Michael Medved's Salem Radio three-hour daily talk show, a favorite among many evangelical listeners, reaches more than 2 million people in 181 markets across the country. His 10th book, Right Turns (Crown Forum, 2004), engagingly tells how he turned from the leftist life of the '60s and '70s to Orthodox Judaism and conservative politics.
WORLD: What was the political atmosphere at Yale during the mid- and late-1960s, and how did that help to push you further to the left?
MEDVED: The most striking aspect of that political atmosphere involved dramatic change-from a student body overwhelmingly supportive of the War in Vietnam (as late as 1966) to a campus seething with near-unanimous opposition to U.S. foreign policy.
As I explain in my book, the key element provoking that change involved an alteration in draft policy. At the beginning of my undergraduate years, you easily could avoid military service by staying in college and then enrolling in grad school of any kind. By 1967, Selective Service only exempted those who studied medicine or divinity-one of the reasons, by the way, that clergy shifted so radically to the left as "draft dodgers" suddenly flooded seminaries and divinity schools of every denomination.
In any event, President Nixon ultimately exposed the selfish motivations of those of us who saw ourselves as anti-war idealists: When he stopped the draft and initiated the all-volunteer Army at the end of 1971, the so-called Peace Movement instantaneously shriveled and died on university campuses.
WORLD: Why, as you write, is "sex-not money-the ultimate fuel of politics"?
MEDVED: Politics is a lousy way to make money-salaries for top office holders can't compete with the remuneration in corporate life, the practice of law, the entertainment industry, and many other careers.
Politics, however, remains a uniquely effective way of winning love-of both the innocent and not-so-innocent variety. Mature human beings who feel comfortable in their own skins (Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush leap immediately to mind) relish the gratitude and affection of their fellow citizens, without resort to sweaty sheets in hotel rooms.
Many other politicians, of both parties, take advantage of the adoring and disproportionately youthful followers who treat these insecure hacks like rock stars. Conservatives face a natural disadvantage in contemporary politics because of the importance we place on family stability. The constant travel and destruction of privacy required for nearly all successful politicians means that most of them place advancement in their public lives above the nourishment of their private lives and intimate relationships. These pressures make Bill Clinton's sad pattern of intimate behavior far more common than political pros like to acknowledge.
WORLD: You write about your grandparents' providential experience in coming to America. How much did knowledge of that affect you during your leftist years and perhaps help you to escape from the liberal tendency toward America-bashing?
MEDVED: My knowledge of my family history made all the difference to me in escaping the prevailing madness of the 1960s.
My grandmother watched five young daughters die in the old country during World War I, the Soviet Revolution, and the Russian Civil War-after she arrived in the United States in 1924, she always understood this nation as a gift from God, a land of new life.
As long as liberals flew American flags, sang patriotic songs, and professed love of country while criticizing our foreign policy, I could feel comfortable in their company. After I moved to Berkeley in 1971 and saw a different style of leftism-full of groundless, mindless hostility to this great and generous nation-I became increasingly uneasy with my association with liberal politicians like George McGovern and the corrupt, Stalinist Congressman Ron Dellums.
WORLD: When you think back to your youthful political activities, do you have a desire to make restitution for them in some way-and if so, how do you do that?
MEDVED: Of course. In a sense, I feel that this book, Right Turns, represents an act of atonement for my youthful mistakes and indiscretions. I try to delineate all the ways I went wrong during my years as a Democratic Party speechwriter and campaign consultant, and to retrace my own route out of the wilderness. As one of my Yale classmates, George W. Bush, likes to say: "When I was young and stupid, I was young and stupid." The difference is that the president refuses to talk about his young and stupid years. I just wrote a 400-page book exploring that immature inanity in all its embarrassing excess.
WORLD: You write that "for the most part, conservatives are both nicer and happier than liberals," but you surprisingly write that one liberal disliked by many conservatives, Hillary Rodham Clinton, was very nice when you knew her in law school. Did she grow out of that, or do you still see her that way?
MEDVED: About three years ago, I had the opportunity to sit down for dinner with Sen. Clinton. To my surprise, she still came across as gracious, civilized, and warm-much more so than most conservatives believe.
For me, it's Hillary's ideas and values, not her personality, that make her dangerous. It's also obvious that she's lost some of the sweetness and vulnerability that impressed me during the law school years we shared. Thirty-five years of ruthless politics, not to mention a deeply troubled marriage, provided Sen. Clinton with an edginess and brittleness she lacked as a young woman.
Ironically, this image as a tough-minded survivor counts as one of her most formidable political assets in her inevitable presidential campaign-which I will do everything possible to oppose.
