It is always a temptation to read the facts through the lens of the pervasive mood. Paul Weyrich, prominent among religious conservatives, has become progressively depressed over the fate of our culture. In February, Weyrich sent a four-page letter to conservatives. It is a much more thoughtful letter than has been reported, and deserves our serious attention.
Weyrich, who coined the term “moral majority,” has come to the conclusion that politics can no longer be trusted since the culture that sustains it has become bankrupt, a “sewer.” He seems to have been shocked into this conclusion by the evident sloth of the American public toward the president’s behavior and the toothless response of most Beltway politicians in the impeachment trial.
Weyrich thinks the time has come for conservatives to seek a “quarantine” from the culture, to “turn on, tune in, drop out” in the style of ’60s radicals: “what seems to me a legitimate strategy for us to follow is to look at ways to separate ourselves from the institutions that have been captured by the ideology of Political Correctness….”
He is right when he declares we have lost the culture wars. He is right when he says that the culture has infected our politics. He is also right to suggest we should be creating new institutions that reflect the old, traditional values. But Weyrich is wrong, however, to encourage us to leave the political fray.
Certainly the reaction to the impeachment proceedings was no revelation, but only a graphic confirmation of what we all should have known much sooner—that a vast sea change has taken place in American society over the past 25 years. That change has been described under various rubrics—narcissism, self-absorption, autonomy—so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that politicians are mirroring that change.
Our culture no doubt needs serious attention, and there are conservatives and Catholics alike who have been making this their priority for many years. Even the heyday of the moral majority, religious conservatives, were never proposing that politics held the final answer. Religion is the heart of our culture, and if a cultural problem exists then the vagaries of religious belief and practice is the place to look for answers.
At the same time, this is not the time—it is never the time—to withdraw from the public square. To be a citizen is a vocation, just as being a lay Catholic is a vocation, and vocations do not change simply because the odds have been turned against you.
To be a Catholic means many things: For one, it means having an impulse to create a culture that reflects and expresses faith. Catholics, at least traditionally, have not viewed their faith as something private. The Catholic faith is something that can be embodied in education, art, architecture, music, poetry, fiction, manners, and even mystery.
We may not succeed, but we cannot retreat into the ghetto of interiority.
To be Catholic, I think, means moving beyond the temptation to isolation and individualism, the private solitude of brooding upon the truth that few people seem to recognize. To premise your action on the assumption that you are part of a majority, as Weyrich admits he has done, is to lose the evangelical perspective that governs any religiously-guided enterprise: “the road that leads to perdition is wide and spacious, and many take it; but it is a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Mt 7.13-14)
No, we are no longer a moral majority, but we are misguided if we thought we would remain so. The signs have been clear for over a decade that the cultural trends were not in our favor. Merely to notice what passes for TV entertainment during the family hour on the networks, 8 to 9 p.m., makes the point beyond debate. Open homosexuality, sexual coupling as sport, flagrant disrespect toward traditional religious values—all are broadcast everyday into millions of American homes.
This is the cultural air we breathe, and it has become poison to the Catholic faith. Because of this, much of Weyrich’s counsel make sense and should not be dismissed. He speaks prophetically when he says, at the conclusion of his letter, that it is time for conservatives to disengage from the culture and “create a little stillness.”
As a good priest told me recently, alluding to the book by Josef Pieper, “leisure is the basis of culture and the interior life.” What we need is not separation but engagement reinvigorated by the freshness of souls that have created some space to rest. And we must remember always that our true triumph remains elsewhere, in being enfolded in the arms of God.