In a press conference in Turkey, President Obama said, “One of the great strengths of the United States is … we have a very large Christian population — we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.”On CNN, Republican activist Frank Donatelli of Gopac, came up with a creative interpretation of Obama’s comments. “For the President to deny that our country is informed by Judeo-Christian values…. The better answer would have been to say that we are a nation that considers itself a product of the Judeo Christian tradition because that happens to be accurate.” Wolf Blitzer suggested that Obama was “trying to underscore…that there should be a separation of chuch and state,” to which Donatelli said, “the fact that the president has to appear to apologize for us on that basis seems to me to be ridiculous.”Let’s put aside for now the fact Obama didn’t “apologize for us” or “deny that our country is informed by Judeo-Christian values.” (Donatelli just made that up).I want to unpack this phrase Judeo-Christian heritage, which is both empty and wrong. Sure, we were deeply influenced by some Biblical principles. The idea that we had immutable rights to liberty — that couldn’t be taken away by a King or a parliament — came from a religious conception of man as created in God’s image. Those rights were, therefore, “endowed by our Creator.”But the construction of our government was also influenced by Rome, and yet we don’t talk about being influenced by the Zeusian-Ceasarian heritage. Locke and Montesquieu influence the Founders views greatly yet we don’t applaud our Anglo-French Heritage. Obviously some folks focus on the Christian influences in the hope that it can ward off either pure religious pluralism, secularism or excessive separation of church and state.Nonetheless, let’s go further and posit that of the many influences on our nation, religion was one of the most important. But “Judeo-Christian”? Nuh uh. First of all, the Judeos were not really at the table. As of the Constitution’s ratification, most American states didn’t allow Jews to hold office.Second, the religious tradition that influenced the American founding was not Christianity in general but Protestantism in particular — often in fervent opposition to Catholicism. Many of those who settled America did so to prevent the spread of Catholicism. Patriots used anti-Catholic sentiment to fuel the American revolution. Beloved Founding Fathers like John Adams espoused openly anti-Catholic views.If we’re going to talk about the important religious influences of the Founding Era we should be referring to our “Protestant heritage,” which was quite significant, not our Judeo-Christian heritage. Perhaps that locution won’t go over that well with the one third of American Chrsitians who are Catholic but that’s what would be accurate.

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