Image: Paul M. Weyrich
Cynthia Johnson  /  Time & Life Pictures / Getty Ima
Paul Weyrich is lauded as "instrumental in the development of conservative thought" in America.
updated 12/18/2008 3:09:28 PM ET 2008-12-18T20:09:28

Conservative activist Paul Weyrich, who coined the phrase "moral majority" and helped turn social conservatives into a powerful force in the Republican Party, died Thursday. He was 66.

Weyrich's death was announced by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think thank that he had helped to create.

Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan said Weyrich "was instrumental in the development of conservative thought" in America.

As the first president of the Heritage Foundation and the leader of other conservative organizations, Weyrich's service "embodied and further advanced the Republican Party's core values of limited government, lower taxes and individual responsibility," added Duncan.

Lee Edwards, a Heritage Foundation scholar and a friend, said Weyrich had suffered from ill health in recent years and had both legs amputated.

"He was a dedicated conservative and patriot, an excellent strategist," Edwards said. "He had a very sharp sense of humor , which he employed at all times."

At his death, Weyrich was chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative think tank. His latest commentary, posted on the foundation's Web site with Thursday's date, was titled: "The next Conservatism, a Serious Agenda for the Future."

In it he wrote: "It is the worst of times because conservatives appear lost and without a serious agenda or a means of explaining such an agenda to the public." But he also "it is the best of times" because conservative thinkers are generating ideas and proposals for a 'Next Conservatism,' which will lead to substantive debate about the nation's core principles and its future direction.

Weyrich, who lived in northern Virginia, was one of three founders of the Moral Majority, and later had a hand in creating the Christian Coalition.

Weyrich got his start as a reporter in Milwaukee, and came to Washington in 1967 as press secretary to Sen. Gordon Allott, R-Colo. Six year later, he founded the Heritage Foundation, and the next year the Free Congress Foundation. At a 1979 gathering of religious leaders, Weyrich talked of a "moral majority" in the country. The name stuck. Over the next decade, the group led by the Rev. Jerry Falwell energized the conservative movement as a political force.

By the late 1990s, Weyrich was lamenting that "I no longer believe that there is a moral majority." If there were, he said, "Bill Clinton would have been driven out of office months ago."

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said Weyrich "didn't over-intellectualize about Christians 'jumping into the fray.' He recognized early that the fray had jumped onto us."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: In memoriam: Paul Weyrich

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