Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Dennis Prager's Broken Moral Compass

Do I Care That It's Broken?

There's a nebulous line you cross without knowing it, such as when your marriage got stale or when you got old. One such line for me is whether the previous Dennis Prager (an articulate if misguided purist of "moral clarity" who challenged me to clarify my own views, like Larry Elder and Ward Connerly) has morphed into a new Dennis Prager (apologist for a morally indefensible stance out of political or ideological zeal, whom I usually ignore, like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, and Lou Dobbs).

My friend Brendan Keefe has a stimulating blog on this subject that I recommend that you read. It stimulated me to continue this discussion on my own blog. Without his blog entry, I would have written Dennis Prager off.

Instead, I will give Mr. Prager one last chance to clarify his thinking by clarifying my own.

Dennis Prager's Love Affair With the Christian Right

Before you read on, please read Dennis Prager's own words at America, Not Keith Ellison, decides what book a congressman takes his oath on. It will ensure that you will not let me get away with a strawman or ad hominem attack. This topic is too important for that.

In summary, Keith Ellison (D-Minn) is the first person of Muslim faith to be elected to the U.S. Congress. He has announced his intention to place his hand on a copy of the Koran while taking his oath of office. Dennis Prager says he should not be allowed to do so:

Forgive me, but America should not give a hoot what Keith Ellison's favorite book is. Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible.

Given that Dennis Prager is famous for his skewering of Democrats in power under Clinton for allegedly "losing their moral compass", it is strangely ironic that Prager has now lost his. The First Amendment clearly states that the "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof".

Even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a Constitutional literalist, would have to admit that the use of a Bible cannot be prescribed by Congress, for it is already proscribed by the Constitution.

The more interesting question is:

Why does Dennis Prager advocate this?

I induce a chain of logic that seems to guide Dennis Prager's thinking:

  1. Israel (and Jews) are under threat worldwide.
  2. America is the strongest world power.
  3. Protestant Christians are America's (potentially) strongest demographic.
  4. Christianity is closer to Judaism than Islam.
  5. Americans have always had (and continue to have) a strong dislike of Islam and distrust of Muslims.
  6. American Christians have historically disdained Jews but have seen the error of their ways. Rapturists are now stronger supporters of Israel than many Jews.
  7. Jews have historically mistrusted Christians, and continue to do so. They have had good reason to do so, given historic anti-Semitism which didn't start to turn around until the U.S. under Harry Truman (against the advice of his Cabinet) recognized the State of Israel on May 14, 1948 and continued to be fashionable until the 1980's.
  8. ???
  9. Israel is secure under the protection of America. American Jews are more secure under the umbrella of American Protestant Christians.

What is the missing ??? in Dennis Prager's thinking (as best I can induce it)?

Hypothesis 1

  1. Jews must embrace American Christians (especially Protestants) because of Christians' natural affinity with Jews in supporting Israel and religious practice (e.g. support for Israel, belief in the Old Testament).

What evidence is there for this?

  1. Politically conservative Jewish organizations (such as Jews Against Anti-Christian Defamation) have been increasingly joining the fight in favor of displaying Christian religious symbols (manger scene, crosses, bibles in swearing-in ceremonies)
  2. Judeo-Christian has replaced Christian as the favored phrase for our underlying value system among conservatives
  3. Dennis Prager has himself said so.

Hypothesis 2

Maybe he (secretly) thinks the opposite?

  1. Jews must embrace American Christians (especially Protestants) — despite their religiously motivated patronizing and persistent attempts to convert them — because the greater threat is that the natural affinity with Jews of underdogs like secularists, gays, and minorities is destroying Judaism gradually through assimilation and moral relativism.

This line of reasoning assumes (hopes?) that an ongoing distrust among rank-and-file Jews and Christians will continue and act as a countervailing force against assimilation and plays into the fears of the majority of mainstream American Jews and rabbis, as articulated by Bradley Hirschfield, an Orthodox rabbi and vice president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, that Christianity, though neutral toward Judaism, is not good for Jews.

Does It Matter?

It is no accident that Jews were the first to head to the Deep South to defend the civil rights of African Americans, promote the voting rights of women and minorities, defend the institution of public education through public service in L.A. schools (despite the small Jewish population in schools), and embrace gay civil rights when Christians launched a culture war against them under the current President.

It is an ongoing and noble legacy that Dennis Prager seems eager to betray in his embrace of the moral majority. This is a fool's bargain. It is illogical to assume that hatred of Muslims in the heartland will translate into love of Jews.

Now that Dennis Prager has so ardently embraced Judeo-Christian ecumenism, perhaps he will take to heart the quote from Mark 8:26 "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" (KJV)

This is a question that American Jews should ask themselves before embracing the brave new world of Dennis Prager.


bjkeefe said...

You know more about DP than I do, stipulated. Nonetheless, I am hard-pressed to credit him with the amount of brain power required to support your hypothesis of his thinking.

There's no question that there are any number of creepy fundies who are fixated on Jews being in Israel as part of their twisted End Times fantasies.

