When Paul Weyrich met with Jerry Falwell in May 1979 to discuss ways to bring fundamentalist Christians into the political process, the two men had high hopes for the proposed venture.
Weyrich, a veteran right-wing strategist and ultraconservative Eastern-Rite Catholic, believed a coalition of conservative Protestants, anti-abortion Catholics and other socially conservative Americans could easily dominate the U.S. political process. If Falwell, a Baptist pastor and increasingly well known television evangelist, would agree to help lead such a movement, Weyrich argued, that would be an enormous step forward.
"Out there is what one might call a moral majority--people who would agree on principles based on the Decalogue [the Ten Commandments], for example--but they have been separated by geographical and denominational differences and that has caused them to vote differently," Weyrich reportedly said. "The key to any kind of political impact is to get these people united in some way, so they can see that they are battling the same thing and need to be unified."
"That's it," Falwell replied. "That's the name of the organization."
According to historian William Martin, that conversation at the Holiday Inn in Lynchburg, Va., was the genesis of the Moral Majority. Falwell's group became the best known of an array of Religious Right organizations that have assailed church-state separation, touted "Christian nation" theology and tried to forge evangelical and fundamentalist Christians into a reliable Republican voting bloc during the past two decades.
But in a shocking turn of events a few weeks ago, Weyrich, the godfather of the Religious Right, announced a dramatic change of heart. In a Feb. 16 letter posted on his Free Congress Foundation's website, Weyrich said, "I no longer believe that there is a moral majority. I do not believe that a majority of Americans actually shares our values."
Embittered by the Senate acquittal of the president and the public's overwhelming support for that action, Weyrich proclaimed, "If there really were a moral majority out there, Bill Clinton would have been driven from office months ago."
Weyrich, who helped found the Heritage Foundation and other right-wing groups, said conservatives have lost the culture war and should adopt a "strategy of separation" from the rest of society. They should engage in politics, he said, only as a secondary enterprise to keep a "politically correct" government at bay. In a March 7 essay in The Washington Post, he called for a "complete, separate, parallel structure" of institutions, a traditional Western Judeo-Christian network of schools, universities, media, entertainment, and even private courts.
The Weyrich jeremiad sent shock waves through the political right and was the talk of the news media.
It undoubtedly gladdened the hearts of GOP moderates. Some Republican Party leaders and strategists, especially those from the Northeast and the far West, have fretted for years that the visibility and influence of the Religious Right were hurting the GOP with middle-of-the-road swing voters.
Centrist Republicans, meeting in Miami, Fla., in February discussed their concerns, sometimes in colorful terms. According to The New York Times, New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman said, "We have got to get away from the perception that all we care about is whether or not the Teletubbies are gay," an acerbic reference to Falwell's much-publicized warning to parents about the possible sexual orientation of a character on the PBS children's show. (See "Jerry Falwell Launches Attack On 'Teletubby,'" March Church & State.)
John A. Moran, a co-chair of the Republican Leadership Council, said GOP forces should "soften the image of the party" and "avoid ideological purity." Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland said Republicans should start ignoring Religious Right leaders. "With all due respect," he added, "we can't negotiate with them. They don't want to win."
But Weyrich's message of malaise was greeted with shock and dismay by leaders of the movement he helped birth.
James Dobson of Focus on the Family (FOF) said he agreed with much of Weyrich's pessimistic analysis of the state of American society, but he called for a militant response. "Instead of seeking refuge from the cultural and political battlefield -- thus yielding to our opponents by default -- I believe we should fight all the harder to reclaim territory we've lost," he wrote in Insight magazine.
"I call on my colleagues to fight on and do honor to our cause whether we win or lose," Dobson argued. "Winston Churchill said it with eloquent simplicity: 'Never give in; never, never, never, never.' This should be our credo," observed Dobson, in remarks circulated by fax to FOF activists.
Dobson associate Gary Bauer, who stepped aside from his leadership of the Family Research Council to seek the Republican nomination for president, agreed. Addressing a "Reclaiming America for Christ" conference in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Feb. 26, Bauer insisted, "Words like 'I give up' can't be in our vocabulary."
Conservative commentator and fellow GOP presidential hopeful Patrick Buchanan took a similar line.
"We cannot quit," he wrote in his nationally distributed newspaper column. "We can no more walk away from the culture war than we could walk away from the Cold War. For the culture war is at its heart a religious war about whether God or man shall be exalted, whose moral beliefs enshrined in law, and what children shall be taught to value and abhor."
