Pioneering conservative activist Paul Weyrich died on December 18 at the age of 66. Though Weyrich was commonly regarded as a behind-the-scenes Beltway operator, he achieved one of his most enduring goals in the backwaters of the South.
In 1971, before the Roe v. Wade decision riveted America, the Supreme Court ruled in Green v. Connally to revoke the tax-exempt status of racially discriminatory private schools in 1971. At about the same time, the Internal Revenue Service moved to revoke the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University, which forbade interracial dating (blacks were denied entry until 1971.) The decisions infuriated a popular evangelical pastor from Lynchburg, Virginia named Jerry Falwell. “In some states it’s easier to open a massage parlor than to open a Christian school,” Falwell complained.
Seeking to capitalize on mounting evangelical discontent, Weyrich took a series of trips down South to meet with Falwell and other evangelical leaders. Weyrich hoped to produce a well-funded evangelical lobbying outfit that could lend grassroots muscle to the top-heavy Republican Party and effectively mobilize the vanquished forces of massive resistance into a new political bloc. In discussions with Falwell, Weyrich cited various social ills that necessitated evangelical involvement in politics, particularly abortion, school prayer and the rise of feminism. His pleas initially fell on deaf ears.
“I was trying to get those people interested in those issues and I utterly failed,” Weyrich recalled in an interview in the early 1990s. “What changed their mind was Jimmy Carter’s intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation.”
In 1979, at Weyrich’s behest, Falwell founded a group that he called the Moral Majority. Along with a vanguard of evangelical icons including D. James Kennedy, Pat Robertson and Tim LaHaye, Falwell’s organization hoisted the banner of the “pro-family” movement, declaring war on abortion and homosexuality. Thanks to the persistence and vision of Weyrich, a pre-Vatican II Catholic, the heavily Protestant religious right was born. Even the phrase, “moral majority,” was a Weyrich creation.
While working in Colorado, Weyrich met beer baron Joseph Coors, a funder of the far-right John Birch Society and friend of California Gov. Ronald Reagan. Inspired by Weyrich’s vision of a vast infrastructure of conservative instituions that would replace the liberal establishment and guide the right out of the wilderness, Coors ponied up $250,000 in 1973 to found the Heritage Foundation — the crown jewel of Weyrich’s planned counter-establishment.
The Washington think tank, which Weyrich chaired, became Reagan’s unofficial idea factory as soon as he entered the White House in 1980. (Coors guided the president’s personnel decisions as a member of his “kitchen cabinet.”) During the George W. Bush era, Heritage has inspired White House policy on issues ranging from abstinence education to missile defense, while grooming a generation of conservative cadres for the future through its intern program.
A pre-Vatican II Catholic traditionalist, Weyrich was most passionate about social issues. He railed against abortion before the GOP was officially against it, and teamed up with anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly to torpedo the Equal Rights Amendment in 1977, warning darkly that its passage would force good Christian girls to use unisex bathrooms. Last year, Weyrich howled that “the Feminazi crowd” planned to reintroduce ERA.
In 2001, Weyrich circulated a commentary accusing Jews of murdering Jesus. When a conservative writer named Evan Gahr attacked Weyrich as a “demented anti-Semite,” he learned how powerful the conservative founding father truly was. In short order, neoconservative activist David Horowitz barred Gahr from writing for his FrontPageMag and forced him to apologize to Weyrich.
Obsessed with ideological purity, Weyrich homed his most vitriolic attacks on the Republican congressional leadership. David Grann’s classic profile of Weyrich as a “Robespierre of the Right,” published in 1997 in the New Republic, is probably the best window into Weyrich’s often destructive efforts to force the GOP to the hard right. “The problem with Gingrich,” Weyrich said of the House majority leader at the time, “is that he does not have any immutable principles that he would die for.” (Weyrich sued The New Republic for libel after it published Grann’s article, a suit that was dismissed.)
In 1996, Weyrich was diagnosed with a debilitating spinal injury. Five years later, the injury consigned him to a wheelchair. He spent the last years of his life in constant pain, and took heavy doses of painkillers. In 2004, after a bad fall, Weyrich’s legs were amputated. But he soldiered on, addressing conservative conferences and pumping out a steady flow of commentaries urging the Republicans to stay tethered to their right-wing base.
In September 2006, foreshadowing Rep. Michelle Bachmann’s notorious remarks about her congressional colleagues two years later, Weyrich called for an FBI investigation of reporters who harbor subversive attitudes and urged the resurrection of the House Un-American Affairs Committee.
By the time Weyrich died, the conservative movement he created had grown so vast his imprimatur on its agenda was no longer apparent. But his impact is undeniable. Thanks to his efforts and those of the thousands of cadres he recruited and cultivated, the Republican Party is more ideologically extreme, more disciplined — and more politically marginalized — than at any time since the Goldwater Era. And that might be just where Weyrich wanted it. In his heart he knew he was right.