What Do We Mean By ‘Judeo-Christian’?

Religious conservatives have, to varying degrees of controversy, been issuing online voting guides for “concerned Christians” for a while now, but this past election saw something new: a national “Judeo-Christian Voter Guide.” The guide’s homepage, which features a map of all fifty states and a ‘note to clergy’ urging them to “Please click on your state to find a voter’s guide that will best fit your congregation,” connects the seeker to like-minded organizations who’ve already drafted area-specific guides. The presence of links, exclusively to conservative evangelical organizations like the ACLJ and Liberty Counsel, make the guide’s politics self-evident (though there’s no identifying or contact information and the site was registered with a service that conceals the identity of those who registered it).

As one who identifies with the “Judeo” part of Judeo-Christian, I felt invited to click on my home state of Georgia to see whom I should vote for. The links directed me to Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and the American Family Association—a major player on the Christian right whose issues with racism and abuse Sarah Posner recently wrote about on RD. These groups, and numerous others, have moved from describing the values they fight for as “Christian” to “Judeo-Christian”—which is intended, presumably, to sound more inclusive.

Along with other students and scholars of Judaism I had to come to realize that this irksome and quintessentially American term had considerable political value, if not intellectual or spiritual weight. Like many members of my academic generation I had been influenced by theologian Arthur A. Cohen’s brilliant essay “The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition” (first published in Commentary in 1969), in which Cohen pointed to the theological impossibility of a Judeo-Christian tradition. Referring to the origins of Christianity in its Jewish setting, Cohen pointed out that:

The Jews expected a redeemer to come out of Zion; Christianity affirmed that a redeemer had come out of Zion, but that he had come for all mankind. Judaism denied that claim.

A few years after the essay’s publication, Israeli Orthodox Jewish Theologian Eliezer Berkovitz put it even more succinctly:

Judaism is Judaism because it rejects Christianity and Christianity is Christianity because it rejects Judaism.

Behind these refutations was the bloody history of European Christian persecution of Jews. In a 1963 lecture to German theologians, Richard Rubinstein noted that “for almost 2000 years an honest Judeo-Christian encounter was all but impossible in Europe… Only in modern times has a beginning been made toward real communication… A tolerated Judaism can never achieve real encounter with Christianity.”

In the 1970s I thought, somewhat naively, that such refutations by Cohen, Berkovitz, Rubenstein and others would discourage the use of “Judeo-Christian”; that by now the term would have fallen out of use. On the contrary—by the 1980s presidents were using the phrase, and by the 1990s presidential campaigns were depending on its appeal. As essayist Sarah Deming noted recently: “the insidious thing about words is that the act of decrying them promotes their usage.” Being that the term is now ubiquitous, perhaps a look back at the history of “Judeo-Christian” is in order.

Popularized by Liberals

The first recorded uses of the term “Judeo-Christian” were in England in the 1820s, though it was used quite differently than it is in today’s political rhetoric. The term was first coined by protestant missionaries who used it to refer to those Jews who had “seen the Christian light” and chosen baptism, though it took more than a century for “Judeo-Christian” to enter the general lexicon.

The term was actually popularized by liberals in the 1930s at the newly-founded National Conference of Christians and Jews who, concerned about the rise of American nativism and xenophobia during the Depression, sought to foster a more open and inclusive sense of American religious identity. Prominent protestant clergy who were members of the NCCJ’s National Council eschewed efforts to convert Jews—a somewhat radical stance that, along with a determination to change entrenched attitudes towards non-Protestants, alienated many conservative Christian groups.

Liberal Jews, meanwhile, led by the leaders of the Reform movement, welcomed the effort while most Orthodox Jews rejected the term and all it implied. To more traditional Jews “Judeo-Christian” seemed to suggest a new hybrid, one that threatened to erase important distinctions between religions as the classical Jewish tradition had warned against.

For Maimonides, the 12th-century rabbinic scholar and one of the most important figures in the history of Judaism, there was no possibility of a “Judeo-Christian tradition.” Christianity, in his understanding may have had a positive function in world history insofar as it brought monotheism to the pagan world, but for Jews Christian ritual was a form of idolatry. “The Christian peoples, in all of their varied sects, are worshipping idols and their holidays are forbidden to us,” he wrote, while Islam, though a “mistaken” religion in his view, is monotheistic, and thus cannot be construed as idolatrous.

Almost 900 years later Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the early 20th-century thinker respected by most Orthodox Jews and revered by Religious Zionists, had similar sentiments. Like Maimonides, Kook saw Christianity as akin to idolatry, writing that “with Christianity and its concepts one should share nothing, not even what seems good or beneficial… It is only by distancing oneself from Christian concepts, and by implementing the absolute refusal to gain any benefit from that world of ideas, that our own intellects and sense of self will become purer and stronger.” 

With the swing to the Right of the 1950s, American conservatives began to deploy “Judeo-Christian” in the fight against “Godless Communism.” Senator Barry Goldwater contrasted “Judeo-Christian understandings” with “the communist projection of man as a producing, consuming animal to be used and discarded.” Since then, “Judeo-Christian,” like most religious terminology, has been deployed most effectively by political conservatives.

In the 1970s Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority called for a return to Judeo-Christian values, implying that these values were an American standard that liberals had weakened. Falwell also included in the Moral Majority statement of purpose a call for unconditional support for the State of Israel, a state whose establishment or “rebirth” he and many fellow evangelicals saw as a sign of God’s hand moving in history.

