Facebook Twitter

What does ‘Judeo-Christian’ mean?

The phrase that is bandied about on the right is ahistorical and exclusionary, critics say

SHARE What does ‘Judeo-Christian’ mean?
Judeo_Christian_Mya_f.jpg

Michelle Budge, Deseret News

On the right, the phrase “Judeo-Christian” has become like a password: It’s a short, fast way to prove your conservative ilk.

“We believe that America’s destiny depends on upholding the Judeo-Christian values and principles of our nation’s founding,” said former President Donald Trump recently at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority conference in Nashville, Tennessee.

“We know that this is a nation with a deep Judeo-Christian footing. We must defend it at every turn,” said Mike Pompeo at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February.

Explaining his decision to start the National Association of Christian Lawmakers in 2020, Arkansas state Sen. Jason Rapert remarked, “Our ultimate goal and intent is that we restore the Judeo-Christian foundations of our government that were intended from the very beginning.” 

And, in Idaho in 2015, a group of Republican politicians cited the “Judeo-Christian bedrock of the founding of the United States” in their proposal to make the state formally Christian. 

But experts say the phrase is problematic at best, with critics describing it as a sort-of “marketing campaign” that outstayed its welcome.

“The phrase is … a modern one arising from a contemporary political setting that elides a painful history between Jews and Christians in which there was a huge power differential,” said Malka Simkovich, Crown-Ryan chair of Jewish Studies and director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at Catholic Theological Union.

She and others believe the term “Judeo-Christian” papers over the history of violent antisemitism that Jews faced in Christendom and collapses important theological differences between Judaism and Christianity, erasing Jews in the process.

“There isn’t such a thing as Judeo-Christian anything,” said Meredith J.C. Warren, a senior lecturer in Biblical and Religious Studies at the University of Sheffield.

Critics also say that the inclusion of “Judeo” gives a false sense of multiculturalism when the term actually serves to exclude Muslims, atheists and members of many other faiths. They’re hoping the phrase “Judeo-Christian” will soon be retired in favor of a more inclusive — and accurate — alternative.

What is the history of the term ‘Judeo-Christian’?

The origin of the phrase “Judeo-Christian” isn’t entirely settled: European scholars have noted that German theologians used the term in the early 1800s. Today, the term is sometimes used — problematically, Simkovich said — in reference to the “early followers of Jesus who lived in the Jewish community.” 

In the American context, the term “Judeo-Christian” was part of “a redefinition of democracy that began in the ’30s in response to totalitarianism around the globe,” said K. Healan Gaston, author of “Imagining Judeo-Christian America: Religion, Secularism, and the Redefinition of Democracy” and a lecturer on American religious history and ethics at Harvard Divinity School.

In the wake of massive Catholic and Jewish immigration to what was then an overwhelmingly Protestant country, the phrase “Judeo-Christian” was also a response to anti-Catholic sentiment and antisemitism. It can be understood as an attempt to create tri-faith unity among the three religious groups that were, at the time, at the center of American life, Gaston said.

This unity was instrumental to the war effort and post-war nation building, becoming deeply linked to the American concept of democracy. The phrase became ubiquitous during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, though Eisenhower later backed away from the term privately when he realized how exclusionary it was, according to Gaston.

The term was handy during the Cold War as a way of differentiating America from our supposedly nonreligious, communist enemies, said Marc Zvi Brettler, a Jewish studies professor at Duke University and co-author of “The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently.”

“One of the times the term was really ascendant was as an anti-communist term,” Brettler said. 

Some of that anti-communist residue lingers on the word today as the right often falsely depicts Democrats — a group that includes the majority of American Jews as well as Black Americans, one of the country’s most religious demographics — as godless, secular humanists at best and radical socialists at worst.

For the most part, from the 1930s to 1970s, it was liberals that used the term “Judeo-Christian,” said Gaston. But by the 1970s, the phrase began to gain currency with the right. And it took off in the 1980s with conservatives. Ronald Reagan included the term in his presidential platform, said Gaston, who explained that Reagan imprinted a “Judeo-Christian framework on top of deep-seated anti-communism and free market economics.”

After Reagan, Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority picked up the phrase and it came to be used in five subsequent Republican presidential platforms, Gaston said, but never on the Democratic side. It remains a shorthand for all of those ideas that Reagan loaded into the term, including free market capitalism, family values and other conservative ideals.

How do Jews feel about the phrase Judeo-Christian?

For some Jews, the inclusion suggested by the phrase “Judeo-Christian” has been comforting, said Gaston, adding that the Conservative movement has historically been somewhat more amenable to the term than the Reform and Orthodox movements. 

But many American Jews have a complicated relationship with the term, said Brettler, a practicing Jew.

While it’s “fine to talk about the commonalities between Judaism and Christianity,” he said that current usage of the term represents a “problematic construct that makes things much more hunky dory than they should be.” 

The expression emphasizes “the similarities and almost entirely (denies) the differences,” between Christianity and Judaism, Brettler added.

There’s also a risk that people who embrace the phrase “Judeo-Christian” will deny the antisemitism experienced by early Jewish immigrants to the U.S.

Invoking the so-called “Judeo-Christian” foundations of the country, Brettler said, is “a type of fake nostalgia.”

Has the phrase caught on outside the U.S.?

The phrase “Judeo-Christian” — with an exclusionary meaning — has also caught on among the European right, particularly in France, according to Nadia Malinovich, author of “French and Jewish: Culture and Politics of Identity in Early Twentieth Century France” and a researcher affiliated with the Groupe Société Religions Laïcités at the French National Centre for Scientific Research. 

“Jews have been re-centered as white societal insiders while Muslims are now cast as the primary others,” said Malinovich. The phrase, she added, is “being bandied about” as a cover for Christian nationalism.

“Rather than saying ‘Christian civilization,’ it’s Judeo-Christian. … It’s a way of trying to cover up the fact that it’s just Christian by somehow getting the Jews involved ex-post facto,” she said. 

Obliterating the theological differences and contemporary and historical tensions between Jews and Christians, Malinovich said, is, among other things, “disrespectful of the Jews who died in the Holocaust.” 

Moving away from Judeo-Christian

The term “Judeo-Christian” omits the third Abrahamic faith — Islam — and erases its contributions to European history and, by extension, Western culture. The phrase ignores the fact that, historically, Jews lived with greater freedom and security in the Muslim world than they did in Christendom, said Warren.

In the American context, not only does “Judeo-Christian” exclude Muslims, Warren added, but also Indigenous communities.

“In North America specifically it’s important to foreground the rights and traditions of the continent’s First Peoples rather than erase them, too, with the phrase Judeo-Christian,” she said.

Many religion experts say the term should scrapped in favor of something more inclusive, like “interfaith.”

“Judeo-Christian” was “a brilliant civic invention that widened the country’s understanding of itself and reduced antisemitic and anti-Catholic bigotry,” Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith America, recently told the Deseret News.

“Now that America’s demographics have changed further — there are just as many Buddhists and Muslims in the country as there are Lutherans — it’s time to write the next great chapter in the history of American religion. And we think ‘interfaith America’ is the right title for that chapter.”

Rather than trying to create a melting pot in which individuals’ identities are subsumed into a larger national identity, we should strive for a potluck, Patel said, “where people’s unique identities are welcome contributions to the feast.”