Dennis Prager, the radio host and columnist, has a new book out called Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph. Prager’s work represents a lifetime of love of, and wisdom about, the United States, what it has been, is, and could be. It’s a book about freedom and love, and the choices we’re making right now. Prager talks a bit about it with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: The “best — really the only — answer to making a better world is the American value system . . . if you are disturbed by the amount of unjust suffering most human beings have endured and vast numbers continue to endure, nothing approaches the American value system as humanity’s best hope.” Do we really have the evidence to be so confident — and chauvinistic? Doesn’t history suggest we ought to be a little more humble, a little more Hillary Clinton on a global listening tour?
DENNIS PRAGER: Of course we have the evidence — the United States. No country in history has come close to America in creating a place for people of every background to thrive economically, morally, politically, and in every other way. It is the freest and least racist society ever produced. And it has shed more blood for the liberty of others — the Korean War, for example — than any other nation. A world without America would be a world dominated by cruelty.
Chauvinism? Not at all. There is no celebration of a superior nationality, ethnicity, race, or religion here. It is a celebration of American values — the American Trinity, as I have called it: Liberty, In God We Trust, E Pluribus Unum.
LOPEZ: We have the cure for “moral cancer”? Again, isn’t this a bit presumptuous? We might be accused of being poisoned by this cancer ourselves, on different fronts?
PRAGER: Yes, there is a moral cancer in America, and we may not survive it. That fear prompted the years I devoted to writing Still the Best Hope. That moral cancer is the consequence of the nearly century-long attack by leftism against the American Trinity: Equality over Liberty; a secular, rather than God-based, society; and multiculturalism replacing the national ideal of E Pluribus Unum.
LOPEZ: What does exporting American values mean exactly? President Bush’s much-debated second inaugural? How’s that working for Iraq?
PRAGER: We didn’t export American values to Iraq. We replaced a blood-soaked tyrannical regime with a democracy. I wish we did export the American values system to Iraq. But we can’t export something that we ourselves have forgotten.
My vision of exporting American values — which I lay out in detail in the book — is to do for Americanism what leftists do for leftism and what Muslims do for Islamism. Our competitors are wildly successful at proselytizing. Why aren’t we? Because most Americans don’t know what Americanism is.
I wish America would do what the Mormon Church does — send young people around the world to advocate liberty, ethical monotheism, and nationalism. No nation would have to surrender its religion, its culture, or its national identity in order to embrace Americanism.
LOPEZ: Why the obsession with evil? Could one man’s evil be another’s man’s good? Or at least desire?
PRAGER: I would hope that the answer is self-evident. What human project could possibly be more important than combating evil?
As for the view that one man’s evil is another man’s good — that is exactly the moral relativism the Left in Europe ushered in that is eating at the moral foundations of the West.
LOPEZ: Speaking of evil and cancer: We’re about to mark 40 years of legal abortion in America. How can we claim any kind of moral high ground given that fact?
PRAGER: The rendering of the human fetus as no more worthy of life than a fingernail is another example of the effects of leftist thinking. When America was God-based, this was not the dominant view.
LOPEZ: How are we “morally confused” on health care?
PRAGER: The health-care debate is in large measure one more manifestation of the ascendance of big government. The moral effects of big government on society are terrible. Prior to the rise of Leftism and big government, Americans believed that they were morally bound to take care of themselves, their families, and their communities. With the growth of the state, Americans have begun to think of the state just as Europeans do — as responsible for taking care of them, their families, and their communities.
LOPEZ: How do you figure that the world will be “Leftist, Islamist, or American”? Who would you put your money on?
PRAGER: I can only tell you that right now, American values are losing — which is why I wrote my book. And they are under attack by both leftism and Islamism. Meanwhile leftism has eaten away at European civilization — Europeans by and large believe in little beyond working as little as possible, being taken care of by the state as much as possible, retiring early, enjoying good restaurants, and traveling abroad (recently declared a human right by the European Union). And as their low birthrates make evident, they don’t even believe in perpetuating their own societies.
At the same time, Islamist governments — such as Iran’s — are producing the first generation ever of Muslim atheists. But there are hundreds of millions of Muslims who still believe in Islamism — a Sharia-based society.
LOPEZ: “For the majority of people in the West, the Left’s view of life is not considered only the Left’s view, but in fact the only legitimate view of life.” Is that all the doing of culture and academia — and the media?
PRAGER: Yes. Other than “culture and academia and the media,” there isn’t much that influences vast numbers of people. That is why institutions such as National Review Online, talk radio, the Wall Street Journal editorial and opinion pages, and conservative columnists are so important. And that is why I am devoting so much time to Prager University — to present in highly sophisticated and entertaining five-minute “courses” an antidote to the university on every important issue. The latest course, by the way, features NRO’s Jonah Goldberg.
LOPEZ: “Leftism is a religion because those who believe in its tenets often do so as fervently as religious Jews, Muslims, and Christians believe in their tenets.” Some leftists, though, claim to be religious believers — of Christianity, etc. — too. Is that an untenable mix? Is this — and not some birth secret — Barack Obama’s problem?
PRAGER: Barack Obama’s religion is between him and God. But there is nothing as oxymoronic as or more poisonous than the “religious Left.” Judeo-Christian values are the antithesis of leftism (I explain why in detail in Still the Best Hope). As a believing Jew who has lectured and written on Judaism for 35 years, and author of one of the most widely read introductions to Judaism, I can describe the Jewish problem in a sentence: For most American Jews today, leftism is their religion; Judaism is their ethnicity. And the havoc the religious Left has played in mainstream Protestant churches is leading to their demise.
