The alt-right has always had an awkward relationship with traditional conservatives. Its love of conspiracy theories, its penchant for violence, and its need for enemies make it hard to build a movement that foments anything besides resentment. There are plenty of decent conservatives out there (many of whom even want to conserve things). But when they align themselves with demagogic merchants of hate in order to energize their movement, it costs them. Their reputation (and the commonweal) deteriorates. William F. Buckley, to take just one notable example, was right to castigate Robert Welch and the conspiratorial, fear-mongering John Birch Society for tarnishing the modern conservative movement.
At the same time, though, any mass political movement needs to mobilize troops. Particularly when the movement in question is faced with the sort of severe long-term demographic decline that American conservatives now face, compromises must be made. Under such conditions, the question becomes: How do you project a positive image that will nonetheless keep your nasty friends engaged? Traditions must be invented. It might serve you well to hark back to a mythic past that not only connotes a sense of uplift but also one of teetering slippage that requires resurrection. It’s the again in “Make America Great Again” that sounds the alarms.
A perfect recent example of this distinctly anti-conservative rhetoric has been the widespread adoption of the idea of a “Judeo-Christian tradition” among the contemporary right’s stalwart culture warriors. In the aftermath of the horrific fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, conservatives saw the conflagration as more than a construction accident. It was a symbolic tearing down of what they perceived to be a more religious past. It was a sign of the demise of old traditions. Their calls to rebuild the cathedral doubled as calls to build a more religious public square, while excluding outsiders like Muslims from participating. Thanks to Hitler, it’s hard to advocate on behalf of any model of Christian nationhood. But “Judeo-Christian” carries a nicer, more tolerant tone—indeed, the idea of ecumenical tolerance spurred its most vibrant coinage among liberals in postwar America.
As in so many other instances of right-wing culture adjudication, preppy talk-radio host Ben Shapiro leads the charge. Notre Dame, he tweeted as the building still burned, “is a central monument to Western civilization, which was built on the Judeo-Christian heritage.” While the tourists who visit the place might agree with the first part of his tweet, the Catholics who worship there will certainly disavow the second part. The cathedral is Catholic, not “Judeo-Christian,” whatever that might be. As many social media users rightly pointed out to Shapiro, shortly after Notre Dame was completed in the 14th century, the Jews were expelled from France. Calling Notre Dame “Judeo-Christian” is a bit like calling Jim Crow-era Mississippi integrationist.
But historical accuracy is not terribly important to invented traditions; utility is. Shapiro’s tweet actually was extending the argument of his most recent book, The Right Side of History. (Another mantra of today’s meme-conscious right is, of course, “always be closing.”) Shapiro’s bestselling tract contends that the United States, suffering under the perverse cultural rule of faithless secular elites, is faltering under the weight of its diversity. The country, he mourns, is moving away from its supposed historic foundations of Greek natural law and Judeo-Christian values. Only by bringing back Athens and Jerusalem can America be saved from itself.
The argument is not only counterfactual—no matter how mightily propagandists such as Shapiro strain to turn America’s founding generation into pious evangelicals, they were Enlightenment rationalists—it’s also unoriginal. Ever since William Buckley’s own reputation-making assault on the bulwarks of liberal university life, God and Man at Yale, was published nearly seventy years ago, the American right has loudly complained about their cultural marginalization at the hands of a privileged and perverse anti-American elite. But simple math should tell us that the steady conservative takeover of our cultural and intellectual scene, unleashed in full force over the Reagan years, cannot plausibly have produced still another generation of godless collectivists.
What’s more, the right can’t even claim authorship of the allegedly embattled “Judeo-Christian” tradition. No, that honor falls to the theological and cultural liberals of our postwar intellectual scene. The unlikely saga of “Judeo-Christian” appropriation sheds considerable light on how the meaning of an already invented tradition can be effectively reversed under the deranging pressures of culture warfare.
