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Once, the ‘Judeo-Christian tradition’ united Americans. Now it divides them.

The Judeo-Christian tradition has become a partisan catchphrase.

- April 17, 2019

Even as Notre Dame Cathedral was burning, pundits such as Ben Shapiro and Katie Hopkins began to mourn it as a “monument to Western civilization … built on the Judeo-Christian heritage” — describing the fire as symbolic of a “Judeo-Christian annihilation.” The president of Poland immediately called for rebuilding the cathedral as a symbolic reconstruction of Europe on its “real, historical, Judeo-Christian foundation.” As critics responded, the debate heated up, leading to both religious and historical confusion. So what is the “Judeo-Christian tradition”?

Its meaning sounds obvious

Many people use the term “Judeo-Christian tradition” to describe a religious and ethical consensus. The phrase commonly refers to the shared religious texts (the Ten Commandments, incorporation of the Torah into the Christian Bible), shared moral principles (the “golden rule”), and millennia of shared cultural and historical values between Christianity and Judaism. Both faiths affirm one God, prize the covenant between God and his people, and value the dignity of human life. Said to be the basis of Western civilization, the Judeo-Christian tradition invokes shared values and connected fates.

Others employ it for political ends. The Judeo-Christian tradition is a core tenet of American national identity, part of the civic religion of the United States. President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously called for a government that “is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us, of course, it is the Judeo-Christian concept but it must be a religion that all men are created equal.” Ronald Reagan, as both governor and president, frequently referred to the tradition, whether as a moral principle or a reason for specific policies on issues such as abortion. John Kasich, then the governor of Ohio, wanted to set up a new agency to promote Judeo-Christian values. Mitt Romney saw it as “central to America’s rise in global leadership.” President Barack Obama invoked it to eulogize Shimon Peres. Then-candidate Donald Trump vowed he would be “stopping cold the attacks on Judeo-Christian values.” And Stephen K. Bannon repeatedly invokes it in his plans to promote European and American nationalism.

But it isn’t

Yet the “Judeo-Christian tradition” is neither as religiously or politically coherent as it sounds. “Judeo-Christian” fuses together distinct theologies; few elements of doctrine or belief are shared. Beyond the obvious incompatibility regarding Jesus’ divinity, theological approaches to salvation, the meaning of religious observance and even the necessity of belief in God differ among Jews and Christians.

Nor is there much of history of shared fates here on Earth. In the name of defending Christian communities, European rulers and Christian clerics promulgated the blood libel, forced Jews to convert (and then punished them for incomplete conversions), and had Jewish children taken away from their parents. Historically, ghettos, pogroms, expulsions, restrictions on jobs and education, and the toleration of violence and prejudice directed against Jews in the name of Christian integrity all belie the notion of shared fates, much less shared moral principles.

So where did the term come from?

The “tradition” itself is an invention. It was coined by German theologian Ferdinand Christian Baur in 1831, but it gained little resonance until just before World War II, when it first became a philosophical affirmation of anti-fascism.

It took the American wartime experience in World War II to create the tradition, as historians such as Mark Silk and Deborah Dash Moore demonstrate. After the sinking of the USAT Dorchester in 1943, when its four Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish chaplains drowned together at prayer, the military developed a common worship service and promulgated the four chaplains, and the Judeo-Christian tradition they symbolized, as a way to integrate the religious diversity of the forces.

Google ngram for “Judeo-Christian tradition,” accessed April 15, 2019.
Google ngram for “Judeo-Christian tradition,” accessed April 15, 2019.

After World War II, interfaith organizations such as the National Conference of Jews and Christians, liberal theologians such as Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, and politicians of all stripes all actively promoted the idea of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It offered national solidarity as a riposte to the horrors of the Holocaust. Just as important, it differentiated the United States from the atheist forces of “godless communism,” without imposing a divisive denominational favoritism.

Yet even in the 1950s, not all Christians and Jews supported the tradition. The Roman Catholic Church resisted the idea, as it implied that multiple religions were equally valid. Others charged that the veneer of equality and reciprocal influence belied a Christian supremacy. Yet even vehement critics of the tradition acknowledged its political and cultural significance — and its ubiquity in the American national imagination. (The “tradition” remained a largely American phenomenon. Postwar European politicians rarely invoked the Judeo-Christian tradition, or religion at all).

It serves new political purposes

As I argue elsewhere, the American embrace of the “Judeo-Christian tradition” gave religious groups new moral authority. When evangelical Protestants entered national politics in the late 1970s in alliance with the Republican Party, the “Judeo-Christian tradition” justified both their political influence — and the policy demands of the Republican Party on abortion, stem cell research, religion in schools, judiciary appointments and even foreign policy. The implied consensus turned into more of a partisan tool.

The “Judeo-Christian tradition” also excluded other religious groups, notably Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs — and atheists. Even as America became more diverse, these groups were excluded from the “traditional” consensus. Not surprisingly, then, Americans report feeling warmer sentiment toward Jews and mainstream Christians than they do to other religious groups — and despite a general warming trend among all Americans, Republicans remain far more suspicious than Democrats of Muslims, atheists, Hindus and Buddhists.

Meanwhile, right-wing politicians in Europe such as Geert Wilders and Viktor Orban invoked Judeo-Christian “heritage” or “values” in the early 2000s, to identify Muslims as a threat to European values, cultures and politics. Such charges belie the long-term historical presence of Muslim communities in Europe, and the tenuous nature of the “tradition” itself. But they point to a critical similarity in both American and European politics: The “Judeo-Christian tradition” is an expedient political tactic, rather than a long-standing historical consensus.

Anna Grzymala-Busse is Michelle and Kevin Douglas Professor of International Studies at Stanford University.