Religion & Public Life With Mark Silk

Religion & Public Life With Mark Silk

What’s wrong with the Judeo-Christian Tradition?

Over at Religion Dispatches, Shalom Goldman is the latest Jewish writer to try to kill off “the Judeo-Christian tradition.” Inspired by a new “Judeo-Christian Voter Guide,”
he resuscitates the claim that the phrase does little more than paper
over the long history of Jewish-Christian animosity, subordinating
Jewish distinctiveness to ecumenical public relations.

In a study
published over a quarter-century ago, I traced this claim as far back
as 1943, but its prime exponent has been the late author and publisher
Arthur A. Cohen, whose 1969 Commentary article,
“The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition” (redone in his 1970 essay
collection of the same title) blacklisted the term, at least in certain
circles. The article, which Goldman persists in calling “brilliant,” is a
piece of agit-prop that fundamentally misconstrues how the JCT came
into common usage. Goldman doesn’t do much better.


Cohen asserted
that the tradition “as such” originated among the German higher critics
of the Bible, whose aim was to “de-Judaize” Christianity even as they
acknowledged its Jewish roots. But no such usage exists in German
biblical criticism. “Judeo-Christian” was first commonly employed in
mid-19th-century English and French accounts of Christian origins. The
“Judeo-Christians” were those early followers of Jesus who wished to
restrict their messiah’s message to the Jews, and insisted that all who
followed Jesus also follow Jewish law. They lost out, of course, to Paul
and his compadres–the non-Judeo-Christians.

So far as I
can tell, it was the French who first used “Judeo-Christian” to refer
more generally to the Western religious tradition. Tellingly, this
extended usage appears to have caught on at the time of the Dreyfus
Affair in 1899. Anti-Dreyfusards, convinced that defenders of the Jewish
officer were part of an anti-Catholic conspiracy, began referring
darkly to their opponents as a “Judeo-Masonic-Protestant coalition
or “syndicate.” Dreyfusards like Anatole France responded by
characterizing Western religious values and outlooks not as “Christian”
but as “Judeo-Christian” (e.g. “the old Judeo-Christian cosmogony,” p. 199).


a word, opposition to anti-Semitism was the key factor in explaining
the rise of “Judeo-Christian” as a term of general cultural import.
During the late 1930s, anti-Fascists in both France and the United
States took up the term at a time when “Christian” had become a code
word for anti-Semitic organizations on the Fascist right. Indeed, the
least attractive aspect of the Jewish critique of the phrase is the
charge that “Judeo-Christian” signals a Christian desire to absorb and
denigrate Judaism. On the contrary, it served precisely as a rebuke to
those who wanted to exclude Jews and eradicate Judaism. Theologically,
Judeo-Christian language was not merely ecumenical happy talk; it was
used by neo-orthodox thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr, who wanted to
emphasize the Hebraic (prophetic) side of their faith over Hellenic
theological categories.


There is, to be sure, no little irony in
the fact that, over the past generation, the phrase has been so
fervently embraced by the religious right. To understand how this could
have come about, you have to follow the JCT through its service as an
anti-Communist shibboleth during the Cold War, and its rejection in the
counterculture of the 1960s.There’s no doubt that, so far as the folks
behind that new voter guide are concerned, “Judeo-Christian” is just
code language for their own conservative understanding of Western
religious values. That said, it should not be doubted that when, say,
the new governor of Alabama allows as how his only brothers and sisters
are Christians, it’s useful to be able to remind him that his own
religious tradition is actually Judeo-Christian.


always been something peculiar in the claim that belonging to the same
tradition means that you’ve always gotten along fine. No one would say
that the heretics of Late Antiquity or the High Middle Ages (Arians,
Donatists, Waldensians, etc.), didn’t belong to the Christian religious
tradition, much less that the Catholics and Protestants who fought each
other to a standstill in Early Modern Europe didn’t. Islam has been
called a Judeo-Christian heresy, and Mormonism could as well; crusades
and jihads and excommunications don’t erase genetic identity. After all
the politic rhetoric is over, there’s more than sufficient common ground
between Judaism and Christianity to justify the idea of a
Judeo-Christian tradition. That’s probably why, in this era of increased
awareness of non-Western religions, the term has grown in popularity, notwithstanding Cohen et al.


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