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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

America, love it or leave it

It used to be the right's battle cry. Now it's the right's dilemma

By Nancy Gibbs

March 29, 1999
Web posted at: 11:28 a.m. EST (1628 GMT)

TIME magazine

Ronald Reagan knew how to win a reluctant bride. He told Americans how beautiful they were, how generous and strong and brave, and even if everyone knew that some of this was blarney, it was still lovely to be loved and to try to live up to the image. So it is a little sad and strange to listen to conservative leaders--who still honor Reagan as the greatest modern President--as they file for divorce from the people he cherished so deeply.

So many years, so little to show for the struggle. Conservative godfather Paul Weyrich, who coined the term moral majority, doesn't think there is one anymore. Abortion is still legal; the NEA is still funded; the Great Adulterer is still in office; the Republican establishment still thinks social issues are too thorny to embrace; and too many evangelical leaders have been seduced by their power at the expense of their principles. Weyrich says the time has come for conservative Christians to admit that the culture war is lost and to try a new strategy.

In this sorrowful chorus, he joins authors Bill Bennett, who deplores the "Death of Outrage," and columnist Cal Thomas, a moral-majority veteran whose new book argues that after 20 years, it is time for evangelicals to get out of politics, go back to the churches and change hearts one at a time, in the belief that the culture will someday follow.

As the next generation of presidential candidates starts to stir and stretch, all the complicated things the right is arguing about seem to boil down to a simple riddle about America's health: Are we better or worse, richer or poorer, not so much in our pockets as in our souls as a result of all that has happened in these past two decades? On that judgment rides more than who wins the White House next year; this is about what politics can and cannot do, about whether the culture war was a waste of time after all.

For every Weyrich arguing that it's time for new tactics, there are conservatives who are just as adamant about staying in the game--and there's no sign that the Christian Coalition rank and file is retreating into the wilderness. Activist Gary Bauer is running for President decrying the "virtue deficit." James Dobson of Focus on the Family invokes Churchill: "Never give in; never, never, never." Yes, the G.O.P. has been morally lazy, but if social conservatives abandon the struggle, he writes, "then hope is lost."

Behind this Should-we-stay-or- should-we-go? argument is the surprising consensus that American life is rotten in the first place. In fact, by so many measures, the state of the union is so sound that you have to wonder why conservatives don't just declare victory and go home. Crime is down, divorce is down, likewise abortion, teen pregnancy, drunk driving and welfare rolls. Prime time gives us angels and virgins as role models. We are more charitable and churchgoing than we were in the hallowed 1950s. Yes, there is sewage in the culture, but Bennett's books are best sellers too. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll in February found that a majority of Americans are more concerned with moral problems than economic ones. When the most poll-driven, market- sensitive President in history rose to make his case for war last week, he did not invoke the need to protect the Dow or stabilize the global economy, he invoked a moral duty, because he goes after people where they live.

Whether or not conservatives deserve the credit for all this, they surely have as much claim to it as Clinton does. In Weyrich's case, he isn't asking for thanks because he doesn't believe a word of it. The positive trends, he says, are "a blip," a demographic quirk that will soon change when what he sees as the amoral Generation X comes to power.

Thomas, less apocalyptic, has another explanation. Conservatives, he says, tend to be "an upset people. We don't like being happy. We're always looking for an enemy--just as the left is--to play on people's fears, which increases cynicism. And then we wonder why voter turnout is so low." Sounding an alarm raises more money than saying amen.

Later this month Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, one of the more thoughtful conservatives in Congress, is assembling a summit to talk about where to go next. He has invited Thomas, Bennett and Weyrich, who may find inspiration in what Weyrich describes as an outpouring of letters he has received from people telling him of some private charitable initiatives that have gone where no bureaucrat has gone before.

If Reagan taught his disciples anything, it should have been that blaming the people is lousy politics. It didn't work for Carter, who sighed about malaise, or for Clinton, who mused about the people's being in a funk until his advisers told him to snap out of it. When Reagan, in his First Inaugural, declared the American people heroes, he honored what they could do on their own, without him: "Their values sustain our national life." It was written as a valentine, but maybe it turned out to be a prophecy.

--With reporting by John F. Dickerson/Washington

MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: April 5, 1999

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