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The Los Angeles Times Interveiw

Paul Weyrich

Culture Warrior Circles the Wagons in Wake of Religious Right's "Defeat"

February 28, 1999|Sara Fritz

WASHINGTON — 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?

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