Last week, Donald Trump gave a speech to the Values Voter Summit, bastion of social conservatism. Have a look at this excerpt:
We are stopping cold the attacks on Judeo-Christian values. (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you very much. And something I’ve said so much during the last two years, but I’ll say it again as we approach the end of the year. You know, we’re getting near that beautiful Christmas season that people don’t talk about anymore. (Laughter.) They don’t use the word ‘Christmas’ because it’s not politically correct. You go to department stores, and they’ll say, ‘Happy New Year’ and they’ll say other things. And it will be red, they’ll have it painted, but they don’t say it. Well, guess what? We’re saying “Merry Christmas” again. (Applause.)
We’re through the looking glass. Saying “Merry Christmas” is now a Judeo-Christian value. You know, Judeo, as in Jewish.
Judeo-Christian is a made-up term created to make Christian values and beliefs seem less sectarian by suggesting that they’re part of a shared heritage with Judaism. The term was coined during the 1950s, the same period Will Herberg published Protestant, Catholic, Jew, a book that influenced the national concept of American religion. It was during this period that a panel of priests, ministers, and rabbis wrote the famous Regent’s Prayer, which was said daily in New York public schools until it was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1962.
Evangelical Christians typically played little to no role in this (real or imagined) national embrace of (limited) ecumenism. Released time religious education programs at public schools frequently had only three classes offerings—one Catholic, one Protestant, one Jewish—and mainline Protestants tended to dominate the Protestant religious education class, teaching racial reconciliation and social responsibility rather than the gospel message and children’s need for salvation through Jesus’ blood.
All of this makes evangelicals’ more recent embrace of the term curious. Perhaps it was related to the Moral Majority, a 1980s effort to portray conservatives who embraced traditional family values and social norms as the majority, and liberals and progressives as an elite minority trying to hoist their moral perversity on the rest of the nation by force. Perhaps it came later, part of a last-ditch effort to cement their claim to authority in a world quickly becoming more secular and less traditionally religious.
However it started, a rhetorical embrace of “Judeo-Christian values” has become a staple of American evangelical Christianity. How did saying “Merry Christmas” become a Judeo-Christian value? The problem, I suspect, is that people sometimes forget that Judeo-Christian is not a synonym for evangelical Christian—because, and let’s be frank, that is how it is used. And evangelicals can get away with that, until someone like Trump slips and says something that lays bare the utter lie at the heart of the term.