American history

American history January 31, 2012

Here’s a reminder that America is still a young country: Politico interviews President John Tyler’s grandson.

President Tyler, who was born in 1790 and became the 10th president in 1841, has two grandchildren still alive today. His grandson, Harrison Ruffin Tyler, currently maintains the Tyler presidential home, Sherwood Forest Plantation Foundation in Charles City, Va.

Don M. Burrows on “The Manufactured ‘JudoJudeo-Christian Tradition’

In short, the “Judeo-Christian tradition” is a manufactured tradition from the 1950s. It was at the time, and remains today, a right-wing political term, not at all a descriptor of any real, singular tradition, much less one that stretches back through the founding of the American republic and into the first century.

Kevin M. Kruse: “For God So Loved the 1 Percent …

The Rev. James W. Fifield, pastor of the elite First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, led the way in championing a new union of faith and free enterprise. “The blessings of capitalism come from God,” he wrote. “A system that provides so much for the common good and happiness must flourish under the favor of the Almighty.”

Christianity, in Mr. Fifield’s interpretation, closely resembled capitalism, as both were systems in which individuals rose or fell on their own. The welfare state, meanwhile, violated most of the Ten Commandments. It made a “false idol” of the federal government, encouraged Americans to covet their neighbors’ possessions, stole from the wealthy and, ultimately, bore false witness by promising what it could never deliver.

Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, Mr. Fifield and his allies advanced a new blend of conservative religion, economics and politics that one observer aptly anointed “Christian libertarianism.” Mr. Fifield distilled his ideology into a simple but powerful phrase — “freedom under God.” With ample support from corporate patrons and business lobbies like the United States Chamber of Commerce, his gospel of godly capitalism soon spread across the country through personal lectures, weekly radio broadcasts and a monthly magazine.

Erik Loomis calls for “A WPA for History“:

Jesse Lemisch has a particular idea in mind that the AHA and other academic institutions like the Modern Language Association should promote – a WPA for academics. How do you put thousands of unemployed historians and others to work? You create work for them, a la the New Deal. Lemisch provides concrete examples of creating digital archives, bringing obscure primary sources to public light, compiling important demographic information from public records, writing biographies, and any number of other interesting projects.

If the AHA needs to seek additional non-government funding for such a project, may I suggest turning to the various screenwriters guilds? Screenwriters rely heavily on the notion that every piece of archival anything is already digitally archived and accessible online. A WPA for the AHA could help make that more of a reality, so it would be in the screenwriters’ interest to support such an effort.

 

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  • nirrti

    Am I wrong in thinking that America, as a nation, has an undercurrent of sociopathy and is essentially psychotic, especially since the 50s? My mother and I were talking about this the other day. We came to the conclusion that this country has essentially lost its damn mind.

    The more I read history and look at present events, the more I’m convinced that America needs a massive dose of Thorazine.

  • Anonymous

    The typo in the title “The Manufactured ‘Judo-Christian Tradition'” set me up for serious disappointment.  Serious I say!

  • Evan Hunt

    I’m suddenly reminded of a USENET conversation from many years ago, which involved a line so amusing I memorized it: “I see some similarity between automobiles made by Ford and those made by Chrysler, but this is not indicative of a fundamental ‘Chrystlo-Ford automotive tradition’ at the root of American society.”

  • Anonymous

    heckblazer, LOL! I didn’t even see it until you pointed it out.
    I am now also disappointed.

  • Anonymous

    I always thought the “Judeo-” was a right-wing sop to Jews, as if to say, “Hey, we’re not Jew-haters any more! Come on in, but wipe your feet and don’t date my daughter!” That the term “Judeo-Christian” only entered into parlance after the Holocaust made public displays antisemitism most assuredly not kosher in the U.S. only lends credence to my theory.

  • Anonymous

    Christianity, in Mr. Fifield’s interpretation, closely resembled capitalism, as both were systems in which individuals rose or fell on their own.

    Admittedly I’m no expert, but isn’t a system where “individuals rose or fell on their own” virtually the opposite of Christianity (an “anti-Christianity”, one could say)?  Isn’t it part of the Christian worldview that everybody is fallen?  I guess that’s not necessarily incompatible with “individuals fall separately”, but since we’re all ultimately in the same boat anyway, what’s it matter if we got there in groups or one by one?  And isn’t the whole idea of Christianity that in order to rise you can’t do it on your own?  That you need help from, you know, that “Christ” fellow to get the job down?

