278 Still the Best Hope

Dennis Prager is one of the more thoughtful “talk-show hosts” on radio, sustaining an audience for several decades.  A conservative Jew, he consistently tries to look at the “big picture” when addressing current issues and brings to his subjects a thoughtful religious perspective.  He has also written several fine books, the most recent of which is Still the Best Hope:  Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph (New York:  Broadside Books, c. 2012).  The words in book’s title were crafted  by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 when he addressed Congress and declared that America to be “the last best hope on earth.”  To Prager those words still ring true, so he wrote the to defend and promote the uniquely American trinity of values, conveniently inscribed on every coin minted in this nation:  “Liberty”—the personal freedom which flourishes alongside limited government and free enterprise; “In God We Trust”—which indicates that our natural rights and moral responsibilities are God-given; and “E Pluribus Unum”—which declares Americans to be a diverse people united by principles rather than blood or ethnicity.  

Prager wrote this book with a sense of urgency, believing we stand at a crossroads offering us three incompatible religious and/or ideological options, devoting roughly one-third of the book to each:  1) Leftism; 2) Islamism; 3) Americanism.  He explains:  “The American value of ‘Liberty’ is at odds with a Sharia-based society and with the Leftist commitment to material equality; ‘E Pluribus Unum’ is at odds with the Leftist commitment to multiculturalism; and ‘In God We Trust’ conflicts with both the Leftist commitment to secularism and the Islamic ideal of a Sharia-based state” (p. 10).  Though he certainly has read widely and thought deeply, Prager relies more on illustrations than scholarly studies, broad generalizations rather than meticulous documentation.  This is not to discount his presentation but simply to make it clear he writes for the general public, not the academy.   

Leftism, emerging in the French Revolution and thenceforth fueling scores of revolutionary movements around the world, is very much a religious movement, though of a secular sort.  Energized by  Karl Marx, it seeks to destroy Western Christian Culture and replace it with a scientifically-based, egalitarian society.  Its religious nature was evident in Hillary Clinton’s touting “the politics of meaning”—granting primacy to this-worldly concerns, continually seeking to establish a heaven-on-earth through political orchestration.  It dominates organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Organization of Women and the National Council of Churches.  It rules the media (e.g. the New York Times and NBC) and most all liberal arts colleges and universities (e.g. Harvard, Columbia, UCLA and Occidental).  Prager thinks “Western universities have become Left-wing seminaries” (p. 97).  To soften and promote their ideological posture, Leftists usually call themselves “progressives” or “liberals” or “feminists” or “environmentalists”—much like denominations within a religion—but they share some core convictions.  They seek to make America a thoroughly secular place, resembling the “social democracies” in Europe which have sought to shed their national distinctions by joining the European Union, and they want to transform America to make it more egalitarian via universal health care, a command economy, minimum wages, cradle-to-grave welfare programs, affirmative action, race-based college admission policies, etc.  

Importantly, Leftists oppose traditional religions and seek to suppress, if not eliminate, their presence—their free expression—in the public square.    Philosophically committed to materialism, they necessarily believe:   “Man has supplanted the biblical God.  ‘God is man,” said Marx.  And man is God,’ said Engels” (p. 38).   Though some of them may “believe” in a deity of some sort, they reject “the personal, morally judging, transcendent God of the Bible” (p. 40).  What they really reject is special Revelation, with its clear-cut distinctions between good and evil.  To Prager, who regularly teaches classes on the Hebrew Bible, “the dividing line is belief in divine scripture.  Those who believe that God is the ultimate author of their scripture (the Old and New Testaments for Christians, the Torah for Jews) are rarely Leftist.  On the other hand, those Christians and Jews who believe that the Bible is entirely man-made are far more likely to adopt Leftist values” (p. 40).  

The Left believes, above all, in improving the world, making it a better place, creating a utopia of some sort.  It thinks we should not seek to understand things as they are but to devise ways to change them, to even transform such basic things as human nature.  As Robert F. Kennedy said:  “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask, ‘Why?’  I dream of things that never were, and ask, ‘Why not?’”  Or we’re urged to sing along with the Beatles’ John Lennon and Imagine a perfectly peaceful world cleansed of private property and freed from greed—a world where there’s “no heaven or hell” and “everyone lives for today” (p. 69).  Thinking so makes it so!  As “a famous dissident joke stated:  ‘In the Soviet Union the future is known; it’s the past that is always changing’” (p. 209).  Good intentions, not effective actions, qualify one for membership in the “inner ring” of the self-anointed saviors.  “Because the Left relies heavily on feelings and intentions,” Prager says, “wisdom and preexisting moral value systems do not count for much” (p. 77).  Consequently, there is an adulation and courting of young people and their tastes (e.g. clothes, slang and music).  