LOPEZ: If you are a Jew or Christian who has adopted leftist values, you typically “do not subscribe to many of the traditional beliefs of their faiths — especially divine scripture.” But haven’t you heard the Bible quoted plenty at Democratic/social-justice rallies?
PRAGER: Yes. But very selectively. I haven’t heard them cite Exodus, which demands that the poor man not be favored in judgment, or that murderers must be put to death (the only law in all five books of the Torah), or that nature is created for man, or Second Thessalonians, which states that “if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”
Citing verses that demand that the naked be clothed and the hungry fed are simply calls for an ever-expanding state. What traditional American church, or Rotary Club, was not preoccupied with feeding the hungry?
LOPEZ: Who are you to say Islam needs to be reformed?
PRAGER: I am an American who may be blown up by a Muslim who thinks God wants him to slaughter as many Americans as possible. And I am a Jew who recognizes that tens, if not hundreds, of millions of Muslims want, more than anything else in life, to annihilate Israel. Is that sufficient?
LOPEZ: So what is the future of Judeo-Christian values and the free market? And they are connected, aren’t they?
PRAGER: Freedom is indivisible. There is no such thing as political freedom without economic freedom, and vice versa.
LOPEZ: China could be the future if we fail?
PRAGER: That’s possible. And it would be a bleak future indeed for humanity, as the Chinese Communist regime has no moral compass.
LOPEZ: What have been some of your most important observations since being in grad school at the Russian Institute at Columbia University?
PRAGER: One of my most important was one I actually came to while at Columbia: that the primary reason our universities are so morally confused and so bereft of wisdom is that they are godless. See my 2003 column, “How I Found God at Columbia.” The secular world has produced many nice people, many bright people, but almost no wisdom. No God, no wisdom.
LOPEZ: What’s your warmest memory of that time?
PRAGER: The girls I dated.
LOPEZ: What’s most gratifying upon looking back, on progress we’ve made?
PRAGER: The unique American acceptance of people of all backgrounds is mind-boggling. We are the first non-black civilization to ever choose a black leader — and almost no American could care less. And we may elect a Mormon as president — again, with people giving it little thought.
LOPEZ: What’s so wrong with the leftist desire for “a world — and therefore an America — devoid of nuclear weapons”?
PRAGER: It’s utterly naïve to think it is possible. Bad people will gain nuclear weapons while the decent get rid of theirs. Evil wins when the good are naïve.
LOPEZ: Why are God and religion necessary?
PRAGER: I develop this at length in my book. In short, if there is no God, there is no objective morality. Good and evil are as much a matter of subjective opinion as are tasty and yucky. Of course, there are good atheists and bad religious people, but their existence is irrelevant to my point. Atheism destroys the only possibility of an objective moral reality.
Moreover, as the American founders all knew, people are not born good. That does not mean we are born evil, but it’s far harder to be a good, honorable, honest, grateful, kind, courageous individual than to be a selfish, dishonest, ungrateful, and cowardly one.
Therefore, the founders all knew — the so-called “deists” just as much as the doctrinally Christian — that God and religion (at least those rooted in Judeo-Christian values) were necessary for a moral society.
If there is no God, there is also no ultimate purpose to life. That doesn’t mean we cannot feel a purpose. Thank God people do. But ultimately it’s just a feeling.
LOPEZ: Where is religious liberty in America?
PRAGER: Everywhere. A liberal-left academic, Martha Nussbaum, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, just published a book, The New Religious Intolerance, in which she writes, in the words of the New York Times, that “there have been far fewer incidents of bigotry in the United States than in Europe. . . . When it comes to freedom to worship, at least, Nussbaum is an unabashed proponent of American exceptionalism.”
LOPEZ: “Most conservatives who are personally secular recognize that God-based morality is one of the pillars of the American value system.” Is this an important, unappreciated point that gives you some hope?
PRAGER: Yes. With the emphasis on the word “some.” The secular steamroller is hard to fight — until, as in Europe, it may be too late to undo its unraveling of Western civilization.
LOPEZ: How much rides on November?
PRAGER: November is not merely an election. It is a plebiscite on the American value system, especially stopping the growth of the state.
LOPEZ: What worries you most of what you are hearing from your listeners? What encourages you?
PRAGER: What worries me the most has worried me all my adult life. The American people are forgetting the American Idea. Even most conservatives cannot articulate the American value system. I couldn’t until midlife when, one night, I looked at the coins I had emptied from my pockets and saw the American Trinity staring me in the face: Liberty, In God We Trust, E Pluribus Unum.
What encourages me? The possibility that enough Americans will understand that Barack Obama meant it when he said before the 2008 election, “In five days we will fundamentally transform the United States of America.” America needs improvement, not fundamental transformation.
LOPEZ: You wrote a book on happiness: Are we warmer or colder as a culture to achieving such a thing? Even knowing what it is?
PRAGER: People are happy when they earn their happiness and when they are grateful. Leftism undoes both. It actually teaches people to be unhappy. First, by expecting that happiness will be given to them by the state; and second, by teaching people — women, blacks, Hispanics, gays, Muslims, poorer citizens — to see themselves as victims. No one who regards himself primarily as a victim can be happy.
LOPEZ: What do you most hope a reader this summer gets out of Still the Best Hope?
PRAGER: The clearest critique of leftism and Islamism, and affirmation of Americanism, they have ever read. And then a real excitement about having this intellectual ammunition.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.