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What is ‘Judeo-Christian,’ anyway?

I will join the battle for Judeo-Christian values. If they’re the right values.

As if it needed defending, this past week President Trump announced that he will be making sure that we stop attacks “on Judeo-Christian values.”

Whatever those values might be.

And when did “Judeo-Christian” become a thing?

As fellow columnist Mark Silk has said, the notion of a “Judeo-Christian tradition” comes into existence before World War II. It was a way of counteracting the fascist use of “Christian” as code language for anti-Semitic.

But, it had unique utility in American life. In 1952,  President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith — and I don’t care what it is.”

This was when “In God We Trust” appeared on our national currency. This was when “under God” made it appearance in the Pledge of Allegiance.

And why? Because we now had a new enemy. Soviet Communism was atheistic. We had to emphasize that we were different, that our culture had a different source of energy. But, pay attention: the proliferation of religious institutions did not mean that there was an equal growth in American spirituality. American religion was pretty bland. It was “faith for the sake of faith.”

“Faith for the sake of faith” fit well into the post-war suburban expansion. For the first time, Jews and Christians lived in close and peaceful proximity to each other. Every Main Street in every emerging suburb had its Catholic Church, its Protestant church, and its synagogue.

That is how we wound up with “Judeo-Christian.” Basically, it allowed Jews into the “country club” — if not the real tennis and golf country club (that would come later), then at least the formerly restricted “country club” of American culture.

“Judeo-Christian” was a bone that America threw to the Jews, letting us think that our religious faith was an equal partner in American life. When you consider that American Jews never constituted more than three percent of the American population, it seemed like a rather generous move.

And because American Jews were (rightly) sick to death of being other, and being persecuted, we parroted “Judeo-Christian” along with everyone else. It meant that Jews were strangers no more, that we were not peripheral, that we were ready for prime time.

But, in fact, this was never the case.

Oh, yes, of course — schools would close for the Jewish High Holy Days. You could get matzah in supermarkets. Jews made their famous contributions to American culture.

But, religiously? Not so much.

America’s default religious culture was — and continues to be — Christian. This, despite the massive demographic challenges that non-Christian religions have posed to the American body politic.

And, even still: an avowed agnostic or atheist would have a lot of trouble getting elected to a high American office.

Moreover: despite our society’s avowed “Judeo-Christian” cultural heritage, Jewish thinkers and specifically Jewish texts get short shrift in the public consciousness. You can be a literate American without knowing anything about Jewish thought.

The books of the Hebrew Bible (and, please, not “Old Testament”) and the books of the Christian Bible? Sure. At the very least, they make guest appearances in the New York Times crossword puzzle.

But, 21 down, “book of Jewish wisdom,” six letter word — Talmud?

14 across, Jewish thinker, five letter word — Buber?

I don’t think so.

When it comes to Judaism as being part of the American canon, Judaism is as disadvantaged as any non-Christian, non-Western culture.

So, let’s be honest. “Judeo-Christian” does not really exist.

Shall we go further?

The whole notion of “Judeo-Christian” papers over some very real and crucial differences between the two faiths and the two cultures. Notions like the personage of Jesus of Nazareth; the meaning of religious law; the very essence of human nature — for starters.

And, even further: “Judeo-Christian” began as an elegant way of saying “We are believers; the Russians aren’t.” It had a political agenda.

It still does, in case you haven’t been paying attention. When contemporary politicians invoke the “Judeo-Christian tradition,” you can bet your electric menorah that what they are saying is “Judeo-Christian — and not Muslim, or Sikh, or anything else.

And so, Trump wants to defend “Judeo-Christian values,” along with girding on his armor for that imaginary “war against Christmas,” which was actually only (only!) a war for civility, politeness, and the affirmation of genuine American diversity — the recognition that not all Americans are Christian.

I invite you to join me in defending “Judeo-Christian” values as well. Especially (and, perhaps, only) if those values include such biblical greatest hits as:

  • Tzedakah for the poor
  • The vigorous pursuit of healing for those who are ill
  • Welcoming the stranger
  • The idea that all humans are descended from Adam and Eve, and are therefore deserving of dignity
  • The impartial pursuit of justice, for both the rich and the poor
  • The idea of limited monarchy — that the king or president is subject to the same laws as everyone else
  • Stewardship over the earth as God’s creation

And, if we were going to expand this list into post-biblical Jewish sacred literature, we might add the following notion:

Truth thrives on multiple opinions, each one wrestling with the others.

If that is what turns out to be the “Judeo-Christian tradition,” sure — sign me up.