Hating on the Judeo-Christian Tradition

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Over at Religion Dispatches, Shalom Goldman is the latest Jewish writer to try to kill off “the Judeo-Christian tradition.” Inspired by a new “Judeo-Christian Voter Guide,” he resuscitates the claim that the phrase does little more than paper over the long history of Jewish-Christian animosity, subordinating Jewish distinctiveness to ecumenical public relations.

In a study published over a quarter-century ago, I traced this claim as far back as 1943, but its prime exponent has been the late author and publisher Arthur A. Cohen, whose 1969 Commentary article, “The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition” (redone in his 1970 essay collection of the same title) blacklisted the term, at least in certain circles. The article, which Goldman persists in calling “brilliant,” is a piece of agit-prop that fundamentally misconstrues how the JCT came into common usage. Goldman doesn’t do much better.

Cohen asserted that the tradition “as such” originated among the German higher critics of the Bible, whose aim was to “de-Judaize” Christianity even as they acknowledged its Jewish roots. But no such usage exists in German biblical criticism. “Judeo-Christian” was first commonly employed in mid-19th-century English and French accounts of Christian origins. The “Judeo-Christians” were those early followers of Jesus who wished to restrict their messiah’s message to the Jews, and insisted that all who followed Jesus also follow Jewish law. They lost out, of course, to Paul and his compadres–the non-Judeo-Christians.

So far as I can tell, it was the French who first used “Judeo-Christian” to refer more generally to the Western religious tradition. Tellingly, this extended usage appears to have caught on at the time of the Dreyfus Affair in 1899. Anti-Dreyfusards, convinced that defenders of the Jewish officer were part of an anti-Catholic conspiracy, began referring darkly to their opponents as a “Judeo-Masonic-Protestant coalition” or “syndicate.” Dreyfusards like Anatole France responded by characterizing Western religious values and outlooks not as “Christian” but as “Judeo-Christian” (e.g. “the old Judeo-Christian cosmogony,” p. 199).

In a word, opposition to anti-Semitism was the key factor in explaining the rise of “Judeo-Christian” as a term of general cultural import. During the late 1930s, anti-Fascists in both France and the United States took up the term at a time when “Christian” had become a code word for anti-Semitic organizations on the Fascist right. Indeed, the least attractive aspect of the Jewish critique of the phrase is the charge that “Judeo-Christian” signals a Christian desire to absorb and denigrate Judaism. On the contrary, it served precisely as a rebuke to those who wanted to exclude Jews and eradicate Judaism. Theologically, Judeo-Christian language was not merely ecumenical happy talk; it was used by neo-orthodox thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr, who wanted to emphasize the Hebraic (prophetic) side of their faith over Hellenic theological categories.

There is, to be sure, no little irony in the fact that, over the past generation, the phrase has been so fervently embraced by the religious right. To understand how this could have come about, you have to follow the JCT through its service as an anti-Communist shibboleth during the Cold War, and its rejection in the counterculture of the 1960s.There’s no doubt that, so far as the folks behind that new voter guide are concerned, “Judeo-Christian” is just code language for their own conservative understanding of Western religious values. That said, it should not be doubted that when, say, the new governor of Alabama allows as how his only brothers and sisters are Christians, it’s useful to be able to remind him that his own religious tradition is actually Judeo-Christian.

There’s always been something peculiar in the claim that belonging to the same tradition means that you’ve always gotten along fine. No one would say that the heretics of Late Antiquity or the High Middle Ages (Arians, Donatists, Waldensians, etc.), didn’t belong to the Christian religious tradition, much less that the Catholics and Protestants who fought each other to a standstill in Early Modern Europe didn’t. Islam has been called a Judeo-Christian heresy, and Mormonism could as well; crusades and jihads and excommunications don’t erase genetic identity. After all the politic rhetoric is over, there’s more than sufficient common ground between Judaism and Christianity to justify the idea of a Judeo-Christian tradition. That’s probably why, in this era of increased awareness of non-Western religions, the term has grown in popularity, notwithstanding Cohen et al.