    The welfare state, meanwhile, violated most of the Ten Commandments. It made a “false idol” of the federal government, encouraged Americans to covet their neighbors’ possessions, stole from the wealthy and, ultimately, bore false witness by promising what it could never deliver.

    So by “most” of the Ten Commandments they mean four of the Ten Commandments.  Alright then.

    Actually, I’m halfway surprised they stopped there.  Why not claim that the welfare state dishonors our father and mother, Adam and Eve, who certainly didn’t rely on handouts from the state.  That is violates the sabbath day, by allowing people to not work all week long, thereby destroying what makes the sabbath holy.  That it murders the American work ethic.  That by helping out people when they need it most, it encourages them to say “thank God!”, thereby taking the Lord’s name in vain.  That it causes people to commit adultery, for Jesus said that to lust after someone in your mind is the same as actually committing adultery, and the welfare state causes people to lust after welfare, which is the same as if they had committed adultery with welfare.  Oh, and the welfare state creates a graven image…of welfare!  Or something like that, anyway.

  • Rissa

    Drat, when people ask what faith I am I’ve been describing myself as a pluralistic spiritual agnostic still practicing in a liberal branch of the Western Judeo-Christian tradition. Now that seems not only clumsily wordy, but intellectually dishonest as well.

    I may just need to suck it up and become Anglican.

  • Round Crow

    Juji-gatame has a whole new meaning…

  • pharoute

    The only joint Jewish and Christian events (aka Judeo-Christian tradition?) I’ve learned from studying Western history are pogroms.

  • Anonymous

    I think the concept of a “Judeo-Christian” tradition is one that’s very similar to the concept of whiteness (or Christianity, for that matter). All contain definitions that are expanded, when necessary, to encompass a majority of the population while maintaining a central cultural divide and hierarchy.

    I’m reminded of someone’s comment on Deism: at times of religious ascendency, Deism has been considered virtually atheism; at times when religion sees itself as under attack, however, Deism has been claimed as a form of theism.

  • Danielle Custer

    The capitalist state violated most of the Ten Commandments. It made a “false idol” of wealth, encouraged Americans to covet their neighbors’ possessions, stole from the poor and, ultimately, bore false witness by promising what it could never deliver.

    FIFY, Mr. Fifield. Hilarious that I had no need to change the 2nd and 4th claims.

  • Matri

    The welfare state, meanwhile, violated most of the Ten Commandments.

    Wow, so that means giving to charity is an affront to God!

  • Anonymous

    I believe that by definition anti-Semitism is not kosher under any circumstances…

  • esmerelda ogg

    I was about to post a reply, but I see that you’ve already said it for me. My church certainly teaches that we rise with the help of Christ, because God loves us so much he fudges the test results.

  • magic cracker- “judeo-christian” has always puzzled me as well and I had similar suspicions about it.

    I would disagree with the Times that the connection between religion and capitalism is some recently contrived thing manufactured by..big manufacturers. It has its roots in everything from the people like dorothy day to the Protestant work ethic in general.

  • FangsFirst

    I’m reminded of someone’s comment on Deism: at times of religious
    ascendency, Deism has been considered virtually atheism; at times when
    religion sees itself as under attack, however, Deism has been claimed as
    a form of theism.

    In high school, I identified as Deist.
    I told classmates I was deist, and said it was the belief in a higher power, absent the specifics of any particular religion–often characterized as a God who functions as a clockmaker, putting the parts in place, winding it up and letting it go.

    The response?
    “So…you worship Satan, then?”

  • People rise and fall only by Christ’s grace and sacrifice. You can’t earn your way into Heaven, either by being righteous or by being rich. That’s a thing, right?

  • Anonymous

    THANK YOU!  When I read that comment in the original post, I had to walk away for a minute because I couldn’t think straight any longer.  No, individuals do NOT rise and fall on their own in Christianity.  One of the central tenets of the religion is that it is not a meritocracy- if it was everyone would go to hell, since no one has merit in God’s eye.  And that’s not even going into the fact that the early Christian church was practically a commune.  Karl Marx’s famous statement “from each according to his means, to each according to his needs” came from the book of Acts.  This guy has no idea what he’s talking about.

  • “Judeo-Christian values” is a politically manufactured term of the mid-twentieth century, just as “Abrahamic religions” was a similar construct for the late twentieth century before all Muslims became terrorists (and refusing to recognize that fact could get your hardware store boycotted).  But just because there was no substnatial unity or cooperation between in the history of America or the West prior to the 1950s doesn’t mean appeals to a common set of values are artificial.  For most of Western history, Jews and Christians represented competing ideologies within a common broader worldview.  The twentieth century saw the rise of a competing worldview that provided a catalyst for Jews and Christians to unite around common features of their thought that were at odds with the new way of thinking.

