Leading Muslim organizations say it's time for Americans to stop using the phrase "Judeo-Christian" when describing the values and character that define the United States. Better choices, they say, are "Judeo-Christian-Islamic" or "Abrahamic," referring to Abraham, the patriarch held in common by the monotheistic big three religions.

The new language should be used "in all venues where we normally talkabout Judeo-Christian values, starting with the media, academia, statementsby politicians and comments made in churches, synagogues and other places,"said Agha Saeed, founder and chairman of the American Muslim Alliance, apolitical group headquartered in Fremont, Calif.

Other national Muslim groups supporting a change include the Council onAmerican-Islamic Relations, the Muslim American Society and the AmericanMuslim Council.

The budding movement is largely unformed, and religion watchers questionwhether it will succeed. Still, the call for new terms shows that wordscarry huge symbolic importance for Muslims trying to find their role inAmerica after Sept. 11 and the Iraq war.

"These are not just let's-make-you-feel-good words," Saeed said. "Theseare words that define how we're related to each other."

Others take offense, arguing that to alter the phrase "Judeo-Christian"is political correctness and revisionist history at its worst.

"A lot of the ideas that underpin civil liberties come fromJudeo-Christian theology," said the Rev. Ted Haggard of Colorado Springs,Colo., president of the National Association of Evangelicals. "What theIslamic community needs to make are positive contributions to culture andsociety so we can include them."

Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Washington-based Ethics andPublic Policy Center, said a "Judeo-Christian understanding of things likefreedom of conscience and liberty" are embodied in the Constitution. "Nooffense intended," he said, "but Muslims weren't a part of that, even thoughthey're part of the discussion now."

The conflict illustrates the power of words, especially those touchingon religion, national history and identity.

In a 2002 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and thePew Research Center for People and the Press, two-thirds of respondents saidthey consider the United States a "Christian nation" and 58 percent said thestrength of American society is based on the religious faith of its people. But only 14 percent said it is essential that a person believe in "basicJudeo-Christian values" in order to be a good American.

From its founding to the late 1940s, the United States was commonlydescribed as Christian, a trend epitomized by an 1892 Supreme Court rulingin which Justice David Brewer wrote, "This is a Christian nation."

According to a 1984 scholarly article by religion writer Mark Silk,"Judeo-Christian" wasn't used to refer to a common American outlook ofvalues and beliefs until World War II, when the supposedly Christian Nazisand their death camps made future references to "our Christian civilization"sound ominously exclusive.

"`Judeo-Christian,' which in 1952 looked like an incredibly inclusiveterm, doesn't look very inclusive now," said Silk, now director of theGreenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at TrinityCollege, in Hartford. Conn., in an interview. "So we probably need a newterm."

But, Silk acknowledged, "I think Judeo-Christian-Islamic is going to behard for the public to accept at this moment when you've just had peopleattacking the United States in the name of Islam."

While "Judeo-Christian" may not be used with the frequency heard in the1950s, it's still a part of the vernacular, uttered recently by publicofficials ranging from Republican Attorney General John Ashcroft to Sen. TedKennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat.

The movement to drop or change the phrase has some non-Muslim support,including the head of the National Council of Churches. The Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the council, which represents 36 Christian denominations, said he prefers "Abrahamic" to "Judeo-Christian-Islamic" because it "rolls off the tongue a little easier."

"The more inclusive we can be, the more committed we are to the foundingfathers and mothers who struggled with the issue of respect for each other'sreligious faiths," Edgar said.

There are other arguments for change, among them these:

  • Numbers. The U.S. Muslim population is growing. Estimates aredisputed but range as high as 7 million. This compares to an estimated 5million Jews. "Muslims are here, and there are 7 million of them, even though they're largely invisible to most Americans," said Saeed. "This necessitates some discussion about language."
  • Commonality. Even though many people emphasize the differences, Islam has similarities with Christianity and Judaism. "We believe in heaven and hell, in doing good deeds, in following the Ten Commandments," said Hannah Hawk, a spokesperson for the Houston Muslim Public Affairs Council. "Islamic values are not only compatible with American values, they're almost identical. I personally believe the most Islamic country in the world is America, where we believe in freedom of religion, freedom of the press and equality of all."