Memory eternal: Deacon Paul Weyrich

weyrich_704633The most important thing to remember about the late Paul M. Weyrich is that he was a moral and cultural conservative, first, and a Republican, way, way second. In fact, there were plenty of people who decided that he wasn't -- when push came to shove -- a Republican loyalist at all. You can see hints of this throughout the mainstream media coverage in the wake of his death at age 66, following years of painful decline that began with a shattering fall on black ice.

Let me start with a picky question that, so far, applies to most of the obituaries. It is interesting, to me, that most of the stories do not even mention the fact that Weyrich was an ordained, permanent Catholic deacon. It would have been accurate, on first reference, to have referred to him as "the Rev. Paul M. Weyrich" or "Deacon Paul M. Weyrich." Since he was ordained in an Eastern Rite, it might have even been appropriate to call him Father Deacon Paul M. Weyrich (weigh in on this issue, Catholic insiders).

The Washington Post obit mentions the ordination, but frames it in an interesting way:

He was raised Roman Catholic, but after the changes of Vatican II, he converted to the Melkite Greek Catholic Church and served as a deacon.

Yes, his journey to the East was an interesting commentary on worship in the post-Vatican II world. Still, the story needed to mention that the church he joined -- "converted to" may be too strong -- is loyal to Rome and the papacy and part of the Eastern churches in Communion with Catholicism. He was raised Catholic and remained Catholic.

Here's the point: If you edited out his Catholic ordination, many readers would probably assume that this co-founder of the Moral Majority was an evangelical Protestant. It's impossible to understand what made this profoundly conservative man tick without knowing the fine details of his faith. Has the National Review mentioned his faith at all, or in any meaningful way, in its coverage? How about the Washington Times?

I also think it is crucial to realize that Weyrich was a journalist in his Wisconsin and Colorado days, before moving inside the Beltway. This was one blunt, fierce, man -- a fact that made it into the stories, but often in ways that failed to connect to the larger moral and religious issues that drove him.

In particular, Weyrich became known for grimly stabbing the sacred GOP cows, so much so that he made powerful, powerful enemies on the political right as well as the left. USA Today's piece included this example, from both the distant and recent past, politically speaking:

Weyrich was more than willing to take on people in his own party, especially those he considered accommodationist or defeatist. "Paul always liked the idea that he was conservative first" -- not Republican, said Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of an independent political newsletter, who knew Weyrich for 20 years.

In 1989, Weyrich fought former Texas senator John Tower's nomination as Defense secretary on grounds of "moral character." He testified that he had seen Tower drunk and in the company of women not his wife. The episode angered many Republicans and created a ferocious 19-year rift with Arizona Sen. John McCain, who was close to Tower. Weyrich first endorsed Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination this year, then Mike Huckabee.

When McCain won it, Weyrich said he'd vote for Libertarian candidate Bob Barr.

Weyrich later bit his lip and said he would support McCain, but the clash was more than symbolic.

Examples of these clashes dotted his career. Here's another example -- from the Los Angeles Times -- of a missed opportunity to connect some of the dots, demonstrating some of the rifts and tensions inside the Republican Party that point toward larger issues.

His Colorado connections led him to Joseph Coors, the conservative beer magnate who donated $250,000 to launch the Heritage Foundation in 1973. Weyrich became its first president in 1977. The think tank is widely credited as the intellectual engine of the Reagan Revolution, particularly through a 1981 treatise on limited government called "Mandate for Leadership."

Weyrich also founded the Free Congress Foundation, the main focus of which, according to its website, is "the Culture War." It belongs to a network of conservative policy and action groups that he helped to build, including the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Council for National Policy and the Republican Study Committee.

Question: Why did he leave the Heritage Foundation? What were the issues that caused him to leave that fortress and start another? To answer that question, reporters would have been driven back into the world of faith, culture and even doctrine.

In the end, it's hard to top this one-liner from the Los Angeles Times piece:

At a Washington roast in 1991, syndicated columnist Robert Novak teased Weyrich for having alienated so many people that "he gets hate mail from Mother Teresa."

Actually, I imagine that Weyrich received more hate mail from nuns on the cultural left, not the right.

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