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What Is the ‘Judeo-Christian Tradition’?

We often hear or read the label “Judeo-Christian” and do not think twice about the fact that it combines two rather disparate things. After all, the Jewish scriptures that make up the Tanakh are the primary source for what Christians call the “Old Testament,” and the central figure in Christianity was himself a Jew. However, many religious scholars hesitate to use the term, citing concerns that two religions with distinct histories and belief systems should not be so easily lumped together. Where does “Judeo-Christian” come from? And is it appropriate?

The term in its current form originated with George Orwell as a linguistic attempt to fight anti-Semitism in the late 1930s. By using “Judeo-Christian,” Orwell meant to indicate tolerance and solidarity with a persecuted religious minority. The National Conference of Christians and Jews (now called the National Conference for Community and Justice) subsequently adopted the term, and the Four Chaplains — a rabbi and three Christian ministers who in 1943 together gave their lives to rescue others aboard their sinking ship — became an icon of the postwar understanding of America’s religious pluralism. Later, the term became engrained in American civil religion — illustrated by President Eisenhower’s pronouncement that “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith….With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept.” Invoking a similar concept, Will Herberg’s 1955 book Protestant–Catholic–Jew created an influential framework for the study of religion in the United States. (Though Herberg’s framework, it should be noted, is narrower because it omits Orthodox Christians.) “Judeo-Christian” worked its way into theology, too, in the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, for instance, who used the term to underline the importance of the Hebrew prophets in Christianity.

With this history in mind, what should we make of the term today? As with any label that describes complex traditions, we should pay close attention to how it impacts those included and excluded from the category.

The inclination to incorporate Jewish thought into the fabric of society is noble and important, especially in light of political history. But some scholars point out that “Judeo-Christian,” unlike the term “Abrahamic,” can also serve to exclude other religious minorities, such as Muslims — which can have unwelcome implications. The term “Abrahamic” is more inclusive because all three major monotheistic religions trace their lineage to the figure of Abraham.

But one might think that Christianity and Judaism are theologically linked in a way that merits a special term to describe their shared history and belief system. But this notion fails to hold up under scrutiny. The Jewish theologian Eliezer Berkovitz perhaps put it most succinctly when he wrote that “Judaism is Judaism because it rejects Christianity, and Christianity is Christianity because it rejects Judaism.” From a theological standpoint, Christianity and Judaism represent different truth claims — for instance about the nature of God and the divinity of Christ — that appear irreconcilable. And most of the characteristics these two religious traditions do have in common — such as a shared creation story, many of the same prophets, and similar eschatologies — are also found in Islam.

Some Jewish scholars have argued that the primary problem with the term “Judeo-Christian” is that it implies that Judaism progresses into Christianity. There is indeed a theological doctrine called “supersessionism” or “replacement theology” according to which the new Christian covenant is seen as superseding or replacing the Jewish covenants. But this, surely, is a far more specific — and controversial — theological claim than what most people have in mind when they hear or use the words “Judeo-Christian.” Moreover, it is worth noting that the prominence of replacement theology among Christians has declined as “Judeo-Christian” has become more widely used. An additional complication is that the Islamic tradition could itself be understood as intending to supersede both Jewish and Christian teachings.

However, Judaism and Christianity do have a unique history in the United States. George Washington’s letter to a synagogue in Rhode Island is generally regarded as one of the founding documents of American religious freedom. But Washington did not use the phrase “Judeo-Christian” when addressing his Jewish compatriots, calling them instead, “Children of the Stock of Abraham.” Clearly, this appellation would also apply to Muslims, even though that community has a very different history and is still in the process of integrating itself into American culture in ways that other religious minorities have throughout our country’s history.

Of course, “Judeo-Christian” can also serve as the description of a societal belief system. Thus some uses of the term are not meant to pick out particular religious traditions so much as characterize Western civilization itself. “Western values” are sometimes what people point to as comprising a common “Judeo-Christian” tradition. Which deity does the official motto of the United States, “In God We Trust,” point to? Is it exclusively Christian or “Judeo-Christian”? Is it the “Abrahamic” God? Or does the motto point to a generic grounding in Western religious or Enlightenment values? Monuments to the Ten Commandments are often thought of as a way to represent this idea of a common belief system, even though the commandments are numbered and translated differently for Protestants, Orthodox, Catholics, and Jews. (Even the Quran includes its own version of the Ten Commandments.)

In looking for examples of how “Judeo-Christian” is deployed in American discourse, beyond rhetoric and symbolism, look no further than the courts. The 1983 Supreme Court case Marsh v. Chambers held that it was constitutional for state legislatures to have a paid chaplain conduct prayers “in the Judeo-Christian tradition.” A circuit court later used this ruling to deny a Wiccan priestess the right to conduct such prayers because her faith was not “Judeo-Christian.” It is worth noting that Muslims were not excluded in this way.

The concept of a “Judeo-Christian” tradition has come to occupy an important place in the American imagination over almost 80 years, even if its meaning remains slippery. Many see it as a way to represent benignly two religious traditions that have influenced American history more than any others. Others use it as a way to group together religious traditions that are thought to share common values. Still others appeal to “Judeo-Christian” values when taking a stand against secularism. Ultimately, “Judeo-Christian” may best be understood as a political — as opposed to a theological or ethical or historical — term, albeit one with an important and complicated pedigree. As such, it should be used only with care.

The reason George Washington wrote that letter to the Jewish community in 1790 was that Jews had been denied citizenship in some colonies and early states on account of their religion. The boundaries of American religious pluralism have since expanded. But questions about whether religious pluralism applies to all religions — or even to those “nones” who claim no religion — have hardly abated. Thinking carefully about the history of religious terms and their implications today is not mere pedantry, but an urgent task in our globalizing world. How we label belief systems greatly influences our understanding of ourselves and others.

Discussion Summary

The discussion here brought up a number of important points regarding the relationship between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. First, it was posited that the notion of humanity created in the image of God is unique to Judaism and Christianity, and that this provided the foundation for human rights as we now understand them. Second, the claim was made that Western civilization has understood Christian history in terms of its Jewish roots. Both of these points were meant to support the use of the term “Judeo-Christian.”

With respect to the first comment, it is true that the “image of God” is a foundational concept for both Judaism and Christianity — although Sufi Islam also shares this belief. The complex relationship between human rights and religion will have to be left to a future BQO essay, but it is worth observing that the term “human rights” was popularized around the same time as the term “Judeo-Christian.” I would say, though, that even if “Judeo-Christian” is useful when used in this context, the label is not commonly applied in this manner.

In regard to the second comment, I would argue that understanding the Jewish roots of Christianity might be popular now (ranging from the academic world to interfaith communities and evangelical leaders), but this was not the case for most of Western history. The recognition of Jewish identity that emerged in the twentieth century should not be read into events that came before. Prior to this period, Jewish thought was for the most part not incorporated into wider conversations on history or philosophy. Christianity was regularly defined against Judaism — not seen as a sibling religion.

I think the most important takeaway is not necessarily a judgment about whether “Judeo-Christian” is helpful, harmful, or somewhere in the middle. It is more important to understand that it is not a theological or sociological term but a fundamentally political term — one that has had many different philosophical implications as it has served variously to fight anti-Semitism in Europe and the United States during World War II, to define an emerging civil religion against “godless” communism in postwar America, or to represent an exclusive view of American identity as a counter to multiculturalism.