As an organization, the Moral Majority came to an end several years ago when Rev. Jerry Falwell, its president, disbanded it. As a political approach and aspiration, however, it did not give up the ghost until a few weeks ago, when Paul Weyrich, who coined its name and helped formulate its strategy, confessed publicly that it had all been for naught.
In an open letter to his friends followed by an interview in the Los Angeles Times and an essay in the Washington Post, Weyrich, the president of the Free Congress Foundation, issued a jeremiad against the cultural decline of the American people. He noted that conservatives had learned to win elections, yet had never managed to enact their social agenda.
that politics itself had failed. And politics has failed because of the collapse of the culture. The culture we are living in becomes an ever-wider sewer. In truth, I think we are caught up in a cultural collapse of historic proportions, a collapse so great that it simply overwhelms politics.
The Moral Majority does not represent the majority of the American people, in other words, because the American majority is no longer moral. If they were, Weyrich argues, "Bill Clinton would have been driven out of office months ago."
Jeremiads are an honorable American tradition, of course, and Weyrich's is mild compared to those unleashed by, say, Cotton Mather. Yet Weyrich's lamentations tell us a great deal about the state of the contemporary conservative movement, still reeling with disappointment over the 1998 elections and Clinton's impeachment.
For three decades, Weyrich labored to transform social and religious conservatives into political activists. Whether called the New Right, the Moral Majority, cultural conservatives, the Religious Right, or the Christian Coalition, the movements and organizations he inspired were (and still are) vital parts of a governing conservative majority. For all his tactical brilliance and versatility, however, Weyrich's strategy rested on a simple premise. "[W]e have assumed," he wrote in his open letter,
that a majority of Americans basically agrees with our point of view. That has been the premise upon which we have tried to build any number of institutions, and indeed our whole strategy.
This premise is highly dubious. To be sure, Weyrich was right that the moral relativism corrupting American life came from the top down, and that by nearly every measure the public was in better moral shape than the elite. But he was wrong to imagine that this fortunate, and contingent, state of affairs could be taken as an axiom of politics. In short, he was wrong to turn the fact of popular virtue into a theory of populism, which presumed the existence of a silent moral majority that needed only to find its voice.
Presuming, as he did, that a majority of Americans "basically agrees with our point of view," Weyrich was relieved of the responsibility of arguing with them, of persuading them why "the old rules of Western, Judeo-Christian culture" were right. He figured his job was not to shape or form public opinion but to organize and give expression to it. In a democratic republic, the most important battle is always over public opinion. But Weyrich thought this battle already won, until the morning when he woke up to discover that it was lost.
In a way, the New Right was therefore a mirror image of the New Left. The flower children shunned self-restraint and moral discipline in favor of the ethos of uninhibited self-expression. Although social conservatives rejected self-expression as an individual ethic, they effectively endorsed it as a majoritarian one. As populists, their job was to make majority will prevail over the decadent elite, not to keep the majority itself moral.
As disillusioned populists, they now sound even more like the counter-cultural New Left. "I do not believe that a majority of Americans actually shares our values," complains Weyrich, who has given up on persuading the public (without ever trying it) in favor of what he calls "separation" his own version of the '60s slogan, "turn on, tune in, drop out."
After all, if the majority is basically immoral, then it is futile to try appealing to them to do political good. Instead, Weyrich advocates strategic withdrawal: Cultural conservatives should halt their political offensive and go over to the defensive, saving the bulk of their energy for building a set of "parallel institutions," like home schools.
Weyrich's recommendations are a lot more sensible than Timothy Leary's. "Turn off" the television, Weyrich advises. "Tune out" the incessant sounds of pop music, and "drop out" of the pervasive culture of moral relativism if you wish to lead a "godly, righteous, and sober" life. But cultural withdrawal is not an argument against moral relativism; indeed, it is moral relativism, or at least a version of it, insofar as separation implies the renunciation of a common life of citizenship, the abandonment of even the possibility of public agreement on certain fundamental moral truths.
The Puritan jeremiads of the 17th and 18th centuries, and some of the best American political writing ranging from The Federalist Papers to Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King, were directed against errant popular majorities, calling them back to their "ancient faith" and warning them of the consequences of disobeying the moral law. These arguments with the American people presupposed that moral judgments were reasonable things and that a free people would feel obliged to listen, at least, to reasonable claims.
But Weyrich feels so betrayed by the American people that he, like many other traditionalist conservatives right now, insists on arguing against the public, not with it (to borrow Ramesh Ponnuru's nice distinction). He is a victim of his own extravagant faith in the people, or rather in the traditional "culture" that he thought they had grown up in and hence had no choice but to embody.
Yet the people do have a choice, and it is conservatives' job to urge them to use it wisely rather than foolishly. The Moral Majority's end may prove to be a good thing if it leads to a new appreciation for the politics of public opinion, and for the noble end or purpose of every moral majority, practically speaking the self-government of a free people.