The term “Judeo-Christian” arguably only makes sense in any substantive way as a descriptor for the members of the original Christian church, founded in the first century after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Then, a certain faction of Jews wanted to keep the message of Jesus for Jews only. Paul opposed them, and won. Almost all Christians today see Jesus’s message as open to anyone. But back then, a small handful of Jews sought to maintain Jewish law and ritual while incorporating the teaching of Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s covenant with the Jews. The members of this faction were legitimately torn between two traditions—those who believed that Jesus was the Christ, but that he brought his message only to the Jews.
And as theologians in the early 19th century began exploring early Christian history in earnest, they used the term “Judeo-Christian” to designate this group of believers. It was exclusive and specific, used with pin-point accuracy to identify a unique faith tradition.
Once invented, though, the word quickly grew to encompass a broader swath of Western religious thought. Throughout the 19th century, theologians, especially Christian ones, were nervous about the increasing awareness of other “world” religions like Hinduism or Confucianism. So “Judeo-Christian” became associated with a culture that centered on certain kinds of religious belief. It was then more common for the thinkers associated with this movement to speak of the mandate to preserve a “Christian civilization”—but some more careful scholars adopted the broader term “Judeo-Christian” to stand for Western civilization.
In the United States, the term became politicized in the early decades of the 20th century—and mostly by religious people on the left. The rise of the second Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s (which opposed civil rights for Catholics, Jews, foreigners, and black people), the widespread anti-Catholicism that surrounded Al Smith’s run for the presidency in 1928, and the blood-curdling rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany in the early 1930s led many left-wing Americans to seek out a pluralistic tradition that encompassed the growing religious diversity within the country, and demonstrated good old American tolerance. It was in the name of preserving democracy from dark intolerant forces that “Judeo-Christianity” first gained cultural currency in the United States.
And once it became a marker of forward-looking, tolerant Americanism, use of the term took off like wildfire. From the 1930s through the 1960s, the tolerant left championed interfaith initiatives to reduce theological conflict as though they had always been a hallmark of good Americanism—as indeed they were. In Germany, the end of tolerance also signified the end of democracy. In the United States, by contrast, bringing together Protestants, Catholics, and Jews seemed like a solid way to preserve American diversity and thus American democracy. In 1933, for example, a priest, a rabbi and a minister went on a tri-faith journey through the country, showcasing the ability of the three faiths to get along. They dubbed themselves “the Tolerance Trio.” They championed good “Judeo-Christian” values, which they described as tolerance, an awareness of God’s provenance over all other human divisions, and a belief that people should be unified, not divided, by faith. Sometimes the local Catholic bishop wouldn’t allow this trio and the many similar faith cooperatives that followed in their wake to perform, but otherwise, the groups were a tremendous success.
Sound hokey? Maybe so—indeed, some members of the original tolerance trios later conceded as much. But it worked. Their efforts bred more interfaith “Judeo-Christian” attempts to promote tolerance and diversity. During the Second World War, for instance, President Roosevelt created the USO as an interfaith organization run by Protestants, Catholics, and Jews to provide entertainment and guidance to the nation’s 12 million soldiers. An organization called the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ) won access to the hundreds of American military bases around the world, putting on shows preaching the value of interfaith tolerance. Their mission was “to immunize our soldiers against the virus of hate,” as one leader put it. During an intramural football game at Fort Benning, Georgia, the Army band honored their interfaith efforts by forming a giant Star of David and playing “Ein Keloheinu,” an ancient Jewish prayer about the uniqueness of God. Once “Ein Keloheinu” was finished, the band formed a giant cross and played “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Fraternal Jewish and Christian messaging on a football field: This was good Americanism writ large.
These interfaith mobilizations carried over into the Cold War—a transition made all the easier because we were fighting godless communists. What better way to showcase our superiority than by demonstrating not only our religiosity but also the tolerance embedded within it? Those were the tools of democracy.
One prime Hollywood-branded example of this campaign was a 1948 film called Big City, which told the story of a baby abandoned on the stoop, only to be adopted by three men—a Protestant minister, a Jewish cantor, and a Catholic policeman. At the end of this feel-good religious version of Three Men and a Baby, the entire cast sings the popular Jewish prayer song “Kol Nidre”—in Hebrew.
