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It’s Time to Stop Claiming “Judeo-Christian Values”
by Katie Simpson
ON THE SURFACE, as a Jew, it may sound like a good thing that our faith is half of “Judeo-Christian values”, the values President Trump and many others describe as our nation’s core culture. Desiring acceptance as so many of us are, it’s perhaps understandable that some Jews might be comforted by the phrase. Yet, this idea of “Judeo-Christian values” seems to come up almost exclusively in regard to issues that my Jewish values don’t support. Ted Cruz claimed that he would return us to these values when he won the Iowa caucus. Apparently, those values include voting against the Violence Against Women Act. Judeo-Christian values for him don’t seem to include Pikuach Nefesh, the Jewish principle which states that every life, whether LGBTQ or Native American, is precious.
The truth is that this phrase, used by neoconservatives and others on the far right, instrumentalizes Judaism in the defense of a conservative Christian hegemony. Here’s a funny example from around Christmas: Rightwing commentators railed that taking down a nativity scene is evidence that progressives have put “Judeo-Christian values … under attack.” Last time I checked, Christmas wasn’t a Jewish holiday, and for many of us is just an excuse to enjoy some good Chinese food.
The history of this phrase isn’t any better
Tony Mavrakos’s In God We Trust: Or Do We? gives us a concise history of the phrase. The earliest uses of “Judeo-Christian” are tied to converting Jews to Christianity and the term appears in Friedrich Nietzsche’s writing regarding what he saw as the failure of continuity between the two forms of thought. The use of the term as we know it began in the 1940s, when its use emphasized similarities in order to combat antisemitism. It’s easy to forget: Even after Kristallnacht, over 60 percent of Americans said we shouldn’t permit 10,000 refugee children, mostly Jews, to enter the country. Ashkenazi Jews were seen as lesser whites before World War II. It was in this context that the idea of “Judeo-Christian values” came to the forefront as an attempt to humanize Jews and maybe save lives.
Though six million Jews still died, the idea of Judeo-Christian values rose in popularity through the 1950s. Many Ashkenazi Jews joined the American middle class through access to government programs open to white citizens. Politically, this faith alliance benefited both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. They could contrast American religiosity and tolerance against the ‘Godless’ Soviet Union. The term began to fade from politics as secularism became important through the ’60s and ’70s.
Yet the term didn’t die. Shared values rose in prominence again in the 1980s. The Religious Right began to fight against secularism for the sake of “Judeo-Christian values” and the rhetoric hasn’t stopped. It’s become foundational for the ideology behind prayer in school, and behind opposition to same-sex marriage and women in combat. The term was an imaginary umbrella, claiming Judaism for a predominantly white and evangelical majority. Even today, Christian faith leaders claim that Trump will restore Judeo-Christian values.
The rhetoric and statistics don’t match
The statistics, however, undermine the Religious Right’s claim to shared values with Jews. Orthodox Jews are the most likely to identify with the Religious Right, but make up only 10 percent of the American Jewish population. Jews of other denominations don’t join this faith coalition.
I think much of this is rooted in the ways our faiths differ. Christians have focused on correct thought. For Jews, faith has been rooted in correct practice. Christianity has fought bitterly over dogma and correct interpretation. The Talmud, one of the most important Jewish texts interpreting our bible, is full of argument and disagreement. What was important for a religious life became very different in each of these religions.
This historical difference impacts us today. Surveys show Jews define ourselves differently. Many define Judaism through remembering the Holocaust, leading an ethical life, as well as working for justice and equality. My faith is rooted in the words of our prophets, like Isaiah, who asks us, “To unlock the fetters of wickedness/And untie the cords of the yoke/To let the oppressed go free.” My faith doesn’t focus on sinner or saint. It asks me to practice empathy daily. More importantly, it requires that I work toward the safety and justice of all, regardless of their background or beliefs.
What about Israel?
Some might say that by resisting “Judeo-Christian values,” we are blocking a natural political alliance with evangelical Christians. They support Israel in stronger and more passionate ways than many American Jews. Shouldn’t we work together in the name of the Jewish state?
Looking deeper, it’s clear that this support comes with a catch. The Christian Bible states that before Jesus can return, Jews must once again possess the land of Israel. This idea is taken literally by many in the Religious Right. One man at a conservative summit in Iowa in 2015 claimed that, “in the end, [Jews] will see the light and they will become Christian.” This isn’t support based on the right to exist and practice Judaism. This is about a long game, where Jews will give up their faith for a returning Christ.
It becomes hard to believe the goodwill when we look at the other Abrahamic faith: Islam. After all, Muslims also believe that Jesus will usher in the Day of Judgment. They also believe Jesus is a prophet, bringing these two faiths far closer to each other. Yet, many white evangelicals judge Islam and Judaism very differently. When asked to rate each group on a feeling thermometer, they rated Jews a warm 69 while giving Muslims a cool 30. Islam and Judaism are different, but all three faiths have overlapping theology and a connection to Abraham. I can’t help but wonder: Would Muslims be treated better if they were a tool in the Second Coming?
The idea of shared values has a place. It shouldn’t be surprising since our traditions overlap. Yet, the idea of Judeo-Christian values shows no understanding of Judaism, let alone Islam and other faiths. Instead, the phrase is deployed to create the illusion of diversity among the Religious Right. Through this phrase, we are conscripted into a fight to make America a Christian country. Jews are merely a convenient part of that plan. They claim my values, but not for the justice my people yearn for. They use our name to make America more Christian and, ultimately, less safe for Jews and other minorities.
Katie Simpson is a writer and photographer based in San Francisco. Her work has been featured in The Brooklyn Magazine, The Hairpin, Femsplain, among others. Find her online.