    Novelty does not imply superficiality; just because an alliance is new does not mean that it is insubstantial or can be blithely ignored.

  • Anonymous

    You’re buying into the assumption that it represents an alliance that exists. Appeals to “Judeo-Christian” values are almost always appeals to Christian values. They frequently appeal to Christian beliefs not shared by Jews (for example, hatred of abortion) and you will never see a “Judeo-Christian” appeal to Jewish beliefs not shared by Christians (a ton of examples, but I have never seen a “Judeo-Christian” billboard exhorting people to avoid shrimp for the sake of their souls, for example.)

  • Anonymous

    I’ve posted this before pretty much every time this subject comes up, but I’ll post it again.  My favorite rejoinder to the notion of “Judeo-Christian” is from Mike the Mad Biologist on the subject of a public Nativity scene being defended on “Judeo-Christian” grounds: “There’s nothing ‘Judeo-‘ about a Nativity scene.  I should know; I’m a Judeoist.”

  • Anonymous

    I always thought the “Judeo-” was a right-wing sop to Jews, as if to say, “Hey, we’re not Jew-haters any more! Come on in, but wipe your feet and don’t date my daughter!” That the term “Judeo-Christian” only entered into parlance after the Holocaust made public displays antisemitism most assuredly not kosher in the U.S. only lends credence to my theory.

    As is often the case, it’s a bit more complicated than that.  So far as I understand it, most of the Christians who endorse the idea have taken the “Judeo” part quite seriously; they were trying to engage with the Jewish community, even if in recent decades they’ve generally been Doing It Very Wrong.  And every iteration of the “Judeo-Christian” concept has been shaped by Jewish voices, even  if they’ve often been few and non-representative.

    (caveat: I am not a historian.  Everything and anything in the following may be wrong.  Corrections are appreciated.)

    “Judeo-Christian” v.1 appeared in the late thirties, as a reaction to the rise of fascism and its doctrine that true Christianity is inherently antisemitic.  It was strongly endorsed by liberal Jewish and Christian writers, who invoked it to argue that the two faiths were natural allies in defending democracy and liberty.  It faded out when Communism replaced fascism as the primary perceived threat to Western democracy.

    “Judeo-Christian” v.2 appeared in the late forties and early fifties.  Now it was defined in opposition to materialism and atheism, but it also had a specific theological bent; it signalled allegiance to a “Hebraic” worldview, action-oriented, eschatological and grounded in faith and revelation, in contrast to a “Hellenic” worldview, which idolized human reason and accepted a mechanical and undirected theory of history.  This notion was advanced by mainline Protestant theologians like Niebuhr and (to some degree) Tillich, but also by their Jewish counterparts like Abraham Heschel and Will Herberg.  And yes, it was definitely most popular as an anti-Commie rhetorical weapon, but it was also still used to encourage interfaith cooperation.  Heschel invoked it when he exhorted the Catholic Church to engage with Judaism, for instance.

    This usage died in the late sixties and seventies, from a combination of factors.  For one thing, as multiculturalism and ethnic pride became accepted in America, Jews were more likely to define themselves in explicit contrast to Christianity, and to see integrationist rhetoric like “Judeo-Christian” as unwelcome invitations to assimilate.  Furthermore, mainline Protestantism became consciously estranged from American Judaism on a number of issues, including Israel, black activism, and Soviet Jewry.

    “Judeo-Christian” v.3 appeared in the late seventies and early eighties, and it’s pretty much what we have now.  Mainline Protestants were increasingly uncomfortable with Israel’s behavior during and after the Six Day War, but evangelicals were elated–prophecies fulfilled and all that.  Zionist groups, and the Israeli government, responded to this by courting the evangelical community really hard, and conservative evangelicals quickly became the core of American support for Israel.  For most of them, I think, “Judeo-Christian” isn’t a mere sop to Jews; it’s a signal of their support for the divinely-mandated Jewish dominion of the Holy Land.  They honestly do think of themselves as the closest friends of “the Jews”, and they’ve dumped a heck of a lot of money into proving that.

