The Magazine

First Principles

Dennis Prager defines the challenge for America.

Dec 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 15 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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In this freshly extended era of Barack Obama, conservatives and Republicans are evaluating, re-evaluating, pondering, questioning, tossing out, and shoring up basic principles and ideas. What does the Republican party stand for? What should, or shouldn’t, be part of the GOP’s agenda? What’s the conservative vision for America? What, exactly, do conservatives want to conserve? Is the Republican worldview out of step with that of the rest of the country? Is there a need to return to First Principles to preserve America? 

In god we trust coins

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These questions, and a multitude of answers, will continue to flood newspaper columns, blogs, and radio airwaves until at least the end of next year. But Dennis Prager, author and radio talk show host, is dealing with a much wider scope: “There are three ideologies competing for the allegiance of mankind,” he writes. “This competition shapes much of the present world, and the outcome will shape humanity’s future.”

And that’s just the introduction. Prager’s three competing ideologies are (in his words) “Islamist, Leftist, and American.” The first two are easy enough to understand. Islamism is the sort of violent radicalism embraced by al Qaeda, its imitators, and governments such as Iran’s, while leftism is mostly concerned with big government, permissible social mores, materialism, pacifism, and anti-Americanism. Throughout Still the Best Hope, Prager explores, in laborious detail, what these ideologies profess, how their practitioners seek to change the world, and why their worldviews threaten all things American.

More interesting, however, and perhaps more important, is a consideration of Prager’s third contender. He calls this viewpoint “American,” but it just as well could be called “conservative.” Prager identifies a “trinity” of values—liberty, belief in God, and the concept of e pluribus unum—that define Americanism, and insists that it is only through a recommitment to these values and a dedicated effort to export them to the rest of the world that the American way can prevail over the leftist and Islamist elements with which it clashes.

Liberty is straightforward enough. Freedoms of all kinds, from political to religious to speech to economic, are so basic that most schoolchildren in America can comprehend them (left-wing pedagogy notwithstanding). Liberty is the theme of our national anthems, and the message of our most cherished monuments. We all know the rejoinder, “it’s a free country.” Indeed, the concept of “liberty” is so deeply ingrained in the American consciousness that the language and imagery of liberty is used by political movements across the spectrum: from the pro-life movement to the civil rights movement; by those defending gun rights to those extolling gay rights. We Americans instinctively cling to our liberty, and Prager argues that a smaller, leaner government fosters and protects liberty best.

Belief in God and the more nebulous idea of e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”) are more complicated. On the subject of God, Prager has an important, if not entirely original, insight: Liberty without a moral guide leads to anarchy. As he notes, the left, too, recognizes this truth:

When Leftists make the argument that God and religion are unnecessary, they omit to note that this is only achievable with a strong state. According to Leftists themselves, men will not treat women decently without a vast number of laws prohibiting sexual harassment, creating a hostile work environment, etc. Nor will whites avoid hurting blacks without a vast array of civil rights laws and politically correct speech codes. So the Left implicitly admits that only a powerful state can ensure a decent society without God.

But how strong is our trust in God? The Gallup Organization reported earlier this year that confidence in -organized religion is at a historic low (44 percent) and that church attendance is down. Outside of the country’s more conservative realms—the Deep South, Utah, certain pockets of black America—faith in God and religious practice is more countercultural than not. 

With regard to the idea of e pluribus unum, Prager disagrees with the left’s doctrine that America’s strength is its diversity. “Much of America’s strength does indeed lie in its diverse origins,” he writes, “but America’s strength is diminished by diverse primary identities. It is not diversity, but the ability to unify the diverse, that is America’s strength and greatness; and that can only be done by celebrating the individual and the nation those individuals form, America.”