‘Truth is the left’s mortal enemy’ — a conversation with Dennis Prager
The founder of PragerU is on a quest to get more people — especially young people — to embrace Judeo-Christian values
Conservative religious people are increasingly nervous about saying what they are thinking, especially in public.
But not Dennis Prager.
Since 1970, Prager, 74, has been raising his voice — and not about easy topics. He began as a spokesman for the group Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry and the Brandeis-Bardin Institute; at the time, he was called a “Jewish Billy Graham.” Then Prager got his first radio job in 1982 at flagship station KABC in Los Angeles. Within 10 years, he was a fixture there, and in another decade, he was nationally syndicated and heard on nearly 400 stations.
That would be a satisfying stopping place for most people. But at the suggestion of friend Allen Estrin, the producer of his radio show, Prager decided to start an online platform using 5-minute videos to reach a larger audience. The result was PragerU.
Although our current media environment incentives people to say whatever is popular, this platform, called PragerU, has taken another route. The content on PragerU, a registered nonprofit, speaks plainly to the hardest and most sensitive questions of the day, from gender ideology and racial politics, to climate change and the traditional family.
Presenters, who are not paid except occasionally for travel, have included conservative luminaries such as Robert C. O’Brien, Nikki Haley, Robert P. George, Rod Dreher, Jordan Peterson, Candace Owens, Carol Swain and Victor Davis Hanson.
As Prager says, “My life’s mission has been to influence as many people as possible to adopt Judeo-Christian and American values.” As such, Prager U has become among the most effective and influential forces in spreading traditional values and founding American ideals in the world today. It is among the most viewed conservative video sites in the world, clocking well more than 1 billion views a year, more than half by people under the age of 35.
Prager answered questions from the Deseret News about his work and mission via email. The exchange has been edited for clarity and length.
Jacob Hess: Many people are probably unfamiliar with your work in the late 1960s interviewing Jews in the Soviet Union about the political repression they faced. To what extent did that early experience shape your later writing and teaching?
Dennis Prager: In 1969, when I was 21 years old, the foreign office of the government of Israel sent me to the Soviet Union to smuggle in religious items and smuggle out names of Jews who wanted to leave the country. At that time, a limited number of Soviet Jews was allowed to leave the Soviet Union, and they had to have an invitation from another government before the USSR would grant permission for them to leave. That’s why I was asked to gather names.
Israeli friends of mine gave my name to the foreign office division charged with aiding Soviet Jews. I was chosen due to my knowledge of Judaism, along with knowing Hebrew and Russian. I had studied Hebrew all my life in Jewish schools in New York, and I learned Russian at Brooklyn College. As difficult and emotional as that trip was, I cannot say it shaped my thinking. I had already formed clear opinions about the extent of evil in the world, how evil communism was and the nature of antisemitism. And I had already resolved in high school to devote my life to promoting good and fighting evil.
JH: You haven’t been hesitant to talk about really difficult matters throughout your career. But it’s clear that your focus at PragerU is the bigger picture — helping people appreciate underlying principles, higher truths and key questions worth thinking about. That’s quite a different focus from media that seems fixated on the controversy du jour. Why have you chosen that broader focus?
DP: I have never been particularly interested in politics as such. Of course, as a talk show host, I have had no choice but to keep up with, as you put it, the “controversy du jour.” But I am much more interested in the great issues, the eternal questions, of life. Also, my brain is geared to see the big picture — the forest much more than the trees. If people understand history and the principles of the American founding, they’re much more likely to be good citizens and vote wisely.
JH: As a father of young children, I’m intrigued that so much of the video content you create is aimed at young people. Why do you think so many young people are walking away from Judeo-Christian faith and core truths America was built upon?
DP: Young people are not walking away from Judeo-Christian values and America’s core truths. They never had them to begin with.
Even in my 20s, I understood that many members of the World War II “greatest generation” had failed to teach either Western religious or American values to my generation. Perhaps they, too, had not been taught these values, or perhaps they assumed that their children would automatically carry on these values. Whatever the case, they seem to have been more focused on providing their children the material wealth they lacked during the Depression and the war than on making sure their children understood religious and American values.
The issue is a lack of explanations. Jews did not explain Judaism; Christians did not explain Christianity; Americans did not explain America; and conservatives did not explain what it was they sought to conserve.
Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish world, I first realized this problem within a Jewish context. That is why I wrote my first book with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “The Nine Questions People Ask about Judaism” — to explain Judaism and show its relevance.
By my 30s, I began to realize that the problem was universal, since few people were rationally explaining Judeo-Christian or American values. My life’s job has been to be an explainer — not only of Jewish, biblical and American values, but to explain men and women, good and evil, human nature and the world in which we live.
JH: What (or who) was your own “PragerU” growing up?
DP: I was deeply influenced by my religious upbringing. Not only was I raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, but at least as significantly, I attended yeshivas until the age of 19. A yeshiva is an Orthodox school where, in my case, we studied religious subjects half the day in Hebrew and secular subjects half the day in English. To this day I am more familiar with the Torah in Hebrew than in English.
In addition, I came from an ethically concerned home. My father would talk about all sorts of great moral and religious issues at the Friday night Shabbat table. For many traditional Jews, the Friday night and Shabbat day tables are the centers — and breeding grounds — of Jewish intellectual life.
JH: What do you see in the next generation of younger conservative leaders right now? Are they going where you want them to go?
