In this fascinating and disturbing edition of Uncommon Knowledge, Peter Robinson talks to Dennis Prager about Prager’s new book, “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph.”
I will leave the ambiguously dangling modifier in the subtitle aside. Although it is an effort. What I want to talk about is the trinity.
Lower case. Because what Prager spends most of his time extolling in the talk is what he calls the “American trinity,” which he sees referred to in the three phrases on a penny: Liberty, E pluribus unum, and Under God. He explicitly calls for the world’s salvation under this trinity, and discusses various aspects of how allegiance to it will helpfully Americanize the world, which he sees as divided now between three sets of ideas: Islamism, Leftism, and Americanism.
Americanism, in his view, is something like the proper heir to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and subsumes any good, socially beneficial version of either Judaism or Christianity within itself. It can also, he is hasty to point out, subsume Islam in the same way. This fact should, he seems to believe, be a selling point for Muslims, rather than what they are aware of, and object to.
The liberty he talks about is, of course, in a great degree economic liberty, and he has a visceral– and understandable– horror of what he sees as the nihilism of the European welfare state, which he sees as stripping the manly striving from life, stripping life of meaning, turning its paradigmatically French beneficiaries into lotos-eating vacationers.
At one point, Robinson says something that fascinated me, about his perception of Prager’s take on liberty: something (which I maybe butchering) like “The men of the eighteenth century wanted liberty for political reasons, because it was just. Milton Friedman and the pro-marketers of the 1980s wanted liberty because it would give material benefits, prosperity. But you, Dennis– you’re almost Oprah. You want liberty because it will allow you to fulfill yourself.”
And I realized that this is absolutely true. The anxiety that libertarians feel about any governmental intervention in their lives is an existential anxiety. They see on some level the truth that the nation set itself up, in the 19th and 20th centuries, as an alternate Kingdom of God, an alternate religion or source of salvation, and they are hyperaware of Obama’s rhetoric that reinforces this.
What they can’t see is that the economic and political freedom that they depend on is no more identical to spiritual freedom, than political salvation under a strong state is identical to spiritual salvation.
Obviously you can make an argument for political liberty as somehow appropriate to a people made in the image of God. More convincingly, you can make an argument for subsidiarity or sphere sovereignty in which you look at the proper telos of each area of human endeavor, try to figure out what the market and state and family are, in their essences, and assign them appropriate degrees and kinds of authority.
But what you can’t do– and what neocons do all the time– is run in panic from the worship of the state, which is bad, to the worship of the market, as a stand-in for their own existential freedom of will, their own ability to be manly pioneers with smartphones. Neither the visible hand of, say, Bismarck, nor the invisible hand of the market, nor your own ability to fulfill yourself and go after your dreams and create value for others (which is how libertarians tend to talk about the market), will save you.
Not that they are bad. They are all, all good, in their place, according to their order, according to their nature. Yes, even the power of the state. But to explicitly set up Americanism as an alternate trinity, as Prager does, is close to the heart of the problem with modern neoconservatism.