The year was 1999. I attended one of those Washington meetings where the inner circle sits around the big table, while assistants (like me, at the time) take up seats on the perimeter. We were fighting for the Religious Liberty Protection Act, which we hoped would reinvigorate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment in the wake of court decisions that had undercut the cause of religious freedom.
Paul Weyrich arrived early. Even then, he was in poor health. I could see he was in pain as he walked into the room, putting a good bit of his weight on his cane. He wore suspenders and looked like an elderly man from Middle America. During the meeting, he sat quietly and listened, apparently feeling no need to dominate despite easily being the most well-known and senior person in the room.
When I heard about his death, I was shocked to hear Weyrich was only 66 years old. Nearly ten years ago in that Capitol meeting room, I would have sworn he was almost 70. The revelation of his age at death explains his face, which seemed preternaturally youthful in comparison to his burdened body when I met him. He suffered from diabetes. During the last year, a combination of complications from injury and lingering illness led to the amputation of his legs.
Many would have dropped out to rest on the memories of battles fought and victories won. Weyrich kept working until the end. One of his friends reported seeing him at a high-powered political gathering in November where he was an active participant in panel discussions.
Paul Weyrich came to Washington from Wisconsin in the 1970s as a senatorial aide, but he quickly became an organizational and policy entrepreneur of the first order. In addition to being the founding president of the Heritage Foundation, he also established the Free Congress Foundation and occupied a perennial position of leadership among religious conservatives in Washington.
Many will remember that after the 1998 elections, he penned a letter declaring the culture war lost and calling, like a modern prophet, for a welling up of new institutions and ways of life independent from a decadent mainstream society. That occasion led to one of many rounds of the press declaring the death of the “religious right” as a movement. Notably, Weyrich ended his letter with a call for further conversation and strategic planning. He never dropped out. He never stopped working and never gave in to despair.
Upon hearing of Weyrich’s death, I called Judge Paul Pressler and asked for his impressions of the man. For those who don’t instantly recognize the name, he was one of the prime movers behind a conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention during the last three decades. Pressler has also been heavily involved in the conservative political movement and this year is an elector for the presidential race.
The Texas judge was effusive in his praise for Weyrich. Today, few are surprised to hear that one elder statesman of the conservative movement has good things to say about another, but there are larger issues beneath the surface. When these two men were young, it would have been rare to hear a Southern Baptist offering tribute to the legacy of a Greek Catholic like Weyrich.
In fact, during those years, evangelicals and other conservative Protestants were at least as concerned with the threat of ambitious Catholicism as they were with secularist encroachments. Rare were the evangelicals who had the insight of Abraham Kuyper that Catholics were natural allies against secular cultural offensives.
Paul Weyrich is one of the people who built the bridge between those camps. Today, conservative Protestants and Catholics waste very little of their fire on each other. It is ironic to consider how much ecumenism came from the cultural and political engagement of people like Weyrich and Phyllis Schlafly (also Catholic), as opposed to the weak, pink lemonade of self-conscious efforts like those of the National Council of Churches to pull believers together. The lure of theological compromise proved much less potent than common purpose and real-life stakes.
Interestingly, when I asked a veteran of the Reagan and Bush administrations for his memory of Weyrich, he responded instantly, “He spoke truth to power, even when that meant disagreeing with the president in his presence.” That particular phrase about speaking “truth to power” is usually reserved as an encomium bestowed upon liberal clergymen by adoring journalists. Weyrich spoke his mind knowing it would earn him no similar kudos.
It may be fitting to conclude by saying something about Weyrich as a private person. We are accustomed to viewing well-known figures in Washington as celebrities and often expect to see them surrounded by wealth and luxury, even when they are known to have strong religious sympathies. Weyrich did not use the money he raised to support a lavish lifestyle. Instead, he lived simply and labored faithfully despite pain and illness.
The loss of Paul Weyrich is a serious one. Taken together with the death of William F. Buckley earlier this year, the conservative movement has lost two leading lights. The burden lies heavy upon the succeeding generations to find some way to occupy their places.