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The Right’s “Judeo-Christian” Fixation

How a term that sounds inclusive is used to promote exclusion.

Sean Gallup / Getty Images

During one of his recent confrontations with congressional Democrats, Donald Trump made a stunning comment about the United States’ Jewish population. How could Jewish voters overwhelmingly support the Democratic party, he groused, when it included prominent critics of Israel like Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar? When American Jews voted for those politicians—or other members of the same party—who “hate Israel and hate Jewish people,” they must be ignorant or, still worse, “disloyal.”

University of Chicago Press, 360 pp., $25.00

While commentators rushed to dissect these ugly words, they could hardly agree on their meaning. Was Trump trafficking in long-standing anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jewish “dual loyalty”? Or was he highlighting his ironclad support for Israel’s security, a major priority of AIPAC and several other Jewish organizations? Indeed, since he assumed office, the president has been a master of sending mixed messages on Jewish matters. While he praised the neo-Nazis who in 2017 chanted in Charlottesville “Jews will not replace us” as “very fine people,” he has also cast himself as a firm supporter of Israel by moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. This ambiguity is especially striking when compared to his unvarnished hostility towards other minority religious groups. The Trump administration’s raw Islamophobia, after all, is something that the president never seeks to balance in either rhetoric or policy.

It may be tempting to assume these conflicting impulses arise from Trump’s idiosyncrasies, but they are in fact rooted in long traditions. As K. Healan Gaston shows in her magisterial and beautifully written new book, Reimagining Judeo-Christian America: Religion, Secularism, and the Redefinition of Democracy, Americans have long articulated their thinking about politics and religion through their comments on Judaism. Few expressions capture this dynamic better than “Judeo-Christianity,” whose surprising history Gaston brilliantly traces through the words of countless intellectuals and politicians over the past 80 years. Even though this concept ostensibly encapsulates an ancient spiritual tradition that stretches back to Moses and Jesus, it is a recent invention. Coined by writers in the 1930s, it became popular during World War II and the Cold War, when Americans embraced the claim that their democracy stemmed from a “Judeo-Christian heritage.” Yet Judaism’s place in this political-spiritual complex was often ambiguous. While some used the term to empower the Jewish minority and call for religious pluralism, others invoked it as a cover for a very specific Christian (and mostly evangelical) agenda, especially on education and abortion. Some thinkers on the radical right even rely on it while spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

Reimagining Judeo-Christian America therefore powerfully shows how the language of inclusion can be appropriated to promote exclusion. As the radical right increasingly usurps liberal concepts like freedom of speech and diversity of thought to promote sexism, racism, and religious bigotry, does the left have an answer? 

Though Judeo-Christianity is a term commonly heard today, until fairly recently it would have sounded strange to most Americans. In the early twentieth century, commentators would have struggled to depict Judaism and Christianity as part of joint spiritual or political traditions. Protestant elites in particular conflated their own churches with progress and democracy and dismissed Judaism (alongside Catholicism and Islam) as a “backwards” belief system that fostered authoritarianism. Yet the Great Depression, Gaston shows, attenuated this antagonism, especially after its shockwaves transformed democratic regimes like Germany’s Weimar Republic into dystopian dictatorships. Prominent thinkers like Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr argued that if the United States’ fragile democracy was to avoid a similar fate, its people had to recognize their indebtedness to a “Judeo-Christian” heritage. The rule of law and political freedom, Niebuhr and others claimed, stemmed not from the Enlightenment’s individualist, scientific, and utopian ethos, but from a spiritual commitment to human dignity and justice shared by both Judaism and Christianity.

The use of this term, which conveniently dismissed American anti-Semitism as foreign, exploded in the 1940s, appearing in thousands of essays, books, and speeches. As Americans mobilized against “totalitarian” Germany and Japan, and later the “godless” Soviet Union, appeals to Judeo-Christianity allowed Americans to define the United States as uniquely committed to human dignity and the virtuous defender of religious pluralism. Dwight Eisenhower famously proclaimed in 1953 that “our form of government” was rooted “in the Judeo-Christian concept.”

To be sure, this dramatic refashioning of religious and political discourse entailed significant intellectual gymnastics. Few bothered to explain, for example, why it took Jews and Christians two millennia to recognize their allegedly timeless similarities, or why it was only in the modern era that these similarities fostered democratic polities. What is more, the term sometimes proved awkward for American geopolitics. While it fit well the United States’ depiction of itself as the defender of the “West,” where Judaism and Christianity had a long historical presence, it risked complicating anti-Communist outreach in Asia and Africa, where other traditions dominated (a fact, Gaston notes, that was not lost on Dwight Eisenhower, who responded to the decolonization struggles of the later 1950s by dropping the term from his vocabulary). Still, its allure proved lasting. From the early Cold War until today, American writers and leaders repeatedly referenced the concept as a meaningful inspiration, if not the primary source, for their politics.       

