The Right’s “Judeo-Christian” Fixation

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.” IMAGINING JUDEO-CHRISTIAN AMERICA: RELIGION, SECULARISM, AND THE REDEFINITION OF DEMOCRACY by K. Healan Gaston 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. Some thinkers on the radical right even rely on this term while spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. 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. Gaston’s brilliant book uncovers not only a fascinating history,
but also a powerful template used in conservative politics today. 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.

2019-11-14 | Books, Culture, critical mass | English |