Opinion

JEFF JACOBY

Dennis Prager doth protest too much

Donald Trump spoke to supporters Friday in Johnstown, Pa.
Justin Merriman/Getty Images
Donald Trump spoke to supporters Friday in Johnstown, Pa.

I have been a Dennis Prager fan for a very long time. In the pre-Internet days when he published a newsletter, I was a subscriber. I have read many of his columns and listened to several of his speeches. When his syndicated talk show was on Boston radio, I often tuned in. I not only own most of his books, I’ve kept one in my office at the Globe for years — his 1995 essay collection, “Think a Second Time.”

What I always admired most about Prager’s work was his focus on goodness and decent values as the most important ingredients in a healthy society. Prager, a committed Jew, has often written that God’s primary demand of human beings is kind and ethical behavior. And he has excoriated ideologues who would rather defame their political opponents as bigots or haters than grapple fairly with their arguments.

Imagine, then, how startled I was to find myself charged, in Prager’s latest column, with promoting “gratuitous hatred.” I’m not surprised when such a slur comes from a dogmatic hard-left crank. But from an important ethicist on the Jewish right? One whose outlook has so often tracked with my own? That was certainly unexpected.

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I wrote last week about the hypocrisy of prominent Christian conservatives who declared, in 1998, that Bill Clinton’s moral turpitude made him unfit for the presidency, yet today embrace Donald Trump’s candidacy despite his debauched and unethical character. My column — which used terms like “influential,” “leaders,” “spokesmen,” “formidable televangelist[s]” and “public intellectual[s]” — focused explicitly on the hypocrisy of those in the highest ranks of the religious right. I quoted their unsparing moral disapproval of Clinton, and contrasted it with their far more indulgent line toward Trump. I concluded that such leaders have “shed their principles, and thereby dismantled their influence.”

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Perhaps Prager thinks it’s unfair, for some reason, to contrast what leading conservative moralists said about Clinton then with what they say about Trump now. Perhaps he doesn’t share my sense that they have seriously bruised their own reputations by getting in bed with Trump. But in lashing out with a charge of “gratuitous hatred,” Prager makes a defamatory accusation he cannot back up.

My column didn’t mention Prager, but it could have. For he, too, is on the Trump Train, notwithstanding his decades-long career of championing integrity and Judeo-Christian values. The Republican nominee violates practically every standard of good character, moral courage, empathy, and kindness that Prager has devoted himself to upholding. Yet Prager is all in for Trump. And to conservatives who are shocked to see him abandon his principles in this way, this is his rejoinder: “We hold that defeating Hillary Clinton, the Democrats, and the Left is also a principle. And that it is the greater principle.”

Often and eloquently, Prager has warned that men and women who genuinely care about goodness can be so distracted by the pursuit of other values, even meaningful and admirable ones, that they end up defending the indefensible. “The Other Gods We Worship,” he called them in a published essay, giving examples such as beauty, love, reason, nationalism, and success. Partisan loyalty wasn’t on his list, but it certainly belongs there. For contemporary American politics, and especially the current presidential campaign, has been one long, dispiriting seminar in how far people will go to support their party and its candidate — and how easy it can be to make the most odious compromises, or tolerate the most repellent rhetoric and tactics, once they have convinced themselves that the other party and its candidate must be stopped at all costs.

I share Prager’s view that a Hillary Clinton presidency would be disastrous for America. I will not vote for her. But I am not so preoccupied with “defeating Hillary Clinton, the Democrats, and the Left” that I can rationalize away Trump’s rotten character. For me, the most disheartening aspect of the whole Trump phenomenon has been the sight of so many good, principled people deciding that their good principles need not keep them from marching behind Trump’s squalid banner.

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Prager is a close reader of the Hebrew Bible, which for many years he taught verse-by-verse. So he is familiar with a curious juxtaposition in the book of Deuteronomy. At the end of Chapter 16, two commandments, utterly unrelated, are bracketed together. Verses 18-20 enjoin the Israelites to appoint “judges and officials” who are honest, impartial, and incorruptible; immediately afterward, verses 21 and 22 categorically forbid idolatry. The rabbis of antiquity, always alert to such nuances in the text, derived from this one a lesson about integrity in government: For a society to appoint unworthy officials, the Talmud teaches, is as vile as setting up idols to be worshiped. And in Jewish tradition, idolatry is as revolting a sin as murder.

Integrity and decency are indispensable to good government, and it is important to say so no matter who is running for president. Conservative moralists rightly drove that point home when a deceitful Democrat was in the spotlight. Their clarity shouldn’t falter in the face of an immoral Republican. Dear Dennis Prager, do you really believe it is “gratuitous hatred” to expect such consistency? Let me respectfully suggest that you Think a Second Time.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.