DP: For much of my life, my commitment to Judeo-Christian and other traditional American values rendered me largely alone. When I began talking about the importance of religion on the radio, I was probably the only talk show host in America — outside of specifically religious broadcasting — to do so. I was also ideologically alone when I was a graduate student at Columbia University. And within Jewish life, the better known I became as a conservative, the fewer lecture invitations I received.
The situation is very different today. There are so many bright and talented young conservatives, it gives one real hope for the future.
JH: We continue to be inundated by messages in mainstream media that if you’re Black, you should be philosophically and politically progressive. Yet I’m struck by how many inspiring thinkers and leaders speak for PragerU from a wide diversity of ethnic and cultural traditions. What do you wish people would understand from the diversity of voices advancing conservative values?
DP: The larger message is that the finest conservative minds — those who are what are called public intellectuals — are truly diverse. I often note that Blacks, Jews and gays are disproportionately represented in conservative intellectual life. There’s no reason, other than cradle-to-grave left-wing indoctrination in schools, media and entertainment, that these groups shouldn’t be equally intellectually diverse as is the broader white American population.
The top three people at PragerU — Allen Estrin, Marissa Streit and I — are Jews. So are the legendary David Horowitz — the dean of American anti-leftism — Dave Rubin, and, of course, the unique Ben Shapiro of the Daily Wire.
We encounter a similarly extraordinary number and quality of Black individuals — including Larry Elder, the brilliant talk show host; Tom Sowell, one of the greatest economists and social thinkers of our time; and Jason Riley of The Wall Street Journal. Finally, one of the most important conservative writers at this time is Douglas Murray, who is gay. As are the aforementioned Dave Rubin and the most widely read critic of environmentalist hysteria, Bjørn Lomborg.
JH: I was struck by a recent fireside chat you did touching on teenage mental health, where you quoted the observations of a professional exploring what was driving the suicidal thoughts of a teenage girl.
Rather than suffering from something like being molested, beaten or losing a loved one, this young person was emotional about “climate change, racism and inequality” to the point of questioning whether life was worth it. You went to reflect on how odd this was. Would you elaborate a little more on that?
DP: Anyone who questions “whether life is worth it” — or who is even just depressed — because of “climate change, racism and inequality” is a living embodiment of a sick age. They’re examples of leftism creating mental illness in people, particularly women, who are depressed at rates previously unheard of in our society — likely because feminism has taught them that to be “fulfilled,” they should focus on career more than family.
For most people, life has plenty of real challenges — poor health, the death of a loved one, financial problems, marital problems, addiction — that can have a negative impact on one’s love of life. If one is depressed because of “climate change, racism and inequality,” one is either: a) profoundly lacking in meaning — and attempting to find it in these causes; and/or b) devoid of any actual reasons to be depressed and/or c) depressed for reasons other than these three, and using these three to avoid confronting his/her real issues.
JH: You have been involved in a lawsuit against YouTube parent company Google following its decision to place around 100 videos under “restricted mode.” (These include “Why Isn’t Communism as Hated as Nazism?,” “The World’s Most Persecuted Minority: Christians,” “Black Fathers Matter” and “Gun Rights Are Women’s Rights.”)
I was struck by the statement from Donald Verrilli, a U.S. solicitor general under President Barack Obama, who insisted in an associated legal brief that giving PragerU freedom of speech would “change the Internet” by threatening to make websites “chock-full of sexually explicit content, violent imagery, hate speech, and expression aimed at demeaning, disturbing, and distressing others.”
What do you say to attempts to conflate what you are doing with dangerous and hateful speech?
DP: It’s sad to see efforts that must rely on lies and smears to succeed. Truth is the left’s mortal enemy. What does “sexually explicit content, violent imagery, hate speech, and expression aimed at demeaning, disturbing, and distressing others” have to do with anything PragerU has ever produced?
JH: Some have wondered if conservatives are beginning to create their own echo chamber in terms of media, education and even entertainment. Do you see any legitimacy to this concern?
DP: Most conservatives in America are very aware of left-wing arguments. Conservatives read, watch, hear and study under people with left-wing views. It is leftists and liberals who live in cocoons. They neither read, watch, hear or study under people with non-left views.
JH: You’ve faced plenty of vitriol and hostility over your 50-plus years of writing and commentary. What would you say to those conservative people of faith who look at the negativity and attacks that come to those raising their voices and honestly wonder if speaking up is even worth it anymore?
DP: If the German Christian pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer could give up his life for speaking up against the Nazi regime, religious people in America ought to be able to speak up. Getting knocked off Facebook or losing some friends is not quite the same as losing one’s life.
JH: If you were speaking candidly to your own children and grandchildren about what they should anticipate in the years ahead, what kinds of things would you say? How worried are you that things could break down significantly?
DP: They have already broken down significantly. If you publicly state that men do not give birth, the left-wing controlled mainstream and social media, and all the left-wing run corporations will smear you as a hater. And you may well lose your job.
As I have said for decades, sending your child to almost any college is playing Russian roulette with his or her values. That is now true of most high schools and elementary schools as well.
JH: You were a guest conductor with the Tabernacle Choir at The Music Center’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California, years ago. I’m curious what other associations you’ve had with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over your career?
DP: As my many listeners can attest to, I am a big admirer of Latter-day Saints. I have even said on the radio that most Americans, if forced to choose a Jew, a Protestant, a Catholic or a Mormon as a business partner (having no other information about the person), most would choose the latter.
I am so close to Latter-day Saints in my city that for a number of years now, I have conducted a Friday night Shabbat dinner at the homes of local members. About a dozen people attend, and for all of us it is a highlight of the year.