uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Manufactured 'Judeo-Christian Tradition'

Asked at last week's Florida debate how his religion might influence his decisions as president, GOP front-runner Mitt Romney on cue responded with boilerplate, right-wing narrative: "We are based on Judeo Christian laws and ethics."

Not really, no. But this trope is repeated by the right with such frequency that even well-meaning individuals will use the phrase "Judeo-Christian" without understanding where it actually comes from. 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.


The invention of the "Judeo-Christian tradition" can be found in any number of treatments of the postwar period. Martin Marty's extensive Modern American Religion treats the subject in Volume 3: Under God, Indivisible, 1941-1960, in Chapter 20. The historian Mark Silk has a helpful article summarizing the creation of the term, which notes that it did not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary until 1899, and even then referred to something far different than it does today (namely, the development of church ritual out of Second Temple practices). Only in the wake of fascism's rise in the 1930s did the term take off, coming to full realization under Eisenhower in the 1950s, as documented by Marty. Though Deborah Dash Moore has pushed its impetus back to World War II with the serving of Jewish GIs alongside Catholic and Protestant ones, its full political effect would come during the Red Scare, though not without some outcry. Even as early as the 1960s, Arthur Cohen was writing a series of essays that would eventually be published together as The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition.

The phrase was intended to extend past the more exclusive-sounding "Christian nation," especially in the wake of the Holocaust, but rather than celebrating pluralism, it came to be used to define America against godless communism. It was under the new influence of the "Judeo-Christian religion" that "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. It was also under this new ideology that 10 Commandments displays began cropping up all over the country in conjunction with legendary film director Cecil B. DeMille, whose movie by the same name contracted a fictional, Phoenician-style script that ended up on many of the monuments the Right now defend against lawsuits. Indeed, I've given papers that track the influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition on most of the Biblical films of the 1950s, which seek to elide the differences between first century Christians and Jews and pit them against a godless, slave-holding state.

The bogus Phoenician-style script,
on a Ten Commandments display in Duluth, Minn.

Republican candidates (and even many Democrats) appear more informed by the narratives of these movies than by actual history, where the relationships between Christians and Jews frayed after disagreements over the conversion of Gentiles under Paul and soured further still each subsequent century. In light of that real and unfortunate history, one might be tempted to think of the "Judeo-Christian tradition" as a good thing -- a Jewish-Christian reconciliation that opens up the American heritage beyond Christianity to Jews as well, who have been a part of this country since the 17th century. But the phrase has not typically been used inclusively. Rather, it has been used exclusively, as a way to define America against atheistic communists or, more recently, against Muslims. Not to mention, most who use the phrase are Christian, and the "Judeo-Christian tradition" threatens to subsume Judaism into Christianity without remaining itself intact.

And, of course, the phrase is historically dubious. The founders based the republic more on classical models than Biblical ones, using noncommittal Enlightenment-era terminology for God (The Creator) if and when they deigned to mention him at all. That's not to say Christianity has not infused the culture of our country at all: it clearly has. But none of the founders would have recognized the phrase "Judeo-Christian," certainly not in the way it is used today, and they took pains to explain to other countries at the time that we were not a Christian nation, much less a "Judeo-Christian" one.

But then, Romney didn't use the phrase to make any semblance of an intellectual argument about the history of this country or either of the two faiths included in that hyphenation. No, he merely wanted to inspire a guttural, dog-whistle response among right-wingers who still see no place for atheists or Muslims in America, and who look no further back than the 1950s (and worse yet, its homiletic filmscape) in search of American heritage.

10 comments:

  1. This is not a comment stemming from my regard for you or from the fact I consider you a friend, but I wanted to let you know how much I enjoy reading your blogs. I find them insightful, often humorous, and always intelligent and considered. Please, keep them coming.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, Richard! I enjoy yours as well. I wish I had time to write more often, but oh well...

    ReplyDelete
  3. There is an additional factor in Romney's use of the phrase that you may not have considered. By cloaking himself in the mantle of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Romney also subtly assimilates Mormonism into that tradition, despite the fact that Mormonism is much farther away from mainstream Christianity than Judaism. After all, both of those faiths agree unanimously on the validity of the Old Testament; they just disagree on whether Jesus was the Messiah and thus whether the New Testament has any validity. Mormonism, OTOH, rejects large chunks of the Old Testament creation myth, rewrites the Babylonian captivity story (which is a defining event in Jewish cultural identity), AND suggests that the story of Jesus does not end with his Ascension but continues on with his American ministry. Indeed, the central question of Christianity -- "how do I get to Heaven" -- is replaced with a very different question: "how do I ascend to godhood." When those beliefs are taken into account, Romney's use of the phrase "Judeo-Christian tradition" almost seems Orwellian, IMO.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Indeed, the central question of Christianity -- "how do I get to Heaven" -- is replaced with a very different question: "how do I ascend to godhood."

    Please Wikipedia St. Athanasias for a brief explanation of why your comment is wrong. Mormonism is very different from mainstream Christianity, but that's not why.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Speaking of Wikipedia, Wikipedia has a different view of the origins of the term "Judeo-Christian". See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judeo-Christian

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not entirely different. The 19th century senses they mention are what are reflected in the 1899 dictionary definition mentioned (second-temple practices that influenced both rabbinic Judaism and Christianity), while the "civic religion" and "culture wars" sections chart the use of the term as I describe it here: a postwar product of political ideologies.

      Delete
  6. It is of some note to question, this has been the trait of our species since the 'dawn of time'. The great sociology researchers tell us that religion is complex (Penguin Dictionary of Sociology). However, we can further note that the so-called Christian tradition advocates the use of free-will to accept the Veritas of the Lord. Well, again, such things speak for themselves...The 25/12/XX, for example, was a 'Pagan' Roman Holiday, used by the new sect to symbolise the so-called 'new order'...

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks for this. I wondered about that "Judeo-Christian" phrase and I explain why I reject it in a recent blog post. Amazing how many Christians are brainwashed on this issue.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Jeanine! Do you have a link for your blog post? I'd love to read it!

      Delete