(RNS) — Last week Ohio senatorial wannabe Mike Pukita ran into a spot of trouble for putting up a radio ad attacking Josh Mandel, the frontrunner for the GOP nomination to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Rob Portman.
“Are we seriously supposed to believe the most Christian values Senate candidate is Jewish? I am so sick of these phony caricatures,” a voice says in the ad.
Whatever “caricatures” is supposed to mean here, calling a rival candidate phony for trying to be the “Christian values” candidate when he’s Jewish is pretty ugly stuff.
Sure, Mandel, the state treasurer, is not identifying himself as Jewish the way he used to, when he’d mention that he was the grandson of Holocaust survivors.
On his campaign website he’s got a photo of an American flag in front of a church steeple with a big cross on top over the word “Pro-God.” Last month he blamed COVID-19 on “George Soros and moneyed liberal forces,” which harks back to 1348, when Christians held Jews responsible for the Black Death and massacred them.
But Mandel does not, so far as I’m aware, claim to be a “Christian values” candidate. He claims to be a “Judeo-Christian values” candidate. As in his tweeting out, on Sept. 3, “Judeo-Christian > Radical Islam.”
You may consider this a difference without a distinction. For a good 40 years, evangelical Christians have been using “Judeo-Christian” to describe the values they hold dear.
There have been objections to the term from some Jewish quarters at least since 1943, when a publicist named Trude Weiss-Rosmarin called the term “a totalitarian aberration.” Over the years, it has become common for Jews to consider it an expression that subordinates Judaism to Christianity. A few days ago, my RNS colleague Jeffrey Salkin asked, “Did anyone really take it seriously? Did Jews take it seriously?”
Actually they did, once upon a time. Ideologically, “Judeo-Christian” began its career as a retort to those who sought to read Jews out of the Western religious tradition. In a fascinating new book, “The Idea of Semitic Monotheism,” comparative religion scholar Guy Stroumsa tells how a lot of 19th-century scholars who should have known better embraced the view that Christianity was not a “Semitic” religion like Judaism and Islam but one derived from the “Aryan” peoples of Asia.
In the 1930s, Judeo-Christian language was employed to counter this view, which provided intellectual ammunition for the racial antisemitism of the Nazi era. Bear in mind that fascist antisemites in this country created organizations with names like “Christian Aryan Defenders.”
At the time there were Jewish-American leaders who did not hesitate to embrace the concept — and what it then signified.
“We speak now, with still inadequate but steadily expanding understanding, of the Judeo-Christian heritage,” declared the president of Reform Judaism’s Hebrew Union College in 1942. “We comprehend, as we have not comprehended in all of nineteen hundred years, that Judaism and Christianity are partners in the great work of world-redemption and the progressive unfolding of the world-spirit.”
After World War II, Americans enthusiastically embraced “Judeo-Christian” as a label for us against the “Godless Communists” and pretty much wore it out. Liberals had all but abandoned the term as a Cold War cliché by the time Jerry Falwell Sr. seized on it to make his Moral Majority not seem exclusively Christian.
Since then, it has become so ingrained in American conservative discourse that it would be more accurate to call the spiritual ideology of today’s right not “Christian Nationalism” but “Judeo-Christian Nationalism.” More than that, there are signs that this is leading to a new religious amalgam, a form of Christianity that once would have been dismissed as “Judaizing.”
Not only do we find conservative Christians blowing shofars and celebrating Passover seders but also displaying an enthusiasm for the state of Israel based not on an End Times ingathering and conversion of the Jews but simply on God’s promise of the land to Abraham and his descendants in Genesis. The latter goes hand in hand with a growing rejection of supersessionism — the belief that Christianity has rendered God’s original covenant with the Jews null and void.
I don’t think it’s an accident that the ReAwaken America rally earlier this month where Mike Flynn called for our “one nation under God” to have “one religion” took place at San Antonio’s Crossroads Church. Its founder, John Hagee, has made his name as founder of Christians United for Israel (the church sells a “Blow the Trumpet in Zion” Christmas tree ornament) and as an advocate for abandoning “replacement theory,” the evangelical term for supersessionism.
To be sure, after Flynn’s statement drew massive outrage, Crossroads issued a statement disavowing the rally. But ReAwaken America, which combines apocalyptic Trumpism with anti-vaxxer fever, doesn’t appear to be peddling exclusivist Christianity. One of its headliners is Simone Gold, an anti-vax physician known for her active involvement in the Los Angeles Jewish community.
I’m prepared to believe that the one religion Flynn called for was not Christianity, as was generally assumed, but this new Judeo-Christianity. Josh Mandel tweeted it out: “We stand with General Flynn.”