On Friday, President Trump told participants in the Values Voter Summit that “We are stopping cold the attacks on Judeo-Christian values.”
Now, critics found it hard to take the “Judeo” part seriously, given that Trump immediately followed that line with another version of his pledge to restore “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” And it’s highly problematic for an American president to defend a religious label that doesn’t describe almost 30% of the population. One wonders how Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and the fast-growing non-religious segments of the population feel about the president’s commitment to “Judeo-Christian” values.
But as a historian, I’m also interested in the origin of that phrase. In his critique of Trump’s speech, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin argues that “Judeo-Christian” is a creation of the Cold War, “an elegant way of saying ‘We are believers; the Russians aren’t.'” (And “a bone that America threw to the Jews, letting us think that our religious faith was an equal partner in American life…. But, in fact, this was never the case.”)
Perhaps he has in mind Mark Silk’s Spiritual Politics: Religion and America Since World War II, a text I occasionally assign in my upper-division Cold War course. The second chapter starts with two statements from the year 1952:
In throwing over the ways of his father without learning any sense of obligation to the Judeo-Christian-democratic pattern, he had nothing except naked self-interest to guide himself.
Our form of government has no sense unless it 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.
The first quotation comes from novelist Budd Schulberg, introducing a new edition of his 1941 bestseller, What Makes Sammy Run?, whose titular Jewish protagonist rises from humble origins to the top of the film industry. The second, more famously, is President Dwight Eisenhower speaking in New York; his invocation of “deeply felt religious faith… I don’t care what it is” is often cited as exemplifying what Salkin calls the “pretty bland” civil religion of the 1950s. Faced with a civilizational threat from an officially atheistic antagonist, “[a]dhesional religious symbolism was what Congress wanted,” writes Silk of debate over adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, “not invidious distinctions among the God-fearing” (p. 100).
Though the “Judeo-Christian” idea came under attack in the 1960s and 1970s, Silk argues that Christian conservatives revived it in the 1980s in order to recruit Jewish allies in their battles against abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and other threats to “traditional values.”
But he also points out that “Judeo-Christian” originated not in the 1950s in opposition to Communism, but in the 1930s and 1940s in opposition to Fascism, among intellectuals who worried that “Christian” had been hijacked by right-wing figures like Father Coughlin. (Philip Jenkins wrote about this movement a few months ago at The Anxious Bench.) In Christianity and Democracy (1943), for example, the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain observed that modern civilization had “preserved in its foundations the heritage of divine and human values which emanates from our fathers’ struggle for freedom, from the Judaeo-Christian tradition and from classical antiquity.” That heritage was threatened by “the horrible war that the Pagan Empire has unleashed on the peoples of the earth….”
While some Jewish leaders pushed back against any suggestion that their religion and Christianity were fundamentally similar, Silk observes that Christian thinkers like Maritain and Reinhold Niebuhr and Jewish counterparts like Waldo Frank and Abraham Heschel were retrieving (to different degrees) a shared ethical and theological heritage in the Hebrew Scriptures’ teachings about human sin and God’s justice.
But Silk emphasizes that this was a prophetic tradition. “But what did these adhesional emblems,” he asks of Cold War mottoes like In God We Trust, “have to do with ‘real’ Judeo-Christianity? What about the prophetic exposure of society’s false absolutes and sanctimonious self-righteousness?… ‘Authentic Jewish-Christian faith,’ wrote [Will] Herberg [in 1955’s Protestant-Catholic-Jew] had less to fear from ‘overt and avowed unbelief’ than from the secularized piety of ‘the contemporary religious revival.'”
In the end, I’m not sure there’s much to be gained by using the “Judeo-Christian” phrase. But we might consider that any such tradition — as originally intended — would lead us to oppose the fusion of politics and religion on display this weekend. First, it would question the sincerity of a president who, we learned again today, sneers at the same religious Americans whose faith he manipulates so adroitly. Second, this tradition, Salkin reminds us, would speak prophetically of values — e.g., “Welcoming the stranger… The idea that all humans are descended from Adam and Eve, and are therefore deserving of dignity” — not shared by Trump’s fellow summit speakers Sebastian Gorka and Steve Bannon, the white nationalist who told those religious conservatives that they had a chance to be “the folks who saved the Judeo-Christian West.”
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