Evangelicals and Jews Become Partners

Today, it’s commonplace for the Christian Right to invoke the idea of “Judeo-Christian values,” and for America to once again become “one nation under God.” Overlooking the pesky fact that that phrase was only added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, they insist that both the Christian and Jewish traditions were essential elements in the thought of the Founding Fathers.

Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute has even claimed that the Puritans were honoring the Jews of their day by giving their children biblical names—a patent absurdity to historians of Colonial America who point out that it confuses Puritan emphasis on Old Testament ideas with admiration for Jews. But for both Christian and Jewish conservatives historical accuracy is easily swept aside in favor of current ideological needs.

By the late ’90s Falwell’s notion of a “return” to Judeo-Christian values was adopted by the rest of the religious right whose leadership was determined to inculcate this idea in the next generation. “Generation Joshua,” founded in 2003 to get homeschooled children involved in politics, coordinates closely with the Republican Party. Its mission statement, according to Hannah Rosin’s 2007 book, God’s Harvard, is: “to ignite a vision in young people to help America return to her Judeo-Christian foundations.” To the faithful, the biblical reference in the organization’s name is crystal clear. Their own generation, who brought the religious right to power, was the generation of Moses, the Lawgiver. When Moses was gone, his follower Joshua carried on the job.

Despite the use of Judeo-Christian in its mission statement, the popular Generation Joshua website is more explicit and honest about its religious orientation: “We seek to inspire everyone of our members with faith in God and a hope of what America can become as we equip Christian citizens and leaders to impact our nation for Christ and His glory,” a mission unlikely to appeal to many American Jews, whatever their political persuasion.

Today, terms like “Judeo-Christian tradition” and the claim of American exceptionalism have become a staple of the rhetoric of presidential candidates. In the 2008 campaign, John McCain said, “The number one issue people should make selection of the president of the United Sates is ‘Will this person carry on the Judeo-Christian tradition that has made this nation the greatest experiment in the history of mankind?’”

In his recent critique of American religious illiteracy, religion scholar Stephen Prothero sees the political use of “Judeo-Christian values” as generating ignorance of any specific religious tradition:

This new political theology helped religious conservatives gain political power, but this power came at a price since, under the gentleman’s agreement struck by the Moral Majority with culturally conservative Catholics and Jews, anything specifically Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish had to be checked at the door.

“Gentleman’s agreement” seems too mild a phrase for some of the strange arrangements emerging from this consensus. The Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, for example, tells of a mid-’90s encounter with Jerry Falwell after the ADL had criticized Falwell for referring to the U.S. as a “Christian nation.” At first reluctant to consider the criticism, Falwell told Foxman that he could see how “Christian nation” could be misunderstood. “From now on,” said Falwell, “I intend to refer to America as a Judeo-Christian nation, which describes our heritage accurately.” In his account of this conversation, Foxman was mollified by Falwell’s response. Evangelicals and Jews could now serve as partners.

When Jerry Falwell died in 2007 Foxman eulogized him as “a great friend of Israel,” indicating that he, along with the leaders of other major Jewish organizations, seemed to have taken the implications of this ‘Judeo-Christian agreement’ to heart. Today, seventeen years after that encounter, its import and implications are clearer.

In the post-9/11 world of the Bush presidency, American Islamaphobia flourished and “Judeo-Christian” has become a term of exclusion, rather than inclusion. The implication in the current context is that the U.S. can accept Jews into the social contract (or at least those Jews who embrace “traditional values”), while Muslims, who “killed us on 9/11” in Bill O’Reilly’s phrase, are permanently excluded.

Thus, in July of last year, Foxman’s Anti-Defamation League (ADL) stated that the organization was “recommending that a different location be found for the Islamic Center.” A few days later Foxman published an article in the Huffington Post explaining the organization’s decision, in which he invoked an earlier controversy over the presence of a Carmelite monastery near Auschwitz, and compared the memorialization issue of the 9/11 victims to those of the victims of the Holocaust. In the monastery case the ADL joined other Jewish organizations in calling for the monastery to be moved as it “was an affront and a terrible disservice to the memory of millions of Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis in the Holocaust.”*

Do Conservative Evangelicals—and the ADL—need to be any more explicit about excluding Islam, and Liberalism, from the American consensus? It seems so. Between 2005 and 2008, Dennis Prager, the West coast media personality who identifies himself as an Orthodox Jew, published a 19-part series on “Judeo-Christian Culture.” In his introduction Prager wrote that:

[O]nly America has called itself Judeo-Christian… but what does Judeo-Christian mean? We need to know. Along with the belief in liberty—as opposed to the European belief in equality, the Muslim belief in theocracy, and the Eastern belief in social conformity—Judeo-Christian values are what distinguish America from all other countries.

Reading Dennis Prager sent me back to Arthur Cohen’s 1969 essay. Scanning a text I’d read many times, I was reminded of Cohen’s point that although the use of “Judeo-Christian” seemed to signal a message of cooperation and ecumenicism, it was really a cover for an attack on the values of the Enlightenment; the very values that enabled Jews to enter Western societies. Cohen wrote that “we can learn much from the history of Jewish-Christian relations but the one thing we cannot make of it is a discourse of community, fellowship, and understanding.”

*Correction: An earlier version of this article attributed the Holocaust reference in the Huffington Post to the ADL’s official statement on the Islamic Center and characterized the ADL statement as a “demand” that the Center be relocated. RD regrets the errors.