Against the “Judeo-Christian Tradition”

Some American politicians like to claim that their policies are based on the values of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

For Jews, there are no Judeo-Christian values and the Judeo-Christian tradition is a myth.

Let’s be clear: “Judeo-Christian values” is only Christian supercessionism by another name.  Many of those who use the term aren’t interested in post-Christianity Judaism, i.e., Rabbinic Judaism, its values or its beliefs. The term “Judeo-Christian” ignores the physical, intellectual, and spiritual antisemitism that Jews faced in Christian Europe and North America.  It leaps over important theological differences between Judaism and Christianity and erases Jewish concepts and values in the process.

There are Jewish values and there are Christian values.  The two sets intersect but when the term “Judeo-Christian values” is used, what is really meant is “Christian values”.

The history of the term tells a different, more complex, story.

The appeal to a Judeo-Christian tradition and its claimed shared values has been a part of America’s civil religion for decades.  Originally the term was used in a liberal context to counter anti-Semitism beginning in the late 1920s by emphasizing the common ground between Christians and Jews. This effort was best captured by the establishment of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (1927) and its creation of National Brotherhood Week (1934).

By the 1950s it was common to talk about America not simply as a Protestant nation, but one guided by three traditions:  Protestant, Catholic and Jewish. It was part of an attempt to create a sense of interfaith unity that was vital both to the war effort and the post-war revival, and America’s struggle against the godless Communism of the USSR. The phrase became ubiquitous during Eisenhower’s presidency and may be seen as part of the same effort that added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. As Will Herberg’s classic Protestant, Catholic and Jew put it, mainstream Americans had faith in Faith, or maybe in something called the American Way of Life, but not necessarily in God.  Since then—and for a long time afterwards—Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, all used the phrase in their rhetoric.

However, beginning with Reagan’s presidency, “Judeo-Christian values” increasingly became a term identified with conservative Christians.  References to a “Judeo-Christian tradition” and “Judeo-Christian values” became a fixture on the American right in its war with liberalism in all its forms. Today, whenever “Judeo” is prefixed to “Christian values” it is part of an attempt to broaden the appeal of the religious right to a larger share of the public.  But what really is intended is to bolster the legitimacy of a specific Christian value and impose it on everyone else.

How would these Christians feel if a Muslim religious leader, an ayatollah perhaps, appealed to a self-serving “Christo-Islamic tradition” in support of a policy he was championing?

One final kvetch: The addition of “Judeo” to “Christian” offers a false sense of multiculturalism because today, unlike the 1930s, America’s religious landscape is much broader than just “Protestant, Catholic and Jew”.  Used today, the term actively excludes Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, atheists and members of many other faiths too.

It’s time to retire the phrase “Judeo-Christian” and find a more inclusive formulation.  I’ve heard the term “wisdom traditions” bandied about, and it isn’t a bad alternative except that it papers over all the foolishness, ignorance and violence that are also components of all our faith traditions.

One thought on “Against the “Judeo-Christian Tradition”

  1. I couldn’t agree more with your basic thesis. Wisdom traditions sounds stilted. Why not just refer to our common values and leave it at that?

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