Buchanan said, "[I]f God is king, men have a duty to try, as best they can, to conform their lives to His will and shape society in accordance to His law."
Pat Robertson was equally opposed to the Weyrich proposition. At a March 11 press conference in Washington, D.C., the TV preacher vowed to fight harder than ever. Robertson, who serves as chairman and president of the Christian Coalition, unveiled a "21 Victory" project that will try to raise and spend $21 million over the next 21 months to mobilize millions of conservative Christian voters for the 2000 elections.
"There has been a lot of talk in the press that conservatives are ready to withdraw from the process we call democracy," observed Robertson in a press statement. "The very future of America is at stake: three Supreme Court justices, 180 federal judges, the defense of America, the direction of how a staggering 1.7 trillion dollars will be spent each year, and the future of our children and grandchildren. We at the Christian Coalition are far from quitting....In fact, we have just begun to fight."
But Robertson's bravado was undermined by continuing legal, public relations and personnel problems at his Virginia Beach organization. Americans United issued a press backgrounder March 11 that detailed a mounting rain of serious problems drenching Robertson and the Coalition over the past year.
Coalition President Don Hodel resigned abruptly on Jan. 29. Since then, National Field Operations Director Chuck Cunningham, the architect of the Coalition's infamous voter guides, has quit as well, taking two key staffers with him. Other top executives have left also.
Last December, former Coalition executive director Ralph Reed resigned from the group's board of directors, ostensibly to separate his political consulting work for Republican candidates from the Coalition's activities.
Robertson also faces an ongoing lawsuit against the Coalition by the Federal Election Commission for alleged illegal campaign activities on behalf of Republican candidates in three election cycles. The Internal Revenue Service is conducting an investigation of the group's application for tax-exempt status. And in Virginia, the Attorney General's office is looking into allegations that Robertson improperly used his Operation Blessing charity planes to assist with a now-defunct diamond-mining venture in the Congo.
Money problems also hang over the Coalition. According to the Washington newspaper Roll Call, the Coalition's 1998 budget and staff were half what they were in 1994. "Frankly, they were missing in action, AWOL, in 1998," one GOP operative told the paper. "They weren't doing the things that they had done previously."
Some observers think the Coalition stands at a critical juncture.
"The year 2000 is likely to be a major turning point," political scientist John Green of the University of Akron told U.S. News & World Report. "The Christian Coalition may no longer exist if it fails in the Republican primaries and congressional elections, as it failed in the 1998 election. Some of its people may just become regular Republicans. And some may be frustrated and rethink the political path entirely."
That may be the long-term importance of Weyrich's declaration of defeat in the culture war.
Weyrich, 56, is known in Washington for his holier-than-thou attitude and an abrasive personality. As a Catholic and an inside-the-Beltway figure, his following among evangelical Protestants is slender. Weyrich's think tank, the Free Congress Foundation, also has no significant grassroots base. Thus, his call for political retrenchment has little immediate practical effect. Dobson, Bauer, Robertson and others with huge war chests and millions of followers have rejected the call out of hand, and they have no intention of leaving politics.
But the long-term impact of Weyrich's broadside could be substantial anyway. Weyrich's proclamation invites other conservative Christians to openly criticize the Religious Right and its partisan political focus. Many evangelicals have long believed that evangelism -- winning converts to Christianity -- should be the church's top priority. But few criticized the Religious Right publicly for fear of being branded defeatist, soft on "secular humanism" or even "liberal."
Weyrich's action has helped remove that barrier. Other well known evangelical figures are moving in the same direction.
In their new book, Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?, Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson (not to be confused with FOF's James Dobson) bluntly criticize the Religious Right not only for its tactics, but also for putting politics ahead of religious conversion as an evangelical priority. Thomas and Dobson, both former staffers of the Moral Majority, argue that moral revival in America can never come from political manipulation or government decree.
"We have come to believe," the two write, "that a delicate balance exists between church and state and that if each fulfills its proper role, the other is positively affected. But if one assumes the role of the other, or ignores and rejects that role, then both suffer.
"If the so-called Religious Right focuses mainly on politics to deliver us, we will never get that right because politics and government cannot reach into the soul. That is something God reserves for himself."
If this line of thinking catches on in evangelical Christian life, fewer grassroots troops may sign up for duty on the Religious Right battlefield and less money may flow into Religious Right coffers. Even a modest change in this direction could dramatically alter the American political equation.
With the Thomas/Dobson book and the Weyrich letter now part of the mix in the public square, a new day may be dawning in the national debate over religion and politics.