Yet despite all their allegedly “good intentions”—despite all the propaganda circulating through the schools and media—“the Left’s moral record is among the worst of any organized group or idea in history” (p. 168).  Almost everything it’s “touched has made it worse—morals, religion, art, education from elementary school to university, and the economic condition of the welfare sates it created” (p. 168).  Most appalling is the number of innocents murdered by Stalin, Mao, Castro et al.—100 million, according to The Black Book of Communism.  Softer versions of socialism, now evident throughout Europe and touted by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, have established ultimately unsustainable welfare programs such as Britain’s National Health Service that slowly slide into faceless bureaucracies failing the very people they claim to serve.   Though claiming to represent and care for ordinary people, “If the Left had its way, the citizens of the state would be told how to live in almost every way:  what to drive and when; what lightbulbs to use; what temperature to keep their homes; what men would be permitted to say to women; what school textbooks must include; when God could be mentioned, and when not; how much of their earning people may keep; what art would be funded and what art would not; what food children could be fed; how enthusiastically to cheer girls’ sports teams; and much more.  The list of Left-wing controls over our lives is ever expanding” (p. 208).  

Turning to Islam, which along with Leftism is devoted to the destruction of Western Civilization, Prager admits he treads through a minefield wherein charges of “Islamophobia” are routinely ignited against anyone daring to find fault with any aspect of the faith.  Yet we must fully understand—and dare to critique—an ideology mixing  religion and politics which has for 1400 years threatened Western Civilization.  One must of course try to distinguish between Islam and Islamism—the former a faith calling individuals to certain obligations, the latter a political movement promoting world domination.  There are certainly decent Muslims with whom one may establish concord, but there are also legions of fanatical Islamists supporting terrorism.  In fact, we must realize that Islam has historically allowed little personal freedom (whether religious, intellectual, or economic) and approves the militant establishment and expansion of its Caliphate.  Thus, according to perhaps the greatest Muslim thinker, Ibn Khaldun, Islam “demands jihad, holy war” and “Muslims are therefore enjoined to wage jihad in order to make converts to Islam” (p. 251).  

Islamic jihadists now seek to destroy Israel and America—primarily because they prevent “the expansion of Islamist rule” (p. 288).  Though such aspirations now seem to lack the necessary economic and military strength needed to accomplish them, they must be understood in order to respond to the many acts of terrorism and aggression we now face.  Prager responds to a variety of pro-Islamic arguments (e.g. the Koran contains inspiring verses; most Muslims are peace-loving; Muslim Spain enjoyed a “golden age” of religious tolerance; Muslims don’t impose Islam on conquered peoples), showing that partial truths do not validate an ideology whose negative aspects mandate its rejection.   

Having evaluated America’s rivals, Prager turns to defending her and her “unique values,” the first of which is liberty (“the essence of the American idea”).  Millions of immigrants, from 1607 onwards, have risked everything seeking various kinds of freedom (religious, political, economic) in this land.  For example:  “More black Africans have immigrated to the United States voluntarily—looking for freedom and opportunity—than came to the United States involuntarily as slaves” (p. 313).   Prizing liberty, many generations of Americans favored limited government because personal “liberty exists in inverse proportion to the size of the state.  The bigger the government/state, the less liberty the individual has.  The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen” (p. 316).  As a God-given right, liberty stands rooted in the very Being of God as revealed in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, and He is absolutely essential as the sustaining Source of all values.   As John Adams insisted:  “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate the government of any other.”  Explaining how these values earlier helped shape America, Prager provides scores of important illustrations regarding such things as individual responsibility, distinctions between good and evil, the sanctity of property, marriage and life.    

