Narration: America remains the most powerful country on Earth, but does it face existential threats to the very identity of who she is?
Matt Schlapp: Sure, if we embrace socialism or if we allow external elements like radical Islamic
terrorists and such to disrupt our societies.
Narration: America was founded on an idea. What is that idea all about?
Matt Spalding: It raises the question about what it means to be a human, what it means to have an order, a political order that is designed to allow the fulfillment of the human soul and liberty.
Narration: Can the nation go back to its original design?
Matt Spalding: It is not about going back to the 18th century, it is not about getting rid of technology and changing our lives. It is not going back at all. It is about looking up.
Simone Gao: Do you think America can achieve true liberty without faith?
Matt Schlapp: That’s is a great question. I think individuals can adhere to liberty without faith. But I think for America, for the American government experience to really work, it has to be grounded on eternal truths that emanate almost always from faith traditions.
Dennis Prager: The Liberty Bell, which is the iconic figure of American history, of the founding of America, has one verse on it, one statement, and it’s from the Bible: “You shall proclaim liberty throughout your land to all its inhabitants.”
Simone Gao: Welcome to “Zooming In.” I’m Simone Gao. This year, “Zooming In” went to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, better known as CPAC. We met with conservative activists and opinion leaders who are tackling the nation’s biggest challenges: the border crisis, socialism, China threat, turmoil in the Middle East, and so on. None of these challenges are easy. But the solution to all these problems ultimately hinges on who we as Americans think we are and what we stand for. Yes, we have a crisis going on in this country, but the existential threat we truly face is the threat to our identity. America was founded on an idea. This idea has carried us for over a quarter of a millennium and made us the most powerful and prosperous nation on the planet. But today, we may need to re-examine whether this idea truly facilitates mankind’s ultimate purpose. And if it does, how do we carry the torch forward? I hope you enjoy these conversations as much as we enjoyed engaging with some of the finest minds in the country.
Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated conservative radio talk show host. He also founded PragerU.
Simone Gao: Would you talk about maybe the philosophical and theological origin of the concept of freedom?
Dennis Prager: Sure. There’s a Liberty Bell in America, which probably the great majority of young people in America never heard of, because they’re not taught American history except that it’s a bunch of slaves and bigots and genocidal maniacs. But the Liberty Bell, which is the iconic figure of American history, of the founding of America, has one verse on it, one statement, and it’s from the Bible: “You shall proclaim liberty throughout your land to all its inhabitants,” from the third book of the Bible, Leviticus. They knew that freedom is dependent upon a God who wants us to be free. In other words, it’s a tiny bit complex, but it’s critically important what you asked. They knew that human beings are not basically good, that it’s very hard to make good people. And anyone who denies that obviously went to college because you have to learn something foolish. It doesn’t normally exist in people to believe silly things. After the 20th century’s genocides and Auschwitz to believe people were basically good is to be a fool. And they knew we’re not basically good. These were people drenched in Biblical outlook. So they said, look, we have two choices: people will either be accountable to the government or to God. In order to be free, we have to have small government. So, therefore, they have to be morally accountable to God. That’s how freedom and God are utterly interrelated in American history.
Simone Gao: Why does God want us to be free?
Dennis Prager: You’ll have to ask God. My answer, but I’m not God, is that God wants what is best for us. If God didn’t want us to be free, he wouldn’t have given us free will.
Simone Gao: Do you think America can achieve true freedom without faith?
Dennis Prager: It’s impossible. It won’t achieve anything. America will be like every other place with the decline of God, of Judeo-Christian values, and the Bible. And that’s what the left wants, it wants us to be like every other place. They want this to be Belgium between Canada and Mexico. That’s the nightmare that I work against, that America will be like other countries.
Simone Gao: Can you tell me from a more philosophical perspective on why we cannot achieve true liberty without faith?
Dennis Prager: Because I am—well, first of all, we can’t achieve true freedom without faith because if there is no God, there is no free will. If there is no God, then all I am is matter. Matter has no free will. I am made out of stellar matter. Stars and I are made out of the same thing. Stars don’t have free will. I don’t have free will. There is no secular philosopher who believes we have free will, and if he does, he’s not secular. They acknowledge that it’s just a bunch of neurons that are firing that make any decision. There is no free will. Only those who believe in God believe that there is free will because there is a me, a Dennis, independent of my chemistry. So number one, to answer you, freedom itself, free will, is dependent upon there being a God. And number two is the one that the Founding Fathers understood. People can only be free as the government shrinks. But the government can only shrink if people feel morally accountable to God.
