ve long referred to Weyrich, tongue only partially in cheek, as an evil genius. A conservative operative going back to the Goldwater presidential campaign in 1964, Weyrich recognized early on the electoral potential of America’s evangelicals, who until the late 1970s were not politically organized. Many, in fact, were not politically active; large numbers were not even registered to vote. But Weyrich saw an opportunity, and by his own account he spent years trying to mobilize evangelicals politically.
I met Weyrich only once, at an improbable gathering of religious right types in Washington DC, late in 1990 (improbable because I was clearly out of place in a room full of people like Weyrich, Ralph Reed, Richard Land, Donald Wildmon, and the like). But Weyrich at that meeting alerted me to what I have come to call the abortion myth, the fiction that the religious right coalesced as a political movement in direct response to the Roe v. Wade decision of January 1973.
Instead—and Weyrich was utterly emphatic on this point, both in the plenary session and when I followed up with him directly—he had tried everything in the years since Goldwater to get evangelicals interested in politics: prayer in schools, pornography, abortion. Nothing worked. It wasn’t until the Internal Revenue Service rescinded the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University in 1976 that evangelical leaders began to contemplate a political movement.
Even then, it took several years to gather these disparate ministers into a political force. Weyrich himself coined the term “Moral Majority” during a meeting with Jerry Falwell at the Holiday Inn in Lynchburg, Virginia. Falwell formed an organization by that name in 1979, and the religious right was born.
With all due respect for the recently deceased, I stand by my description of Weyrich as an evil genius—and it’s a moniker that, coming from me, an implacable foe of the religious right, he’d probably appreciate. Weyrich was to the religious right what Karl Rove was to conservatives during the Bush Administration, with one important difference: Weyrich, despite his misguided ideology, was a principled conservative, not a heedless political hack.
When the United States Senate failed to convict Bill Clinton on the articles of impeachment, for instance, Weyrich was inconsolable. He interpreted that failure not so much as a missed opportunity for political gain as a moral lapse. “I no longer believe that there is a moral majority,” Weyrich wrote bitterly in a letter to several hundred fellow conservative leaders. “I do not believe that a majority of Americans actually share our values.” He went on to opine that “If there really were a moral majority out there, Bill Clinton would have been driven out of office months ago.”
The presidential election of 2008 has dealt the religious right a mortal blow—which is not to say that it has been rendered powerless. It will continue to thrash about for awhile. But the moral bankruptcy of the movement has emerged in bold relief over the last several years: the singular fixation on the tired issues of same-sex unions and abortion, the refusal to condemn torture or the invasion of Iraq, indifference toward global warming, support for such avatars of “family values” as Randy Cunningham, Larry Craig, David Vitter, and the thrice-married Rudy Guiliani. Not to mention the moral bankruptcy of the Bush administration itself, which the religious right helped to put in office.
Weyrich, of course, bears a great deal of responsibility for the contours of the American political landscape over the past several decades. His machinations contributed significantly to the election and reelection of Ronald Reagan, something that conservatives still consider—albeit counterintuitively, in my judgment—a triumph and an unalloyed blessing.
But the forces Weyrich helped to unleash also inflicted Karl Rove and George W. Bush on the nation. And that may prove to be the undoing of the so-called conservative revolution, the project that Weyrich, the evil genius, labored so tirelessly to bring about.