I think you're also right about the alliance of convenience between the extremist rabbis and preachers, an enemy of my enemy sort of thing. There's also no doubt that plenty from both of those camps share a delusion that they should be telling the rest of us how to run our sex lives. (Although, in this last case, I wonder if world peace could be achieved from this common ground, to be shared with the radical imams. ;^) )

Based on his piece, however, I thought DP sounded way too shallow to be credited with actually having thought before typing. I read it as a pure spewing of prejudice. I suppose he could be smarter than he came off. If so, he was guilty of something far more sinister than idiocy; namely, preaching to the idiots in words they want to hear.

On another note, do I take your expressed desire to avoid ad hominem attacks as a subtle dig at my mocking DP's bio's glitches? I probably deserve it, but I couldn't resist.

Unknown said...

Dennis Prager has released a "response to his many critics" (I being one), though he does not address most of my points in it.

He claims to have "found virtually no left-wing blog that was not filled with obscenity-laced descriptions of [him]" and I will have to take him at his word...

...unless he is actually using obscenity as a litmus test to classify blogs as left-wing or conservative (he assymetrically does not use the phrase right-wing). Maybe I should explicitly disclose in my blog that I self-identify as a Liberal, so that my blog does not get erroneously classified.

I hope he will quantify the phrase "virtually no". That means to me something less than 5 percent. I also hope that he does not commit the logical fallacy of repaying one ad hominem attack (obscenity) with another (you are obscene, therefore your argument is wrong/worthless). I would assume with his strong experience in debate that he would dismiss and filter out extraneous noise without reacting overly to it. In any event, he will not find (directed) obscenity on my blog.

Meanwhile, I will respond to his statement.

Dennis Prager commits the logical fallacy of appealing to widespread belief in asserting that:

"Many office holders who do not believe in the Bible at all or who reject some part have nevertheless used the Bible at their swearing-in (I noted this in my column). Even the vast majority of Jews elected to office have used a Bible containing both the Old and New Testaments, even though Jews do not regard the New Testament as part of their Bible."

"I agree with the tens of thousands of office holders in American history..."

In fact, the wisdom of swearing an oath (that one believes) on a book in which one does not believe does not depend on the number of people doing so, and he would have done well to omit these two sentences from his argument.

I believe that the act of hypocrisy both diminishes the credibility of the oath being made and gives the impression of a belief in a lack of good faith on the part of others also making such an oath.

"You don't have to be Christian to acknowledge that the Bible is the source of America's values. Virtually every founder of this country knew that and acknowledged it."

"It was understood from the beginning of the republic that liberty is derived from God, not from man alone."

Prager is assuming here the Scalia argument of Original Intent. This is a point that divides Right and Left in society. It is an open question. By presupposing the conclusion of this argument here, he is committing the fallacy of assuming the consequent. It is exactly this argument, the meaning of the First Amendment, on which this entire discussion is based. In this sense, Dennis Prager's "response" is no response at all, rather a restatement of the argument. Perhaps it is Justice Scalia that we should be talking to after all.

bjkeefe said...

You gotta love the thin skin: "… actually, more hate-filled attacks on me than civil discussion …," especially when you consider that his original column was nothing more than hate speech itself.

I agree with you, Dan, on the matter of "Many office holders who do not believe in the Bible at all or who reject some part have nevertheless used the Bible at their swearing-in." I have to wonder about the sincerity of someone who would take an oath using a symbol they don't believe in. Admittedly, this is doubtless just a matter of practical consideration on the part of those who are taking office but don't believe in the Bible. They figure, "Who needs to stir up the nuts like Prager?" This understanding of such politicians, however, only makes me have more respect for Congressman Ellison's decision to be up-front about his convictions.

The rest of DP's response article is too filled with inconsistencies and weak rationalizations for me to have much interest in continuing to speak against it. He works from an entirely different set of axioms than do I. I find his core beliefs objectionable and the reasoning stemming from them highly flawed. Besides, you have already done a pretty good job.

As for the potty mouth of us lefties, I say, Fuck Dennis Prager. His attitude is far more obscene than any collection of Anglo-Saxon monosyllables.

bjkeefe said...

BTW, I notice that DP's headline was "A response to my many critics - and a solution."

I am unable to find a solution in his article. He certainly does not highlight it; excluding the headline, the word "solution" does not appear anywhere in his text.

I suppose he might have meant by "solution" the idea that Ellison should bring a Bible in addition to the Koran. If so, I just have to laugh. A sop is not a solution.

I don't like any religious trappings associated with any part of government, of course. To my mind, just taking the oath would be the way to go.

Unknown said...

I hate to quote myself quoting Jesus, but since the Right Wing claims to follow his teachings:

"Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, 'Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.' But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God's throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black. Let your 'Yes' mean 'Yes,' and your 'No' mean 'No.' Anything more is from the evil one." Matt 5:33-37

Jesus weighs in: Put the Bible (or Koran) down and just tell us: do you intend to do the job right or not. Yes or No. I do (or don't). Good enough for marriage vows, but not enough for public service?

What more do we need to know? No amount of holy books and oaths will deter a liar from lying, and none are needed for an honest person to be honest.

The real bait-and-switch is that everyone's worrying about which book. The real question is, why an oath at all?

Full disclosure: In the above I shamelessly exploit the fallacy of invoking the Wisdom of the Ancients. I personally reject the Jesus quote as adding any validity whatever to my argument. But I dare my worthy Judeo-Christian interlocutors to call me on it!