by Paul Mero

What represents American culture today is dramatically different than the American culture of my childhood. Of course, things change over time. Styles, music, art, technologies are all subject to change at any given moment. But I’m speaking of fundamental changes to American culture – the kind of changes that alter our future.

One fundamental change to American culture began in 1967 when no-fault divorce was first enacted. About that same time, the War on Poverty fundamentally affected family formation in many poor communities. Contraception and abortion decisions by the United State Supreme Court fundamentally changed most ideas about human dignity and sexuality. And the recent redefinition of marriage already has changed the worldview of many younger Americans.

The so-called culture war, combining all of these examples and more, was won by selfish individualism. Virtues such as being our better selves and the importance of family structure in the cause of freedom were soundly defeated. The idea that every individual is inherently independent from the ties that bind society is now firmly in control of American culture. The old idea that every individual is inherently linked to generations and community is passé. Disorder has been enshrined as the new American culture.

As I have said before, conservatives lost the culture war years ago. We too often projected a single issue as one battle in a protracted war, when we should have recognized the real war between liberty and virtue. Instead, conservatives whined and complained, expressed outrage and predicted dire consequences to society even as they moved the line never-to-be-crossed back another step and then another step – the last line in the sand is religious freedom and that will soon succumb to the same enemy as have all of the other virtues.

Continuing to fight the culture war is fruitless until conservatives decide to fight it where it counts – over the governing idea of what it means to be a human being. All battles short of addressing that single proposition are simply a waste of time.

Until that day happens, conservatives need to pivot their attention to making the best of bad situations. All of the dire predictions we’ve made have come true. Family formation is ruinous. Fatherlessness is out of control in certain communities. Births are down. Most Americans are desensitized to basic human values of a life well lived. Perhaps, most importantly, we have abandoned the poor and needy even as we spend trillions of dollars in their name. Conservatives warned America about the spiritual and societal consequences of accepting abortion, same-sex marriage, welfare dependency, and replacing humble faith with arrogant secularism and materialism. We told you so.

But “we told you so” is not good public policy. The role of conservatives today should focus on how we help to pick up the pieces of lives destroyed by pathological selfishness (and now entitlement) and devise effective policies to mitigate generational dysfunctions. What I’m suggesting is that conservatives help reform existing circumstances. Stop complaining. End the self-righteous crusades against things and start to constructively and incrementally reform public institutions and processes. Outside of religious freedom, there is nothing about the culture war left to defend. We lost the fight over the Big Idea and, while that fight is ultimately eternal, conservatives must put their values to work without judgment or fear of endorsing enemy actions.

If conservatives are uncomfortable hearing House Speaker Paul Ryan talk about poverty reforms in very human terms or me talking about the importance of human dignity and seeing others as we see ourselves, you need to get over it. Conservative political and policy strategies need to make a hard pivot away from contention and toward humble service. The masses of people suffering from the consequences of the lost culture war know the mess in which they live. Our conservative strategy cannot revolve around ugly reminders of their sad situations.

It is time for conservatives to practice what they have been preaching. If we know what it means to be a human being, we should be shining examples of that meaning for our struggling neighbors, not grind their faces in it. It is time for conservatives to become constructive reformers and abandon our defiance and refusal to accept the reality that we’ve lost the culture war. In fact, the only way to reclaim American culture is to get into the mix of the mess, get our hands dirty and help lift up our neighbors one by one.