Give Paul Weyrich of the New Right credit for occasionally displaying the rarest of virtues among conservative fringe groups: an open mind. He invited a California liberal to Family Forum II, a conference that brought several hundred Moral Majority faithful and fellow travelers to hear rightist variations on the theme, "Traditional Values Work."
Weyrich asked Michael Lerner, a psychotherapist and chairman of Friends of Families in Oakland, to debate such issues as: who are the true pro-family advocates, conservatives or liberals?
Lerner likened himself to Daniel in the lions' den. It wasn't the fittest metaphor--Scripture reports that Daniel eventually subdued the lions -- but growling from the right-wing den did come. Speech topics during the three-day conference included "How Your Taxes Fund Anti-Family Activities," "Planned Parenthood -- Enemy of the Family," "How Today's Education Will Destroy the Family" and "How the Government Destroys Families."
Into this gloom came Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly to speak, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) to be honored with a "Family Protector Award" and Michael Lerner "to share a common concern with the people in this room about the breakdown of family life."
In platform bearing, elocution and suavity, the Weyrich-Lerner debate was no contest.
Weyrich won. He has oratorical skills. He gestures well. His posture is slouch-free, as it would be after years of sitting on the hard backbenches of right-wing causes.
Lerner spoke too fast, as though expecting to be shouted down at any moment by the audience. He wasn't. Lerner occasionally mumbled. It would have been fine for a West Coast coffeehouse, where everybody's space is respected in equal proportion to his sincere mumbling.
On style, my point card for the evening had Weyrich well ahead. But he was drubbed on substance. He seemed not even to want to discuss families. He came with the conservative gripe list and was determined to spout it still again: "the failed policies of the liberal welfare state," "the forces of permissiveness," and, for sure, Washington: "Every time the federal government has intervened (for the poor), it not only has cost more, done less, but it has ended up in a complete boondoggle." Every time? Complete?
This kind of playing to the audience prevented Weyrich from displaying the reasonableness that he is known to have and which separates him from New Right bludgeon-wielders like Howard Phillips. Weyrich's lapse into bombast widened what Lerner's I-share-a-common-concern approach had already created.
Lerner didn't put down the Moral Majority as self-righteous zealots, a cheap attack which many liberals find irresistible. He argued instead that it compulsively raises, and can't seem to move beyond, "side issues that divert attention from the real forces that are undermining family life."
Although Lerner occasionally gave in to California groovespeak, he argued sharply to his audience that "while claiming to speak in the name of the majority, you try to create a model of family life that is not the majority experience. . . . You miss the way that the world of work creates people who are angry and beaten down and who bring upset into their family life. You miss the way that inequality for women is a guarantee of family instability."
Lerner had an intellectual advantage over Weyrich. He works as a family therapist. Fathers, mothers and children in pain come to him for help. He can refer to a survey that "found that 80 percent of families identified stress at work that is brought home into family life as the No. 1 problem they face in their families," but then tell of that 80 percent as suffering human beings he meets in his daily practice.
Lerner's challenge to Weyrich was to understand that pro-family politics covers more issues than abortion, pornography, school prayer, drugs and sex education. Those should be on the agenda, he said, but so also should the currently advanced policies that create unemployment, or health and safety hazards on the job, or difficulties in day care for children, or threats to the pensions of the elderly.
Weyrich couldn't rise to the occasion. He persisted in ridiculing Lerner for statements on socialism he made a decade ago. Weyrich offered garbled theology about the nature of "fallen man." He spouted agin-the-government slogans.
It was admirable that Weyrich had the open mind to invite a liberal. But then, when Lerner asked the New Right to rethink a few questions, Weyrich closed it again. Tight.