Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks often of his religion—but he tailors it to fit his politics, and it focuses on works over faith
Last week I had the pleasure of smoking cigars with radio talk show host Dennis Prager in his library. There we were, a 69-year-old Jew from Brooklyn and a 30-year-old Christian from South Korea, pontificating about God and country, surrounded by rosewood bookshelves and thick cigar smoke that we blew in circles to the ceiling.
Prager normally has a deep, calm voice, but it rose a notch when we talked about leftism: “They’ve been taught that America is essentially a bad society, that capitalism is bad, that free market is bad, that America is racist and imperialist. That’s not true: America is the freest society ever made, the greatest, most successful experiment!” Even as a yeshiva-attending boy, Prager always knew that America was a force for good against evil, he said. “People should wake up every day and say how lucky they are to be American—I do.”
His statements reminded me of an older woman I met at a fundraising luncheon for a senator in Montana. With great earnestness she told me, “I truly believe that God has a special purpose for America. We’re the greatest nation ever established in the world for that reason.”
I remember mentally wrinkling my nose: “Wait a minute—don’t other countries also have great and, yes, exceptional qualities too?” As a missionary’s kid, I’ve seen God’s special love and purpose for people of other tribes and nations—so what makes America so different and special? For almost half my life, I’ve lived in countries where everything from healthcare to public transportation seem to run way more efficiently than in America, and where mass shootings, drug overdoses, homelessness, and racial riots are far rarer than we see in this country. So what makes America so great?
I had not always felt this way. I had a star-spangled image of America even before I moved here. My parents taught me that America was founded on Judeo-Christian values, and comparing that with the roots of shamanism, Islamism, and paganism in both East Asia and Southeast Asia where I grew up, America sounded like a modern version of King David-era Israel to me.
The people sounded so nice, too: My parents, who grew up in post-war Korea and lost family members to communist North Korea, painted Americans as friendly liberators. They remember the American soldiers and missionaries who passed out cornbread and chewing gum to children, who built churches and hospitals and children’s homes, and who actually smiled—full smiles with teeth and all!—at them. My father remembers peering into the window of an American missionary’s house, and the sight of the whole family gathered around the table, singing hymns and reading the Bible, left a vivid impression on him.
As a kid growing up in Singapore, my few encounters with Americans were of white tourists in cargo shorts and visors, gleaming with not just sweat but wide smiles and exclamation-pointed expressions. Asians didn’t smile half as much as these Americans, so I wondered why they always looked so happy. I had a simple answer to that: They were Christians living in a Christian country, raised in Christian homes and churches. Their facial countenance must reflect that inbred Christianness.
When I was 14, my family and I immigrated to the capital of that greatest country on earth. Civics quickly became my favorite subject in school. I thought the Constitution was the greatest document created by mankind, a near-perfect system of governance. I fell in love with the movie 1776 and with all the Founding Fathers, particularly John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Even though I was not yet a U.S. citizen, I felt proud of the ideals and accomplishments of the great United States of America.
Then one day in eighth grade, I brought my Bible to school to prove a theological point to my Roman Catholic friend. Another friend, a professed Christian, saw my leather-bound Bible and gasped with wide eyes: “You can’t bring that here.” I was annoyed: “Huh?” She shook her head: “You can’t bring a Bible to school. We believe in separation of church and state.” I ignored her, but inside I was confused: If I can’t even bring my Bible to school without offending a fellow Christian, then what’s all this gabble about America being a beacon of liberty?
Then 9/11 happened, and after a brief moment of national unity, America seemed to disintegrate into racial and ideological splinters. Over time, I read literature about American imperialism, systematic racism, and income and gender inequality. These texts criticized America as much as the terrorists who sought our destruction. In slow motion, they shattered my image of America as a diversity-championing nation that practices the self-evident truth that all men are created equal. My star-spangled picture of America lost its stars and spangles, leaving me with disappointment and cynicism.
I’m not the only one: I was in college when a video clip of HBO’s The Newsroom went viral. In it, Jeff Daniels’ character rants that America is not the greatest nation in the world, and includes a jab at religious people who believe in angels. My schoolmates blasted the video across social media, praising the mic-drop wisdom of his soliloquy. I was also in college when the Occupy Wall Street movement championed its “We are the 99 percent” narrative. The camps and posters are now gone, but its revolutionary, populist spirit and language were grafted onto various platforms, including the Democratic Party and antifa. Within that warfare against “income inequality” is the alluring sentiment that America may have been great for the 1 percent elites, but not so great for the other 99 percent.
Recently, rapper and actor Donald Glover (known also by alter ego Childish Gambino) released a new music video that stirred a sensation across the internet. “This Is America” is both a tragedy and a screed in the form of entertainment that’s dark, maudlin, and symbol-rich. Since its release, critics have dissected to pieces its commentary on America’s history of violent white supremacy, gun violence, the perils of black existentialism, materialism, and a society that entertains itself into stupidity. This is America? That’s a long way from being the greatest country in the world.
Like me, Dennis Prager was in college when his peers questioned America’s greatness. “I couldn’t believe that there were so many in my generation who hated America,” he recalled. “They thought Ho Chi Minh is a good man, that Mao Zedong is a good man. No! They were terrible men who killed millions of people.”
I couldn’t believe that there were so many in my generation who hated America. —Dennis Prager
Prager has a theory about why so many people no longer believe America is great: They have lost their knowledge of and reverence for the Bible, or God’s Word—the source of all wisdom. Instead, the religion of leftism has filled the God-sized hole in their souls that still longs for purpose and moral structure. Instead of time-tested truths, they chase the convictions of their own hearts.
For Prager, seeing the moral and rational confusion only solidified his Jewish faith and patriotism. Today he still holds that America is the greatest nation in the world because it’s the first country with a system of government designed from its inception on what Prager calls the “American Trinity”: Liberty, In God We Trust, and E Pluribus Unum (From Many, One). And on a personal level for me, that American Trinity is what helped save my native South Korea from communism. We all see how North Korea turned out.
At 69, Prager has lived many lives as an insulated Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn, an agent for the state of Israel in the Soviet Union, and a public intellectual whose popular PragerU video series continues to attract a huge audience of viewers mostly 35 and under. He has visited 130 countries, engaged with thought leaders across all political and religious spectrums, and watched movements rise and fall. If Prager can witness all that, and still so confidently believe that America is the greatest country on earth ... well, that’s something for me, a U.S. citizen est. 2013, to seriously consider.