Gaston is not the first to note Judeo-Christianity’s fairly recent birth, nor its significance for the American lexicon. But her deep dive into the writings of countless journalists, theologians, and politicians challenges two key ways that scholars have often understood its evolution. First, Imagining Judeo-Christian America demonstrates that Judeo-Christianity did not indicate that Christians embraced Jews as equals. While its early proponents used it to distinguish liberal democracy from the Nazis’ virulent anti-Semitism, they remained at best ambivalent about Judaism’s place in the modern world. The Protestant journalist and politician P.W. Wilson, for example, who was probably the first to invoke the term in a series of New York Times articles in the early 1930s, continued to believe that Judaism’s contributions to world civilization lay in the distant past. He praised “Jewish history, law, Psalmody, prophecy, or ritual” for planting the seeds of freedom, but he also assumed that democracy was best supported by Christianity, and actively sought to convert Jews to Protestantism.

Similar vacillation could be found in the manifesto City of Man (1940), a collective call for American intervention in World War II proffered by American thinkers like Lewis Mumford and European émigrés such as Thomas Mann. Even as the manifesto mused on the United States’ debt to Judeo-Christianity, it condemned some Jews for clinging to religious “sterility” and “racial stubbornness,” which allegedly prevented them from recognizing Christianity’s genius. In numerous ways, Judeo-Christianity’s rhetorical gestures towards religious inclusiveness neatly served to legitimatize larger claims about Christian supremacy.

Second, Gaston reveals that Judeo-Christianity’s ascendance was not powered by the liberal belief that all religions should be equal in the eyes of a neutral government. Instead, Judeo-Christianity was most commonly the domain of fiery anti-secularists, who railed against any separation between church and state. Building off ideas developed in the interwar period, thinkers in this camp spent the 1940s and 1950s claiming that religious teachings needed to dominate the public sphere. Limiting state support for religious schools or charities, they warned, would foster secularism, which would directly lead to nihilism and social anarchy. Indeed, in their minds, secularism was the true core of totalitarianism; Hitler and Stalin’s regimes were not simply oppressive, but were atheist plots to replace religious authority with soulless states. Such anxieties even motivated thinkers later considered prophets of tolerance, such as the influential Catholic theologian John Courtney Murray. While he vocally advocated for Catholic cooperation with other faiths and embraced religious liberty (a principle that the Catholic church formally opposed until the 1960s), he also warned that limiting funding for religious schools would send the United States down the path of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Judeo-Christianity, then, sometimes served as a tool of anti-secular exclusion.

This exclusionary impulse only hardened after the U.S. intervention in Vietnam, as writers began to understand Judeo-Christianity not only as a religious tradition, but as one with clear racial and sexual meanings. Up until the early 1960s, progressive activists occasionally employed the term; Martin Luther King, Jr., for one, claimed that Judeo-Christianity should engender racial equality. By the 1970s, however, anti-racist and anti-sexist activists condemned the concept as a source of America’s moral rot. Black radicals such as Ossie Davis railed against “white Western Judeo-Christian capitalist civilization.” Feminist writer Mary Daly agreed, decrying in Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Feminist Liberation (1973) “the history of antifeminism in the Judeo-Christian heritage.” Thinkers in this camp found little comfort in tradition. Rather than providing the template for freedom, the United States’ alleged spiritual tenets had to be overthrown. 

Conservatives, in response, doubled down on their insistence that the United States was an inherently religious nation and appealed to Judeo-Christianity to challenge taxation and abortion. American values, wrote Secretary of Defense Elliot Richardson in 1973, called for Judeo-Christian charity, not “big government.” By the 1980s, the term encapsulated the right’s powerful cocktail of white resentment, sexism, and anti-welfare rage. Judeo-Christianity, writers implied, was more than a specific variation of American evangelism; rather, it was a timeless tradition whose defense necessitated opposition to affirmative action, equality for women and sexual minorities, and redistributionist policies. Jerry Falwell, for example, in his best-selling booklet Listen, America! (1980), replaced his older language of Christian nationalism with praise for “traditional Judeo-Christian values concerning the family.” That same year, Judeo-Christianity made its first appearance in a party platform, as the Republicans swore to defend it. It would reappear there in subsequent elections, an epitaph for the term’s anti-egalitarian flavor. 

In the conclusion to her book, Gaston wonders if Judeo-Christianity is approaching the end of its journey. In the decades since the term’s emergence, after all, the nation’s religious and ideological composition has changed substantially, fostering new political languages. This shift is especially pronounced on the American left, where political coalitions have expanded not only to include religious groups beyond Christianity and Judaism, but also the religiously unaffiliated (the so-called “nones”). Barack Obama was sensitive to this reality when he became the first president to celebrate American “atheists and agnostics.” Trump, Gaston argues, has similarly broken with Republican precedent, measuring righteousness not through piety but through military and economic domination. While the president may utter some hollow paeans to Judeo-Christianity, these are merely bones he throws his evangelical supporters and their anti-secular fixations.

