In the United States, it’s common to hear frequent and impassioned references to the concept of ‘Judeo-Christian’ culture, ethics, or values. Any cursory review of American media will demonstrate that the concept is used on both sides of the proverbial aisle – this nebulous Judeo-Christian ideal is evoked in defense of both liberal and conservative political agendas on a routine basis. Rarely does this conflation of Judaism and Christianity seem to be questioned. More often than not it is held up as representing the belief system of America’s founders (who, in fact, were quite idiosyncratic in their religious doctrines). Despite its omnipresence in political discourse, I believe that the concept of Judeo-Christian tradition is bizarre, imprecise, and most importantly – dangerous.
To begin with the bizarre: although the term first appears in the mid 19th century, it only gained its current implication – that of a shared value system and morals – in the 1940s. President Eisenhower made the concept a household term when he connected it with the Founding Fathers in a 1952 speech:
“all men are endowed by their Creator.” In other words, 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 with all men created equal.”
To the astute reader of history, President Eisenhower’s statement seems incredibly bizarre in light of the balance of Jewish-Christian relationships. There is practically no precedent whatsoever for understanding Judaism and Christianity as sharing a common core of beliefs, practices, or morals. Moreover, there’s a good argument to be made that the entire foundation of Western civilization (which is more or less co-terminous with Christendom) is based on opposition to Judaism and it’s values (for instance, the work of David Nirenberg). The overwhelming history of Christian religious violence against Jews, from antiquity to today, including such highlights as blood libels, the Crusades, pogroms, expulsions, and book-burnings, all testify to the deeply ingrained rejection and revulsion of Jews by Christians. Even such prominent Church Fathers as John Chrysostom and Tertullian defined Christianity in opposition to Judaism. Chrysostom’s infamous Adversus Judaeos contains the following gem:
“The Jewish people were driven by their drunkenness and plumpness to the ultimate evil; they kicked about, they failed to accept the yoke of Christ, nor did they pull the plow of his teaching. Another prophet hinted at this when he said: “Israel is as obstinate as a stubborn heifer.” … Although such beasts are unfit for work, they are fit for killing. And this is what happened to the Jews: while they were making themselves unfit for work, they grew fit for slaughter. This is why Christ said: “But as for these my enemies, who did not want me to be king over them, bring them here and slay them.” [Luke 19:27]”
Reading the tirades of Adversus Judaeos, it’s hard to imagine how anyone might imagine that there is a preexisting conception of a shared Jewish/Christian view of the world. In addition to the bizarre nature of such a claim, it is also shockingly imprecise. The Judeo-Christian value system that American political commentators love to reference has no precedent in history (in fact, quite the opposite), but it also has no basis in the theological and ethical systems of the two faiths. Advocates of the use of ‘Judeo-Christian’ as an acceptable adjective fail to acknowledge that the very core of their argument – that Judaism and Christianity share essential values – is simply untrue.
It’s impossible to adequately compare two extremely developed theological systems – not even in a multi-volume work, much less in a blog post. For the sake of brevity, simply consider some basic principles of each faith. Law, salvation, afterlife, sin, hierarchy, ritual, monotheism – even belief, faith, and practice – nearly every component of an authentic Christian practice and an authentic Jewish one differ in an elementary way. If we wish to be precise (which we should), it simply doesn’t make sense to consider Judaism and Christianity as sharing the same outlook on God or the world.
Most importantly, the concept of a Judeo-Christian value system is dangerous. Lest one think the days of supersessionist theology have passed, the contemporary fascination with conflating Judaism and Christianity can be read as simply a continuation of earlier supersessionist attempts. Stephen Feldman puts it well when he writes:
“For Christians, the concept of a Judeo-Christian tradition comfortably suggests that Judaism progresses into Christianity—that Judaism is somehow completed in Christianity. The concept of a Judeo-Christian tradition flows from the Christian theology of supersession, whereby the Christian covenant (or Testament) with God supersedes the Jewish one. Christianity, according to this myth, reforms and replaces Judaism. The myth therefore implies, first, that Judaism needs reformation and replacement, and second, that modern Judaism remains merely as a “relic”. Most importantly the myth of the Judeo-Christian tradition insidiously obscures the real and significant differences between Judaism and Christianity.”
Conflating Judaism and Christianity in the way that we see today in America is simply the latest polemic meant to eliminate Judaism and define the Western world as that which has conquered Judaism.
Even if we were of the opinion that it was productive and wise to talk about a shared inter-religious culture, it would definitely not be Christianity and Judaism. Were such a thing to be a useful concept, the only potentially accurate incarnation of it would be a Jewish-Muslim culture. Islam and Judaism actually do share basic concepts about law, behavior, faith, the nature of God, the obligations of people, the running of a society, etc. There’s some notable exceptions to their surprisingly similar traditions, but all in all, their morals, ethics, and values are considerably more similar than different. And they’re certainly both more similar to one another than either is to Christianity. Even Slavoj Zizek in A Glance into the Archives of Islam writes:
“We usually speak of the Jewish-Christian civilization – perhaps, the time has come, especially with regard to the Middle East conflict, to talk about the Jewish-Muslim civilization as an axis opposed to Christianity.”
Ultimately, no attempt to treat two disparate cultures as one is productive or useful – but were we to do so, there’s very little reason (aside from supersessionism and anti-Judaism) to try and conflate Christianity and Judaism. When we talk about a Judeo-Christian civilization, we demean and endanger both Judaism and Christianity, and we do neither of them any favors by continuing to reference such an idea.