Simone Gao: Do you think there is an existential threat to America in terms of what makes America, America?
Dennis Prager: Completely. The Left is worried about the existential threat of global warming, and I am worried about the existential threat of the Left.
Simone Gao: Do you think today’s American people can still go back to the path our Founding Fathers?
Dennis Prager: Yes, I do believe that. And that’s what my life’s work at this time, just personally, is involved in. My five-volume commentary on the Bible, to make people who have no religious background aware of how great a work it is. It’s called the “Rational Bible,” I know this sounds like an ad, I don’t care. Nobody writes a Bible commentary to get rich, so I have no problem in stating that people, if they read the “Rational Bible,” there’s a good chance they will say, hmm, maybe there really is a God.
Simone Gao: So you think that’s the way for—
Dennis Prager: That’s the only way. We have to. And we have to use reason, because we can’t just say believe, believe, believe. We have to say there is reason to believe. Reason without God is as useless as God without reason. God wants us to use reason, there’s actually a verse to that effect in Deuteronomy, but God wants us to use reason, and reason necessitates God. I come to God 100 percent through reason. My faith is completely dependent upon reason. I admit it.
Simone Gao: Can you explain that?
Dennis Prager: Yeah. I’m not prepared to take anything just on faith. I want to see the evidence. I want to see—the evidence for God’s existence is overwhelming. Charles Krauthammer, may he rest in peace, I interviewed him a number of times, and I didn’t interview him on politics. He was an agnostic, total agnostic, totally secular man, and he said the only stupid idea is atheism. The idea that everything came from nothing is just stupid. I mean, it was amazing the way he put it down, and the guy was a completely secular man, no religion in his life that I knew of or that he spoke of, but he understood that on rational grounds alone, the case for God is much stronger than the case for atheism.
Simone Gao: Are you talking about the existence of God, like miracles?
Dennis Prager: Miracles are faith. I fully acknowledge miracles are faith. But whether or not the world came about on its own or there was a first cause, that’s not faith. That’s reason. I agree, yes. Jesus walking on water is a statement of faith. Moses splitting the sea is a statement of faith. I get it. I understand that. But that there is a Creator and it didn’t all come by itself, that’s reason.
Simone Gao: Why do you think there is anti-Semitism?
Dennis Prager: Well, I wrote a book explaining anti-Semitism. It’s called “Why the Jews.” It’s—you ask very good and very big questions I might add. There is anti-Semitism because people hate the fact that the Jews brought in a judge into the world. People want to do what they want, and the Jews brought in a transcendent judge. This is not being as a Jew saying it. This is what Christians who have written on anti-Semitism have said. And even though most Jews don’t believe this, it’s irrelevant. This is at the root of it. Jew hatred is unique. There are 215 countries or so in the world. Only one is targeted for extinction. Only one. The Jewish state, the size of New Jersey. People have to explain that. You know, a lot of countries hate each other. India and Pakistan hate each other. No Indian is advocating the eradication of Pakistanis. No Pakistani is advocating the eradication of Indians. But the enemies of Israel—look, Iran admits it, we want to exterminate Israel. And there’s got to be a reason. Jew hatred is unique, and I explain it in the book.
Matt Schlapp is the Chairman of the American Conservative Union hosting organization of the Conservative Political Action Conference also known as CPAC.
Simone Gao: At the center of American values is liberty. Tell me what liberty means to you.
Matt Schlapp: Liberty to me is a synonym of freedom. And to me that means that God gives us the ability to make choices for our own individual life.
Simone Gao: And do you think America can achieve true liberty without faith?
Matt Schlapp: That’s a great question. I think individuals can adhere to liberty without faith, but I think for America, for the American government experience to really work, it has to be grounded on eternal truths that emanate almost always from faith traditions.
Simone Gao: ACU is all about small government. Tell me why an ever-more growing, ever-more redistributive government defeats the purpose of America.
Matt Schlapp: Well, I mean, eventually—you’re asking a question about socialism. And socialism is not consistent with Americanism. America was established primarily to allow individuals to chart their life and not to have government chart our lives. So I think that type of ideology fails everywhere it’s tried. It hurts people. It hurts the poor. It hurts the middle class, and I really hope America will reject it.
Simone Gao: Do you think America faces an existential threat as to what makes America, America?
