It was the kind of quote that is catnip for politicos and scribes inside the Washington Beltway. "What Americans would have found absolutely intolerable only a few years ago, a majority now not only tolerates but celebrates," proclaimed Paul M. Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Foundation.
Then came the statement that set pundits to chattering for weeks.
"I no longer believe that there is a moral majority," proclaimed Weyrich, in a 1999 epistle that made many liberals cheer and some conservatives grumble.
It helps to understand that Weyrich -- who died shortly before Christmas -- was the strategist who coined the "moral majority" label for the Rev. Jerry Falwell and his new grassroots network. Weyrich urged conservative intellectuals and donors to build think tanks, political-action committees and lobbying groups -- mirroring strategies on the left. Above all, he helped lead efforts to convince conservative Catholics, Protestants and Jews that, when it came to issues of faith and family, they could find unity in their shared cultural values.
For many activists, noted direct-mail pioneer Richard A. Viguerie, this legacy is enough to put him on the right's "version of Mount Rushmore" with William F. Buckley, Jr., Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
But for others -- Sen. John McCain leaps to mind -- this same Weyrich was a narrow true believer who was a faithful Catholic conservative, first, and a loyal Republican, way, way, second.
Weyrich knew that his famous 1999 epistle on politics and culture was a turning point. After all, the founder of the Heritage Foundation was arguing that America's cultural heritage was cracked. The leader of the Free Congress Foundation was saying that a GOP-driven Congress was failing, on cultural issues.
For many years, he argued, conservatives assumed that most Americans agreed with them on moral and cultural issues. They also believed that "if we could just elect enough conservatives, we could get our people in as Congressional leaders and they would fight to implement our agenda." But this equation didn't work.
"The reason, I think, is that politics itself has failed. And politics has failed because of the collapse of the culture," he argued. "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."
In an interview months after issuing that letter, Weyrich explained that two radically different groups of politicos -- with sharply different motives -- misinterpreted his main message.
On the political left, many said he had issued a ringing call for religious conservatives to go back to church and stay there. On the political right, many of his friends and allies were angry and felt betrayed for the same reason. Apparently, they read right past his statement: "Please understand that I am not quarreling with anybody who pursues politics, because it is important to pursue politics, to be involved in government."
The key, said Weyrich, was that he had become convinced that many conservatives couldn't see that it is almost impossible to pass legislation that produces change at the level of homes, churches, schools, theaters and malls. It is almost impossible for politics to shape or redeem culture. Instead, the realities of media, education and mass culture are what shape -- over time -- America's political trends.
The political strategist knew that "values voters" in red zip codes would continue to win some battles in the years ahead. But the political victories that would matter the most, he said, would be the defensive moves that protected their own churches, schools, missions and other religious groups from future legal attacks.
Weyrich never urged anyone to quit. But the former journalist did warn religious leaders that it was time to focus on winning the "culture wars" in their own homes and sanctuaries.
"We probably have lost the culture war," he concluded, in the 1999 letter. "That doesn't mean the war is not going to continue, and that it isn't going to be fought on other fronts. But in terms of society in general, we have lost. This is why, even when we win in politics, our victories fail to translate into the kind of policies we believe are important. ...
"We need to drop out of this culture, and find places ... where we can live godly, righteous and sober lives."