It was also during the Cold War that President Eisenhower famously said, “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.” Eisenhower’s point was that a tolerant, pluralistic faith had enshrined the American value of putting others above the individual—and that this system of belief was what allowed democracy to work.
The theologians were active, too. But they were mostly failing to make sense of “Judeo-Christianity.” Even though scholars had located a few texts shared by Protestants, Catholics, and Jews (basically what Christians call the Old Testament) and the Pope himself declared, “Spiritually, we are all Semites,” Jesus was a perpetual stumbling block to establishing any firm sort of “Judeo-Christian” common ground. So was the priesthood. Theologically, then, “Judeo-Christianity” doesn’t make much sense, and never really did.
In the absence of any clear theological accord on its meaning, the term lived a more fruitful life as a civic arrangement. Under the broad sacred canopy of Judeo-Christian faith, Protestants, Catholics, and Jews all participated in the American project without losing their discrete religious identities. Nor would they be expected to accommodate to any version of Protestant cultural hegemony that rested on theological orthodoxy. American democracy had certain principles—inalienable individual rights, ideals of brotherhood, negative liberty, freedom of expression—that did not contradict Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish religious claims and sometimes even aligned with them.
Why did this idea never become ecumenical enough to accommodate Muslims? Why didn’t anyone propose a “Judeo-Christian-Islamic” tradition—or, to save a few syllables, an “Abrahamic” brand of the ecumenical faith covenant? Easy: There were hardly any Muslims in the United States until after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The first mosque in the United States was built only in 1915. Someone from the NCCJ suggested including Muslims within the scope of Judeo-Christianity, only to be met with a liberal chorus of muffled rebuke. Why mess with an agreeably broad conception of American religious pluralism by including such a tiny portion of the population? It wasn’t worth it. Judeo-Christianity settled securely into its role of the preferred brand of civil-religious worship in postwar America.
It was only in the 1960s and 1970s that conservatives took hold of the “Judeo-Christian tradition”—and that liberals largely let them have it. When, in the name of respecting American diversity, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school-sponsored prayer and made it increasingly difficult for religious schools to get public money, conservatives realized that honoring diversity necessarily meant dethroning Christianity in American public life. When it came to questions of diversity, the courts saw two options: Honor all traditions, or honor none. Playing favorites was contradictory to the meritocratic model of American social democracy. Efforts to allow all faiths equal access often led to chaos, so excluding religion from public life became the courts’ fallback answer. Honoring diversity has in fact led to a more secular public sphere—the outcome that opponents of the prayer ban prophesied.
In the suddenly charged atmosphere of 1960s-bred cultural confrontation, conservatives—most particularly the nascent religious right—grabbed the mantle of Judeo-Christianity. It served as an admirable bit of spiritual shorthand that made them seem tolerant while also underlining their identity as serious men and women of faith. For the left, the tradition had served its purpose as a tool of religious pluralism, but by the 1960s, other forms of diversity seemed more important: The civil rights movement was blossoming and racial equality became the priority for secular and believing liberals alike.
With the left finding the invented tradition of Judeo-Christianity less useful for its preferred style of moral and political mobilization, the term quickly became a rallying cry for the right. Battles over sex education in American middle- and high-school textbooks brought on a flurry of right-wing pamphlets bemoaning the imperiled state of spiritual self-regulation in America. One such broadside said, “To the vast majority of Americans, the terms ‘values’ and ‘morals’ mean one thing, and one thing only; and that is the Christian-Judeo morals.” In its argument against abortion, the conservative magazine Christianity Today said the practice ran afoul of the Hippocratic oath and Judeo-Christian ethics. In the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan wooed cultural conservatives by talking about the enormous challenges he saw facing “traditional Judeo-Christian values.”