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When I began my teaching career in the mid-60s, I routinely taught a history course, Western Civilization, which was most everywhere basic to college curricula.  Two decades later, relocating to a college which had replaced “Western Civilization” with “World Civilizations,” I unsuccessfully argued for a return to the much more focused and manageable course on the West.  As Rodney Stark notes, in How the West Won:  The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity (Wilmington, Delaware:  ISI Books, c. 2014):  “Forty years ago the most important and popular freshman course at the best American colleges and universities was “Western Civilization.”  It not only covered the general history of the West but also included historical surveys of art, music, literature, philosophy, and science.  But this course has long since disappeared from most college catalogues on grounds that Western civilization is but one of the many civilizations and it is ethnocentric and arrogant for us to study ours” (#42).  Thus we witnessed Stanford abandon its “widely admired ‘Western Civilization’ course just months after the Reverend Jesse Jackson came on campus and led members of the Black Student Union in chants of ‘Hey-hey, ho-ho, Western Civ has got to go.’  More recently, faculty at the University of Texas condemned ‘Western Civilization’ courses as inherently right wing, and Yale even returned a $20 million contribution rather than reinstate the course” (#49).  

In light of this, Stark offers his book as a sturdy (indeed, contrarian!) defense of the currently-maligned West.  Doing so, he challenges many of the voguish views of the academy, arguing that the fall of the Roman Empire was in fact beneficial, that the “Dark Ages” never happened, that the Crusades are defensible, that global warming in earlier eras was a blessing, that the “Scientific Revolution” clearly began in the Medieval period rather than the 17th century, that the Protestant Reformers replaced a repressive Catholic system with equally repressive Protestant systems, and that Europe’s colonies impoverished rather than enriched their sponsors.  Still more:  he argues that non-Western societies such as the Chinese and Islamic, Mayan and Indic, failed to become “modern” because of intrinsic factors making such a transition impossible.  To Stark, the West’s distinctiveness resides in its ideas, and contrary to many historians (operating within a generally materialistic—whether Darwinian or Marxist—philosophical perspective) he thinks economic developments do not fully explain why cultures and civilizations rise and fall.  

Glancing at the world of Classical Beginnings (500 BC-AD 500), he finds:  “At the dawn of history most people [whether in China or India or Mesopotamia or Egypt] lived lives of misery and exploitation in tyrannical empires that covered huge areas” (#151).   Subject to arbitrary and frequently despotic rulers, forced to work within a command economy, deprived of secure title to property, the masses of mankind loved poorly.  Consequently, “in 1900 Chinese peasants were using essentially the same tools and techniques that had been using for more than three thousand years.  The same was true in Egypt” (#228).  But then, “In the midst of all this misery and repression a ‘miracle’ of progress and freedom took place in Greece among people who lived not in an empire but in hundreds of small, independent city-states.  It was here that the formation of Western civilization began” (#158).  

Despite the persistence of slavery, the Greeks tasted and celebrated (in both games and politics) the luxury of freedom.  Thriving as individuals, they flourished in such areas as:  warfare; democracy; economics; literary; the arts; technology; speculative philosophy and formal logic.  Importantly (as Herodotus noted in explaining the differences between Egypt and Greece), “the ancient Greeks took the single most significant step toward the rise of Western science when they proposed that the universe is orderly and governed by underlying principles that the human mind could discern through observation and reason” (#473).  This was possible because—as Anaxagoras and Plato saw—there is a Mind (Nous) underlying the physical cosmos—a monotheistic perspective that undergirds the West’s triumphs. 

Anticipating and complementing developments in Greece, Jewish theologians also proclaimed a “rational God” who was eternal, immutable, conscious and revealed to us through both creation and scripture.  Due to Alexander’s conquests and the subsequent Roman occupation of their land, many Jews were quite cosmopolitan—two centuries before Christ Jerusalem was actually known as “Antioch-at-Jerusalem.”  Early Christians such as Justin Martyr drew upon the best Greek thinkers (“Christians before Christ”) as they developed their theology.  Both Christian and Greek philosophers (preeminently Plato) revered “the divine gift of reason” which “has sown the seeds of truth in all men as beings created in God’s image’” (#698).  Thus, to Augustine:  “‘Heaven forbid that God should hate in us that by which he made us superior to the animals.  Heaven forbid that we should believe in such as way as not to accept or seek reasons, since we could not even belief if we did not possess rationals souls’” (#751).  Confidence in the rationality of the Creator—as well as His providential care for creation—enabled later Christian thinkers to do significant the scientific and historical studies basic to Western Civilization.  

