VIENNA, Va. — Catholics remembered Howard Phillips, a Jewish-born Christian convert and a leader of the conservative movement, as a man of great drive and energy who led the opposition against abortion and Planned Parenthood before it was ever popular.
Family, friends and political activists bade farewell to Howard Phillips at a funeral held April 29 at The Smith Center of McLean Bible Church in Vienna, Va.
Phillips, founder of the pro-life Constitution Party and its three-time presidential candidate, died at age 72 on April 20 and was laid to rest in a private burial ceremony.
Catholics who knew Phillips told the Register that he was their courageous and principled ally in the political realm.
“He came to the plate and hit the ball out of the park, where others would duck,” said Christopher Manion, a Catholic columnist and former staffer to North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms. Manion knew Phillips for more than 50 years. “He never flinched on pro-life issues, and he never flinched with regard to the family in every respect.”
Another Catholic friend, Richard Viguerie, delivered one of the eulogies at Phillips’ funeral. He told the Register that Phillips belonged to a cadre of “new right” activists (including Catholics like Pat Buchanan, Ed Fuelner of the Heritage Foundation and Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation) that laid the foundation for the modern conservative movement.
“We were the second generation of conservatives,” Viguerie said. “We were the entrepreneurs, the activists.”
Principles Over Partisan Politics
As a rising Republican star in the Nixon administration, Phillips took on the job of director of the federal Office of Economic Opportunity with the goal of exposing its funding of inappropriate organizations and dismantling the office entirely.
Phillips’ leadership at OEO made possible “the first discovery” of Planned Parenthood’s connection with the federal government, explained Connaught Marshner, former executive vice president of Free Congress Foundation, who was at that time in 1973 a confidential assistant to one of OEO’s program directors.
“One of those on staff got into the files and discovered that, for many years, under the anti-poverty authority, the federal government had been funding Planned Parenthood,” she said.
When President Nixon reneged on his promise in 1973 to veto congressional funding for OEO, Phillips resigned from his post in protest.
Phillips then founded The Conservative Caucus in 1974 to continue his aim to “defund the left.” He visited all 435 U.S. congressional districts to build his grassroots movement. He also worked with Weyrich and Viguerie to help Rev. Jerry Falwell form the Moral Majority and helped Judie Brown form the American Life League.
Phillips called abortion “the overarching moral issue” of American political life and testified against President Ronald Reagan’s and President George H.W. Bush’s respective picks of Sandra Day O’Connor and David Souter to the U.S. Supreme Court.
And Phillips stood alone — without any of his allies — when he testified against Souter in 1990, revealing that Souter had voted as a trustee of Concord Hospital in 1973 to go from a policy of performing zero abortions to performing abortion on demand.
Souter would cast the deciding 5-4 vote in the 1992 Casey v. Planned Parenthood decision and joined O’Connor in the majority’s decision to affirm Roe v. Wade.
“Howard saw things in Souter’s background that we couldn’t,” recalled Viguerie. He said that others decided to trust Bush’s judgment, even though the runner-up to Souter was Edith Jones, a pro-life “rock-solid conservative. If he’d chosen Edith Jones, life would be different. It’s a tragedy.”
Phillips left the Republican Party in 1974 and formed a new party, the U.S. Taxpayers Party in 1991, which later changed its name to the Constitution Party. He made three runs for president in 1992, 1996 and 2000.
“It was a warning shot across the bow of the Republican Party,” Marshner said, adding that Phillips possessed not only a sharp mind, but also made a habit of listening to his opponents and understanding them.
“He always made a point of monitoring the other side,” Marshner said. “He had respect for the left, and that made him a good leader. He knew the power of their arguments and how to respond to them.”
Phillips converted from Judaism to evangelical Christianity in the 1980s. Manion said that although Phillips wasn’t Catholic, he appreciated the value of Catholic metaphysics and natural law.
“Howard walked with the evangelicals, but he talked Catholic,” said Manion, adding that Phillips often would tell him that his father, Dean Clarence Manion of the Notre Dame Law School and “a Catholic conservative,” shaped his principles through the Manion Forum radio program in the 1950s.
Manion said that Phillips' wife of 49 years was a strong Catholic, and they welcomed six children into the world. He said Phillips encouraged his fellow Protestants to embrace Humanae Vitae’s teachings on life and to reject contraception.
“His whole life embraced the natural-law teachings of Humanae Vitae,” Manion recalled. “He not only believed in it, he practiced it, and he encouraged all his friends and his children to practice it — being open to life — cheerfully.”
Register correspondent Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.