Matt Schlapp: Sure, if we embrace socialism or if we allow external elements like radical Islamic terrorists and such to disrupt our society. So, yeah, we have a lot of challenges. We have to worry about China. We have to worry about people around the globe that simply just don’t share our values. But, once again, I’m hopeful about the future of our country
Simone Gao: President Trump pledged that we will never become a socialist country, but some people on the Left argue that as long as we have free enterprises, we are not going to be a socialist country. Do you agree?
Matt Schlapp: No, I don’t agree. Socialism is not just about economics. Socialism is about the government controlling your life. So you want to have free markets, but you also want to have free minds.
Simone Gao: Is China a friend or foe?
Matt Schlapp: They’re our number one national security threat on the globe. No question.
Matt Spalding is the Associate Vice President and Dean of Education Programs for Hillsdale College in Washington D.C.
Simone Gao: Can you explain the philosophical and theological origins of the concept of freedom?
Matthew Spalding: That’s a very large question. But the way I put it in my panel this morning, and I think the key thing to it is oftentimes we speak of freedom or liberty as a thing in and of itself, but it’s really—what’s the grounding behind it that really gives it life. And the argument really of the Western tradition going back to the Greeks and the Romans, and eventually up to and including the American founding, was that the development of liberty is based on an assumption of what man is or what it means to be human grounded in human nature, whether you understand that nature to be a theological creation and we are endowed by our creator, as it says in the Declaration of Independence or if you understand it in a philosophical sense that we have a nature, and the nature of being human is different from the nature of being an animal or being a table, right? And that puts you on this other road to, well, what is required to fulfill that nature to be fully human. And a crucial aspect of that is freedom, freedom of being able to do things, to choose one’s life, but also, crucially, to have freedom of the higher expressions, whether it’s intellectual freedom in the academic sense or especially religious freedom to pursue an understanding of the highest and most important things.
But even in the general sense that I think we must understand it, what we must have for it to be truly liberty at all is a sense of the transcendence, that there is something—setting aside for a moment what it might be—but there’s something larger than us. There’s something outside of us. There’s something that is more perfect than us. And if you have that, that has the effect of kind of moderating your individual passions and your sense of it’s all about me. And that–I think that’s the beginning of the journey, if you will. And the fulfillment of that then takes you down that path, I think, towards higher understandings of what revealed religion tells us.
Simone Gao: Do you think we can achieve true liberty or freedom without faith?
Matthew Spalding: No, I don’t think you can. I think the question is how much and to what specificity do we need it. But even at the most basic sense, for instance, if you take the Declaration of Independence, you can read that as a very theological document. We are all created equal, man in endowed with rights, it speaks of divine providence. But you can also read it in a very general sense of a creator, theological understanding that’s not specifically, say, Christian.
Simone Gao: A natural law type kind of thing.
Matthew Spalding: Yeah, kind of a natural law, natural theology. But my point is you really can’t read that document and get liberty out of it in any meaningful sense without having a basic semblance of what we would call faith. Right? There is a God. There is something outside of us greater than us that transcends us. And if you don’t have that, not only do you have the possibility of—well, it’s kind of man versus man and force. But it’s also just you. It’s very disheartening, but also it’s not conducive to fulfilling what I think, even in just a natural sense, what it means to be human. You’re not complete. And it’s a very small, a very selfish notion of freedom and liberty, which I don’t think was at all the idea of liberty intended as it’s developed over all these thousands of years back to the Greeks and Romans. It really loses its content. Now, what you might—what that faith might specifically require or what it might mean or the details of its content, that’s actually left, not to the political realm, this is the way in which the separation of church and state is actually a good concept. It kind of creates the framework by which we have to recognize that general sense of faith. But then the particulars of that are left to you and your church and your faith. And the job of government and politics is merely to protect that but also to see it flourish. And in that sense, it’s extremely friendly, especially to Christianity, which is so much drawn towards every individual. Everyone is equal in the eyes of God, and everyone has the same hopes and opportunities in fulfillment of their faith.
Simone Gao: Total equality, this concept also comes from faith, right? Everybody is created equal; everybody is made in the image of God.
Matthew Spalding: The idea of equality, which of course is at the center of the American idea, is a debated concept, it has been historically. And one way to look at it is we are equal in the very small sense, the technical sense. But I think the way it was meant as it really developed more fully is we are equal in the sense that we are humans. But that means something. It doesn’t mean we’re just kind of like chairs at a table because it means something to be human. And really the growth of this idea of equality is really fueled by the rise of Christianity in history because Christianity is the religion that comes along and says, no, religion isn’t about this people or this race or this country. It’s about everyone. And you’re all equally children of God. And you are all equally—it’s equal for all of you to come into the kingdom. So Christianity really fuels this greater understanding of Christianity. And I think America is shaped largely by Christianity but also by—you have this tradition of British rule of law and a philosophical tradition. It kind of comes together into the way the American Founders understood it in, say, the Declaration and in general, which is that what they meant by equality was this fuller sense of you’re equally human, you equally have your right to your life, your liberty, which they didn’t think meant doing whatever you want. It meant human liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which of course doesn’t mean anything you want to do, it means you should pursue happiness, which is of course a great classical term for fulfillment in an intellectual and moral sense.