    And they have some Jewish encouragement in this.  Not a lot, numerically speaking–the fraction of contemporary Jews that are comfortable invoking and endorsing a “Judeo-Christian tradition” is fairly small even in Israel, and tiny in the US.  But they’re high profile.  Over here, they’re politicians, lobbyists and activists: Joe Lieberman, Eric Cantor, Esther Levens, the Anti-Defamation League.  (In fact, the ADL’s Abraham Foxman claims to have persuaded Jerry Falwell to describe the US as a “Judeo-Christian nation,” instead of just a “Christian” one.)  In Israel, they include Knesset members, government ambassadors and ex-prime ministers.  And as far as many evangelicals are concerned, they speak for the Jews of the world–or at least the true Jews, the ones who haven’t had their ancestral faith sucked out of them by secularism.

    Now I fully agree that Mitt Romney doesn’t give a hoot about any of this.  He invokes “Judeo-Christian laws and ethics” to say, “Look everybody, I’m a genuine conservative, and by the way, you’re already supposed to be okay with Jews so give the Mormon thing a pass, k?”  Nevertheless, I think that when most rank-and-file conservative Christians use the term “Judeo-Christian,” they honestly believe they’re expressing respect for and engagement with the Jewish people.  They have a peculiarly skewed and exclusionist understanding of that people, but then they have a skewed and exclusionist understanding of the American people as well.

  • Anonymous

    …and for anyone who read all of my last post and is understandably confused as to the point of it, let me summarize:

    It’s often argued, and Burrows seems to agree, that the “Judeo-Christian” label is simply an artifice thought up by Christian conservatives in order to sneak their agenda past Jews and Christian moderates.  It isn’t.  There’s an almost 100-year-old tradition of Christians and Jews genuinely finding common cause on something and using the “Judeo-Christian” label to advertise their alliance.  What has varied over time is which Christians and Jews did this, and what their common cause was.  In recent decades, it’s primarily been conservative Evangelical Christians and a relatively small but influential group of Zionist, hawkish Jews–oh, and the neoconservatives, who are also a small but influential group and include both Christians and Jews.  And their common cause is Israel vs. the Saracen Hordes.

  • Dan Audy

     

    The only joint Jewish and Christian events (aka Judeo-Christian
    tradition?) I’ve learned from studying Western history are pogroms.

    I laughed so hard at this I induced an asthma attack.  Now I feel really bad about finding the sarcastic humour in this funny because really it is a pretty damn sad fact.

  • Tricksterson

    Well, if you’ve read Lamb you will know that “judo” derives from “The Way of the Jew” and was invented by Jesus, with some assitance from his best friend Biff.

  • it encourages them to say “thank God!”, thereby taking the Lord’s name in vain.

    :hands you an internet:

  •  Why would there be an exhortation under the guise of “Judeo-Christian” values for something which is peculiarly Jewish.  It is curiously that you should argue that almost all appeals to such values are Christian, and yet you cite only an example where the values are shared.  Just as it would be nonsense for a billboard to promote abstention from shrimp, it is equally silly to claim that a nativity scene (peculiarly Christian) is a representation of those shared values.

    We can recognize that your example is not one of a Judeo-Christian values alliance and that Turcano’s is not an example of it either.  But your denial that it exists runs contrary to the last four decades of American political history where advocacy for shared values and cooperation between Christian and Jewish groups for political ends has substantially increased.  The fact that they only advocate for shared values is not a refutation of an alliance’s existence; it is the grounds for that existence.

  • FangsFirst

     Nativity scenes are defended on government property under the alleged “Judeo-Christian foundation” of the United States.

    Just because you aren’t aware doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

  • P J Evans

     In the US, ‘Judeo-Christian’ is a dogwhistle for politically conservative Protestants and whatever they approve of (mostly Leviticus and Pauline epistles). It has nothing to do with actual Christianity or actual Judaism.

  • Um, A.W. if you think hatred for abortion (the example cited by Benly) is an example where Jews and Christians share values, you are wrong. The vast majority of Jews are pro-choice, and this is also in accordance with Rabbinic law.

  • Anonymous

    Opposition to abortion is not a shared value of Jews and Christians. The rabbinic tradition is that life begins at the first breath drawn, and that abortion, while undesirable in the same way as any potentially risky medical procedure, is not morally wrong and is in many cases morally required. Support for abortion is especially strong among the Hasids because of the omnipresent specter of Tay-Sachs disease – if prenatal testing determines that a child carries both recessive genes for it, it is considered morally preferable to prevent the fetus from being born before it draws its first breath than to condemn a living child to the inevitable painful death of Tay-Sachs.