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In early 1999, Paul Weyrich, a founder of the New Right who helped create the Moral Majority 20 years earlier, wrote an “open letter to conservatives” announcing that he was giving up. A few days prior, the Senate had acquitted President Bill Clinton of the impeachment charges leveled against him by the Republican-controlled House. Weyrich, like many social conservatives, couldn’t believe that the public had stood by Clinton during the scandal triggered by his White House affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. “I no longer believe that there is a moral majority,” Weyrich bemoaned. “I do not believe that a majority of Americans actually share our values… I believe that we probably have lost the culture war.”
For two decades, Weyrich had been a general in this battle. He and his comrades had waged political warfare to end abortion, block the acceptance of homosexuality, smite pornography, and return prayer to public schools. So far, they had not succeeded, and now he believed the Clinton acquittal signaled all was lost and the nation was doomed: “I think we are caught up in a cultural collapse of historic proportions, a collapse so great it simply overwhelms politics. He advised his fellow rightists to keep voting but to withdraw from the perverted world of politics. His bottom line: “Politics itself has failed.”
Weyrich, who died in 2008, was wrong. In fact, two years later he was back in the fight, gushing about the new President George W. Bush and Bush’s support of the religious right. Politics was not over; it had taken a new turn.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s literally unprecedented Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that overturned Roe v. Wade and killed the constitutional right American women had to make their own decisions about abortion, Weyrich’s moment of despair is worth recalling for two reasons.
First, it’s a reminder that the Christian right has been toiling for this moment for half-a-century. The 1973 Roe decision was one of several events that prompted social conservatives to rally their flock and organize to achieve political power. The Moral Majority, led by Jerry Falwell, was the most obvious manifestation of this effort. Its goal was to elect politicians who would outlaw abortion, beat back gay rights, and serve the rest of the religious right’s agenda. Ten years later, the Christian Coalition, founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, took the lead in that endeavor. There have been other groups and people since then who have mounted this crusade.
The plan largely worked; the Christian right directed voters, volunteers, and money into the Republican Party and became one of the key components of the GOP base. Its involvement in American politics was crucial to the elections of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump. Over the last four decades, social conservatives have gained great influence within the Republican apparatus, generally driving out what used to be known as moderate or liberal Republicans.
Weyrich and his compatriots initially believed that if they helped elect Republicans and enhanced their own sway within the party, the GOP would soon be enacting legislating banning abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and the rest. That didn’t happen the way they envisioned. They were disappointed when Reagan focused on tax cuts, slashes in social programs, and increases in military spending and did not endeavor to outlaw abortion. But soon they and their allies in the GOP realized that achieving their aims through legislation was not likely. After all, the American public supported abortion rights (to varying degrees). This led to a shift in strategy: the right targeted the judiciary as a branch of government it could essentially take over. It spent decades helping Republicans win office so the politicians would pay back the social conservatives with conservative judges and justices who would support the Christian right’s war on reproductive rights and its other battles.
This scheme to win the courts involved electoral politics, the fundraising of hundreds of millions of dollars, the development of a right-wing infrastructure to nurture conservative legal advocates and judges, and much more. Weyrich, despite his doubt in 1999, was one of many Christian right leaders and activists who were committed to this 50-year struggle. They worked in the open and sometimes operated in the shadows. They had advances; they experienced setbacks. But they never gave up the fight, and they never accepted Roe and a woman’s right to control her own pregnancy. Dobbs is a testament to the fanatical dedication of the right. With all the justifiable outrage generated by the decision, it is important to keep in mind this is not merely the result of Trump appointing three far-right justices (keeping a promise that helped him reach the White House); this is the triumph of years of relentless organizing and sly strategizing.
The other reason to reflect on Weyrich’s 1999 missive is that it demonstrates that America’s culture war may never end—at least not in the foreseeable future. He believed at that point that total defeat had occurred, yet a short while later, after the next election, he proclaimed the religious right was ascendant with Bush the Younger in the White House. The clichéd explanation for shifts in American politics is the back-and-forth swing of a pendulum. A more accurate metaphor is a long war that ebbs and flows, with each side racking up victories and undergoing losses without full vanquishment for either. When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, it did feel as if the country had taken a step of irreversible social progress. Eight years later, though, a racist whose political rise was predicated in part on promoting a racist conspiracy theory about Obama was elected president. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples could not be denied the fundamental right to marry. It seemed that gay rights had triumphed and would now be a permanent feature of American society Yet after Dobbs, Justice Clarence Thomas and others are raising the idea that this decision, too, could be reversed.
The culture war rages on. Weyrich thought it had been lost by his side. Yet social conservatives didn’t surrender, and this past week they achieved their long-sought goal of limiting the freedom of women. That will likely encourage and empower them to intensify the fight for other freedom-restricting fundamentalist aims. Those Americans who oppose the Christian right vision for the nation comprise a majority. To wage an effective counter-crusade, they need their own long view—of the past decades and, more important, of the days and years ahead.