The Absurdity of the Phrase ‘Judeo-Christian’

The Absurdity of the Phrase ‘Judeo-Christian’ December 31, 2014

Shalom Goldman has an essay at Religion Dispatches about the thoroughly ridiculous nature of the term “Judeo-Christian,” which rivals “family values” for the most irritating cliche used by the Christian right in this country. It’s meaningless tripe that ignores centuries of anti-Jewish persecution by Christians.

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.”

The absurdity of this phrase is at least doubled when used in reference to the founding fathers, to whom it would have sounded like gibberish. At the time of the American revolution there were around 2000 Jews in the entire country. And at the time of the writing of the Constitution, one of the big fears expressed by conservative Christian preachers and pamphleteers was that the No Religious Tests clause would allow a Jew to become president, something they considered unthinkable. Judeo-Christian, indeed.

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.

America didn’t call itself Judeo-Christian, some conservative Christians in America have called it that. And despite their most fervent delusions and pretensions, they do not define America itself.

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