Paul Weyrich died last week at age 66.
Weyrich created the still-influential Heritage Foundation, the think tank that helped social conservatives take over the Republican party. At a 1979 meeting of religious leaders, Weyrich referred to a “moral majority” in the U.S.. The name stuck, and through the ‘80s, Jerry Falwell energized the conservative movement using this theme as a political focus.
Christianity in general and America in particular have traditionally equated “morality” with limiting one’s sexual choices and experiences.
And so one of the things that made the Moral Majority movement possible was Americans’ need to deny the breadth of their sexual experience. Through the ‘80s non-marital sex was common, the average age of first intercourse was dropping, and the number of sexual partners the average man and woman had in their lives was increasing. But the Christian Right invented a sex-fearing Moral Majority, a myth no one successfully challenged.
And millions of Americans made the weird leap that while their own sexual behavior wasn’t “immoral,” the same behavior done by others was. This made a movement that demonized sexuality attractive even to those who were sexually active. It’s truer today than ever.
As we begin 2009, the paradox is even stronger. Americans are more sexually adventurous in private than ever—and more sexually repressive in public policy than they’ve been in almost half a century.
Some call this paradox hypocrisy. A more compassionate view is that Americans are struggling with a profound ambivalence about their own sexual interests, feelings, curiosity, and behavior. They do what they do, but they don’t feel entirely comfortable with the implications of their eroticism. And they don’t trust their neighbors to handle their own sexuality at all.
This makes the concept of “morality” too complex to legislate—although that is the stated goal of more than half the adults in America.
So when people refer to “traditional sexual behavior” or “Christian sexual values,” they mean ideals that hardly any Americans follow. For better or worse, most American men and women have sex outside of marriage. Half of all adult men periodically consume adult entertainment. Most fertile heterosexuals use contraception.
These facts by themselves are absolutely neutral. The real tragedy is that people are too ashamed, frightened, or ambivalent to admit this reality to themselves or their political leaders.
The hypocritical Paul Weyrich is dead, so he personally can’t do any more damage. But the destructive myth he helped create—that a majority of Americans want their own sexual choices limited by government—continues to damage our country today.