Simone Gao: Yes. That’s different from happiness, just like human desire, that type of happiness.
Matthew Spalding: Exactly, right. Today, of course, happiness means I can do whatever I want. But, no, that’s not what they meant. They meant happiness in a larger sense, but also the pursuit of, which is to say you don’t have a right to happiness, but you have a right to pursue it, which is a life-long journey in the sense of we’re pilgrims to happiness.
Simone Gao: Do you think there’s an existential threat to the founding principles of America, of what makes America, America?
Matthew Spalding: There is, there definitely is. It’s been developing for some time. And the threat here is not—let me use a quote. Abraham Lincoln, in one of his early, famous speeches said that no other country will defeat us. No country in Europe could come here and take a drink out of the Mississippi. That’s not how it’s going to happen. If we’re going to die, Lincoln said, we will die by suicide, which is there’s something about a Democratic Republic in that sense that our continued existence, our continued survival depends upon what we believe. And if we come to the point where we no longer believe these truths and we don’t live by them, then, yes, we will decline and this great nation will be something less that might exist, but it won’t be the same thing. And so the threat here is an intellectual, moral threat. More and more, a deeper understanding of our ideas has been replaced by a sense of relativism that there’s no truth, it’s merely relative what you think, what I think, and historicism, that ideas are—what we think today and what we think in the past, well, those are old ideas and we don’t need to believe those anymore. The modern academy, the modern culture and the media have really eaten away at these ideas to the point where if you think there’s—if we as a culture believe there’s—well, the Constitution, that’s always debated, that’s not important, but the real problem is if it goes behind that to say that the idea that there are things we can know, like all men are created equal or if we can’t know those fundamental things, then it’s like losing the wheels on your car. You’re in an extremely dangerous spot as a political culture, but also as a society.
Simone Gao: Right. Because America is founded on an idea. If that idea is no longer believed, then this country’s gone basically.
Matthew Spalding: Well that, but also if the idea becomes something else. So I believe there is a natural yearning in the human soul to know the truth of things. But more and more that that’s suppressed or the academy doesn’t teach that or our culture doesn’t uphold that, people look elsewhere. And they look to pop culture, they look to some cause or whatever it might be.
Simone Gao: So do you think, fundamentally, the founding principles of this country facilitate the human beings’ ultimate purpose?
Matthew Spalding: On the one hand we can say we love America because of this particular thing, or I’m from here, or I live here, but what’s really great about it is the sense in which it transcends history. It makes a claim that these things are true, they were true in 1776. They were true at the Civil War. They’re true today. Either that’s true or it’s not. If it’s not true, then where are we? It wasn’t true before either. But if it is true, it’s not merely historically true. It raises the question about what does it mean to be human. What does it mean to have an order, a political order that’s designed to allow for the fulfillment of the human soul and liberty. I think those truths are still true today as much as they were then. And the question is how do we revive and rekindle all of that.
Simone Gao: Can today’s American people still go back to the path that what our Founding Fathers have set forth?
Matthew Spalding: Well, I think the answer is yes. But it’s not going back is my point. Because when we say go back, people—it means historically going back. Well, no, that’s not what we mean. It’s not about going back to the 18th century. It’s not going about getting rid of technology and changing our lives. It’s not going back at all. It’s about looking up. If there’s a natural sense in the human soul to know those things, which means to rule ourselves, to self-govern, to make our own decisions about the most important things. If that is true, which I think it is true, I think the Founders were right about that, because it was true a long time before they wrote about them, then there’s always a possibility of recovery. And the question is where do you go or what taps into that. It’s oftentimes a political debate or debates over a particular thing. But also something that—but also revives a religious sense, an awakening, there might be events that shape that. But those things I think are always possible. And in a time of turmoil, which we have today, things are getting more difficult, the battles are getting more intense and more divisive, that I actually would argue, is oddly enough, a fertile ground for having a serious recovery of the most important ideas.
Simone Gao: I want to know about that later, but today we probably don’t have time.
Matthew Spalding: Thanks so much.