By contrast:  “Islam holds that the universe is inherently irrational—that there is no cause and effect—because everything happens as the direct result of Allah’s will at that particular time.  Anything is possible.  Attempts at science, then, are not only foolish but also blasphemous, in that they imply limits to Allah’s power and authority.  Therefore Muslim scholars study law (what does Allah require?), not science” (#825), and Islam, for 1400 years, has demonstrably failed to develop anything comparable to the science and technology, literature and philosophy of the West.  Similarly, in China, the Confucian reverence for the past encouraged an opposition to change clearly illustrated by the great Chinese admiral Zheng He, who led large fleets (involving several hundred ships) across the Indian Ocean to the coast of East Africa between 1405 and 1433 A.D.   His expeditions, which could easily have led to the a Chinese of the globe, came to naught when the emperor dismantled his ships and forbade further construction of oceangoing vessels.  Even the blueprints for Zheng’s ships were destroyed!

Following the fall of Rome (“the most beneficial event in the rise of Western civilization”), the West emerged from the crucible of Greek and Christian culture.  In the “Not-So-Dark” Middle Ages, its genius emerged and flourished.  Political decentralization encouraged creativity and competition, progress and prosperity.  An “agricultural revolution” enabled Medieval Europeans to eat better and live longer—as did the favorable climate during the “Medieval Warming” era (800-1250 A.D.).  “As food became abundant, the population of Europe soared from about 25 million in 950 to about 75 million in 1250” (#2737).  Harnessing wind and water with sophisticated machinery (often shaped in blast furnaces) enabled them to irrigate land and grind grain and navigate seas.  Germans and Scandinavians, Hungarians and Slavs were successfully converted and began contributing to the creative Christian Culture responsible for impressive monuments—Gothic cathedrals; universities at Oxford and Paris; scientific inquires and advances under the guidance of brilliant thinkers such as Nicole Oresme and Jean Buridan; and magisterial scholarly works such as Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica.  

Within that Medieval incubus there emerged, Stark stresses, the “freedom and capitalism” essential for the modern world.  Slavery slowly disappeared throughout Christendom.  It “ended in medieval Europe only because the Church extended its sacraments to all slaves and then banned the enslavement of Christians” (#2349).  Only in the Christian world was slavery eliminated!  Persons were increasingly free (despite the persistence of serfdom) to work voluntarily and creatively—and to increasingly to take part in the political life of their communities.  Capitalism emerged throughout Europe during the late Middle Ages, long before the Protestant Reformation.  Private property, commercial activities flourishing through free markets, and capital investments rendering income all brought about an incredible economic transformation.  Above all else:  “If there is a single factor responsible for the rise of the West, it is freedom.  Freedom to hope.  Freedom to act.  Freedom to invest.  Freedom to enjoy the flirts of one’s dreams as well as one’s labor” (#2663).  This freedom flourished in Medieval Europe and shaped the future of the West.  

Dramatically evident in 1492, the West quickly expanded to control much of the globe in successive centuries.  Technological developments, markedly evident in superior military equipment and trades goods, enabled relatively small groups of Europeans to conquer or colonize the Americas.  They  also proved decisive in numerous conflicts with Muslims, insuring their retreat from Europe.  “In 1800 Europeans controlled 35 percent of the land surface of the globe.  By 1878 this figure had risen to 67 percent.  Then in the next two decades, Europeans seized control of nearly all of Africa, so that in 1914, on the eve of World War I, Europeans dominated 84 percent of the world’s land area” (#6604).  Intellectually, the “Enlightenment” proved equally decisive.  Though it did indeed prompt various heterodox notions, the Enlightenment must be understood, in accord with Alfred North Whitehead, as rooted in many of the scientific and theological insights of Medieval thinkers—most especially the rationality of God and His world.  “For, as Albert Einstein once remarked, the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible:  ‘A priori one should expect a chaotic world which cannot be grasped by the mind in any way . . .  That is the “miracle” which is constantly being reinforced as our knowledge expands.’  And that is the ‘miracle that testifies to a creation guided by intention and rationality” (#5963).   

Due to this “miracle,” we Moderns enjoy unprecedented prosperity.  The standard of living has dramatically increased during the past two centuries.  Enjoying “political freedom, secure property rights, high wages, cheap energy, and a highly educated population,” the West now features an unprecedented quality-of-life.  Back-breaking manual labor has been largely replaced by machines.  Ordinary people enjoy “consumer” goods available only to the super-wealthy in earlier centuries.  Hardly the catastrophe denounced by romantics (from William Wordsworth to Al Gore), technology has greatly improved the lot of ordinary folks.  And this is, quite simply, how the West won!