Though this may be true, Imagining Judeo-Christian America spends less time than it could* on the term’s more recent adoption on the radical right. Perhaps because Gaston is focused on exposing Judeo-Christianity’s anti-secularist bent, she is sometimes less attuned to its entanglement with racial politics and to its use by avowed ethno-nationalists. Few represent this transmutation better than Steve Bannon, Trump’s former senior advisor and a significant figure in the global alt-right. Hardly a practicing Christian, Bannon has often claimed that societies’ strengths lay in their ethnic homogeneity. This is why, he argues, nationalists must smash the power of “globalism,” epitomized by international organizations, finance, and migration. For Bannon, however, this nationalist revolution also has a geopolitical aspect, best captured through a religious terminology. The white nations, he explained in a recent interview, constitute the “Judeo-Christian West,” which should to come together with Russia to defeat their Muslim and Chinese opponents. Indeed, Judeo-Christianity has been a long-standing obsession for Bannon, who nostalgically waxed about the long history of “the Judeo-Christian West’s struggle against Islam” in a 2014 speech to a Vatican conference organized by reactionary Catholics. So enchanted he was with this concept that in 2018 he sought to establish a new center in Italy for nationalist and populist teachings, the Academy for the Judeo-Christian West. 

The radical right’s embrace of Judeo-Christianity is more than a linguistic tic. In using this terminology, the new right replicates its predecessors’ ambiguous feelings about Judaism, simultaneously depicting Jews as villains and allies. The radical right remains haunted by the specter of Jewish financial control, an anxiety dramatically embodied in the conspiracy theories swirling around George Soros. And as the murderer in the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting explained in his violent manifesto, some also associate Jews with support for immigration of non-whites, vilifying them as agents of “white genocide.” At the same time, Israel and Jews often loom large in the right-wing imagination as a powerful incarnation of “Western” values. Israel’s military clashes with Muslim neighbors and its insistence on preserving ethnic exclusivity, recently solidified in the 2018 “nation state law” declaring that the state belongs to Jews alone, enchant the radical right. As the white supremacist Richard Spencer has gushed, “Jews are, once again, at the vanguard, rethinking politics and sovereignty for the future, showing a path forward for Europeans.” In all of this, the American right is hardly alone. Hungary’s Viktor Órban and France’s Marine Le Pen similarly traffic in anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish global control while simultaneously musing on “Judeo-Christian” values and warmly embracing Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu.

These dynamics matter not only when it comes to Judaism’s status in American politics. They are part of the right’s broader strategy to bolster hierarchies by using terms that sound as if they foster egalitarianism. “Freedom of religion,” for example, ostensibly a universal protection for worship, has been recently appropriated by American evangelicals in their crusade to protect Christian prayers in state-run events. The Trump Administration followed suit, and complemented its “Muslim ban” with the establishment of a special “Religious Freedom Task Force,” whose goal was to defend conservative Christians’ right to discriminate against women and LGBTQ+ people (by protecting corporations and organizations’ right to deny coverage for contraception and to fire individuals based on sexual orientation and gender identity). Similar dynamics have come into play when right-wing speakers have weaponized the right to “free speech.” In the hands of figures like Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro, free speech is mostly invoked to support the right to harass and insult women and people of color. College campuses have drawn especially intense attention from conservatives, who, under the banner of “diversity of thought,” demand spaces and resources for right-leaning faculty and speakers. In the intellectual universe concocted by the American right, universities’ most urgent challenge is not to curtail crushing student debt, address savage budget cuts by legislators, or improve the representation of women and people of color; instead, it is to protect the opinions of the already privileged.    

In this regard, Gaston’s brilliant book uncovers not only a fascinating history, but also a powerful template used in conservative politics today. She shows how easily inclusive language can be mobilized for anti-egalitarian purposes. By doing so, her book further hints at the limited nature of many American concepts of inclusion. The radical right’s use of Judeo-Christianity, after all, is not a brazen co-option or appropriation so much as it is an update of the term, which has largely been used in an exclusionary way. A more egalitarian future cannot simply rely on reclaiming or rescuing historical concepts. There is little point on insisting that progressive agendas fulfill long-standing American “virtues,” especially those that have become linguistic mainstays of conservative politics. New realities are instead more likely to emerge by discarding such historical concepts altogether. And among the first terms to be retired should be Judeo-Christianity.

* The article originally stated that the book overlooks the term’s more recent adoption on the radical right.