The politically charged sense among conservative believers that secular values were overtaking putatively religious ones prompted the adoption of “Judeo-Christian” as a catchphrase of first resort on the religious right. Again, preserving “Christian values” would have sounded menacing in a religiously diverse nation that had just defeated Hitler. Far better to simply steal the “Judeo-Christian tradition” from the left and advocate on its behalf.
Still, what the right meant by “Judeo-Christian” was, not surprisingly, a very different thing than what the religious left had in mind. Their enemies weren’t the KKK or the Nazis; instead this new cohort of moral crusaders identified their spiritual opponents as liberal secularists and other advocates of tolerance and pluralism—i.e., the Judeo-Christians of just a few decades earlier.
All of which brings us, more or less, up to the present day. The same basic array of partisans and enemies preside over the 21st century brand of faith-based culture warfare—with two notable points of elaboration.
The first is the right’s fear of Islam as an incorrigibly progress-resistant, terror-enabling faith tradition. In striking contrast to the era when mid-century leftists sought to protect the rights of Muslims in America, today’s America harbors a small but visible population of Muslims. The latest numbers show that about 1.1 percent of the U.S. population is Muslim. There are far more Americans who are afraid of Shari’a law replacing the U.S. Constitution than there are actual Muslims in America.
But if our past shows us nothing else, it’s that traditions are built on perception more than reality. It thus serves many larger ideological aims of the right to stoke fears of unassimilated Muslims eager to assault the “Judeo-Christian tradition.”
Meanwhile, a second, perhaps greater fear concerns not fundamentalist Islam but a much more powerful demographic and cultural force in our believing life—namely, the general decline of religious observance in the United States. We are in fact in the midst of a real revolution concerning religious practice in America. And the latest news is somewhat startling if you haven’t been paying attention.
According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who belong to a religious institution has declined by more than 20 percentage points since 1999, hitting an all-time low of 50 percent last year. The proportion of Americans who claim no religious affiliation jumped from 8 percent to 20 percent during the same period. This is a historic high. Even Catholics are leaving their church in droves; the number of Catholics who say they belong to a church has dropped from 76 percent to 63 percent in that same time frame.
This change has affected the left more than the right. Church membership among Democrats fell from 71 percent to 48 percent. That’s compared to the more modest drop among Republicans, from 77 percent to 69 percent. One immediate result of this realignment is a further politicization of religious observance. As Duke University’s Mark Chaves told the Associated Press, the regularity with which someone goes to church is now “one of the best predictors” of their political affiliation. “The correlation between religiosity and being Republican has increased over the years,” he added.
And this is where the “Judeo-Christian tradition” is now doing important spadework on the Trumpian right. If religiosity is a marker of one’s politics, you can motivate your troops by spreading fear that religiosity is under threat: Secularism and/or pluralism and/or Islam is coming to replace you. Stoke those fears, and you get the panicked attention not only of the evangelical community, which has been increasingly turning against the current president on issues such as immigration, but also of the alt-right. Both constituencies can thus be prodded into believing yet once more that outsiders are bringing change that is further estranging the country from its believing roots, and the vanishing specter of its native “greatness.”
In this climate of rejuvenated moral-cum-religious confrontation, the ironies abound. There is, as we’ve noted, the right’s casual appropriation and perversion of the “Judeo-Christian” nomenclature from the former religious left. Beyond that, though, there’s the deeper irony that it was in the name of the Judeo-Christian tradition that the principles the right professes to restore today received their first drubbing in the sphere of public debate. When self-styled defenders of embattled Judeo-Christian civilization such as Ben Shapiro demand a return to the Judeo-Christian tradition, the agenda they’re peddling is in direct conflict with what the previous Judeo-Christian tradition sought and created.
But again, historical truth is not terribly important to invented traditions. The rationale of today’s right is not to remake some “Judeo-Christian” past—after all, apart from that breakaway faction within the original Christian church, no such past ever existed. The point, rather, is to gloss over the many tremendous costs associated with bringing the alt-right into the mainstream conservative movement. As the Apostle Paul was fond of saying, the faith of the ardent, crusading believer rests in the evidence of things not seen.