WORLD: What was the most important reason for your theological and political transformation?
MEDVED: I learned that conservative ideas-both politically and religiously-produced better results in the real world than their leftist alternatives. Personally, as I began to experiment with elements of traditional Judaism like Sabbath observance and daily prayer, I felt my life reliably enriched.
After a few years, the benefits of observing The Law became so obvious that I reached the conclusion that these eternal rules originated with no merely human author. In political terms, I saw corresponding good results from conservative ideas under Reagan, after watching the horribly destructive, nightmarish impact of liberal programs under LBJ and Carter.
By the time I became active in the Republican Party in the mid-1980s, it was obvious that religiosity and conservatism worked well in improving daily life and uplifting the country; secularism and leftism, on the other hand, produced bitterness and frustration.
WORLD: You write that "business isn't exploitative-it's heroic." Since so many Jews have prospered through hard work in building businesses, why have most Jews voted for more government and less freedom for business? Is that pattern changing?
MEDVED: This is a painful question, with no easy answers. It's true that the overwhelming majority of Jewish families made it into the middle class (and beyond) because of their success in business, but the younger generations in those families are more likely to work in privileged professions (law, teaching, social work, media) that often look with disdain on the profit motive.
In my book I stress the essentially moral nature of the free market system, which forces you to consider the needs and welfare of others. If you fail to provide a product or service that another citizen chooses to buy, you simply can't succeed in a capitalist system. That simple fact stands as the most direct rebuttal to all those guilt-ridden Jews (and others) who feel apologetic about pursuing prosperity in business.
WORLD: Do you see Mel Gibson's recent success as a blip on the Hollywood charts or a breakthrough that will lead to major change?
MEDVED: A movie like the eloquent and excellent The Passion of the Christ that grosses more than $370 million in domestic box office receipts, and becomes the most popular R-rated film in history, is more than a "blip"-but the secular militants who run Hollywood have done nothing to follow through on Mel's breakthrough.
For years, I've been arguing that if the entertainment industry were actually as greedy and selfish as it's supposed to be, it would churn out far more family-friendly and religiously themed movies and TV shows. The failure of top production companies to benefit from Mel's example-or, as I discuss in my book, their stubborn refusal to even watch his movie-demonstrates that the anti-religious bias in Tinseltown is even stronger than the profit motive.
WORLD: You write that Christian revival in the United States is "good for the Jews." Why is that the case?
MEDVED: Christian revival is good for the Jews because it's good for America-and a stronger America not only benefits all Jews who live here, but also helps to protect our courageous co-religionists in Israel (including my father, my brother, and my oldest daughter, by the way).
Serious Christians today play the leading role in addressing every challenge we face as Americans-defending our nation in the War on Terror, educating their children in functional values, lifting the downtrodden out of poverty, protecting the institution of the family.
Moreover, a more Christian America in which religious ideas receive greater respect can only serve to encourage Jews to take our own tradition more seriously.
Religious faith isn't a zero-sum game: If my neighbor deepens his Christian involvement, it subtracts nothing from my Jewish commitment. In fact, in this wonderfully pluralistic country, the intensification of Christian faith undoubtedly strengthens all religions.
WORLD: Quoting the observation of your friend Rabbi Dov Fischer, you note that "the real problem for the future of the Jewish community isn't 'Jews for Jesus,' it's 'Jews for Nothing.'" Why do so many Jews fear Christianity more than secularism?
MEDVED: Most American Jews remain woefully ignorant and utterly uninvolved concerning the rigorous demands of their own tradition. If you ask them what makes them Jewish, and what unites them with other Jews, they will often highlight their refusal to recognize Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. Unfortunately, you can't build a vital religious faith on a negative proposition; Judaism will never thrive as "The Un-Christianity" any more than 7-Up prospered as "The Un-Cola."
However, this mistaken notion-that the very core of Judaism involves the rejection of Jesus rather than the acceptance of Torah-makes nonreligious Jews believe they share more in common with militant secularists than they do with Christian believers. That's a terrible mistake!
In explaining their own fears of Christianity, most Jews will cite the horrible Catholic and Russian Orthodox persecutions of the past-as if the Spanish Inquisition closed down its operations only last week. The truth remains that the greatest Jew-haters of our time-Hitler, Stalin, and Islamo-Fascist terrorists-have been either pagans or Muslims.
Today's devout Christians-particularly Christian evangelicals-are far more likely to bless Jews and Israel than to threaten us. In part, this Jewish-Christian coalition continues to grow because we face common enemies in the Islamic world, and in part it thrives because we share common deliverers-the United States of America and the God of Abraham who has blessed this magnificent nation beyond all measure.