Conservatives suffer from a short attention span, and it largely explains their defeats in the culture war. They fight every battle as if it’s the only one they will ever have to fight. And so, win or lose, they are unprepared for what happens next.

If they lose, they forget how all-important the last battle was, learning no lessons from defeat, nor about what’s vital and what isn’t. Twenty-five years ago, conservatives were adamantly opposed to putting women in combat or admitting them to institutions like the Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel. In recent years,...

Conservatives suffer from a short attention span, and it largely explains their defeats in the culture war. They fight every battle as if it’s the only one they will ever have to fight. And so, win or lose, they are unprepared for what happens next.

If they lose, they forget how all-important the last battle was, learning no lessons from defeat, nor about what’s vital and what isn’t. Twenty-five years ago, conservatives were adamantly opposed to putting women in combat or admitting them to institutions like the Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel. In recent years, conservative Republicans have celebrated the aspirations to office of female fighter pilots like Arizona’s Martha McSally and female graduates from Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel.

Whether they were wrong the first time or are wrong now, what matters is that conservatives rarely set aside immediate enthusiasms to discover why society changes in one way and not another — and what, if anything, they can do about it. They live in an eternal present that must be defended against a dreadful future. When that future inevitably arrives, it becomes the thing that must be defended against the next change. Changes keep happening, but conservatives remain the same. Some reactionaries reject every alteration, and that too is unserious. Why worry about what you are powerless to preserve or bemoan a defeat today when you know you already lost sixty or 600 years ago?

When conservatives do win, they rejoice for their salvation as a new governor or president is inaugurated, a dictator in the Middle East is toppled, a tax cut or abortion restriction is passed. And then… disappointment. Somehow, the public doesn’t keep electing virtuous governors and presidents. Wars continue after the dictator is gone. Policy victories are overwhelmed by cultural defeats. Good turns to bad. Rather than learn why, conservatives convince themselves the next skirmish will decide the war.

For decades, organizations like the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition put great efforts into winning school board elections. They had such success that as late as the Obama era, national media warned that creationism had arrived in the classrooms of the South and was coming to classrooms everywhere. Now classrooms are full of progressive race theory and gender ideology. Conservatives imagine victories last November and next November will change that. But the question they should be asking is how Critical Race Theory and transgenderism made it into the schools in the first place, given the political success grassroots Christians earlier enjoyed.

I was puzzled by this myself until a former school board member told me that even with Christians like himself on it, his board mostly rubber-stamped plans put forward by the superintendent of schools. Education bureaucrats who advance racial and gender ideology have every hour in the work week to concoct their plans. Volunteers on school boards, however strongly they may feel, have little time to devise comprehensive alternatives. If they raise objections, all they do is prolong a meeting that their own allies would like to end as expeditiously as possible. Their wives and children will complain if forty-five-minute meetings become three-hour ordeals. Eureka: professionals beat amateurs.

But there’s something deeper. In 2008, I worked for Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. Near the end, former organizers from the Christian Coalition came on to help the campaign transition into a movement to win other elections, starting with battles for control of state and local Republican Party organizations. I knew the Christian Coalition had once had remarkable success at this. What I should have asked myself is, what happened next.

Our activists found out. They took over state and local parties — then lost them. They could pass resolutions and endorse one candidate or policy over another, but even when they prevailed they did not create anything sustainable. Acts of local government and local parties do not turn voters into Ron Paul constitutionalists. Instead, voters are just bewildered and unchanged, and they soon replace you. Our activists could win in the first place because they were more engaged than their establishment rivals. But once they’d won, they had nowhere to go.

Christian conservatives have the same problem. They can crack down on pornography and teach creationism in schools. But to sustain a Christian culture you need more than Christian-made rules: you need actual Christians. And simply being a non-porn-consumer or a non-abortion-haver is not the same thing. Nor is being a churchgoing believer if your faith is less political than your worldly commitments, which is true of most American Christians.

The dream is that good rules will make the people virtuous. After all, didn’t bad rules make us bad? But no — original sin did that, a sin against the simplest rule from the most loving of lawgivers. While progressives have certainly used law to move society in their direction, what they understand better than the right is how first to mold society for the laws they wish to make. That requires institutional authority, usable history, the prestige of science, media oligopolies and a keen understanding of human sinfulness, shame and psychology. The right, meanwhile, looks to the next election and that last perfect rule.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s March 2022 World edition.