Last week, the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights issued its draft report on the global status of human rights. The report, which resulted from a year of cerebral discussions with a carefully curated set of scholars and activists, brought the conversation back to where it started: an impassioned celebration of religious freedom as the most important human right. Anticipating criticisms of advancing a highly selective, conservative-Christian reading of human rights, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has defended the focus on religious freedom as a distinctively American birthright now applicable to all manner of “faith traditions.” In fact, he argues, the original American human-rights vision was inspired equally by another non-Christian religion, Judaism. The report, he has said, will “return America’s understanding of human rights … back to the fundamental moorings of the Judeo-Christian tradition on which this country was founded.” Except that tradition never existed.
The “Judeo-Christian tradition” was one of 20th-century America’s greatest political inventions. An ecumenical marketing meme for combatting godless communism, the catchphrase long did the work of animating American conservatives in the Cold War battle. For a brief time, canny liberals also embraced the phrase as a rhetorical pathway of inclusion into postwar American democracy for Jews, Catholics, and Black Americans. In a world divided by totalitarianism abroad and racial segregation at home, the notion of a shared American religious heritage promised racial healing and national unity.
Yet the “Judeo-Christian tradition” excluded not only Muslims, Native Americans, and other non-Western religious communities, but also atheists and secularists of all persuasions. American Jews themselves were reluctant adopters. After centuries of Christian anti-Semitic persecution and philo-Semitic fantasies of Jewish conversion, many eyed the award of an honorary hyphen with suspicion. Even some anti-communist politicians themselves recognized the concept as ill-suited to America’s postwar quest for global primacy in a decolonizing world.
The mythical “Judeo-Christian tradition,” then, proved an unstable foundation on which to build a common American identity. Today, as American democracy once again grasps for root metaphors with which to confront our country’s diversity and its place in the world, the term’s recuperation should rightfully alarm us: It has always divided Americans far more than it has united them.
Although the Jewish and Christian traditions stretch back side by side to antiquity, the phrase Judeo-Christian is a remarkably recent creation. In Imagining Judeo-Christian America: Religion, Secularism, and the Redefinition of Democracy, the historian K. Healan Gaston marshals an impressive array of sources to provide us with an account of the modern genesis of Judeo-Christian and its growing status as a “linguistic battlefield” on which conservatives and liberals proffered competing notions of America and its place in the world from the 1930s to the present.
Before the 20th century, the notion of a “Judeo-Christian” tradition was virtually unthinkable, because Christianity viewed itself as the successor to an inferior, superseded Jewish faith, along with other inferior creeds. A good example of this comes from Reverend Ezra Stiles, president of Yale College and the most important intellectual in the early American republic, who wrote of religious freedom in 1785:
The most ample religious liberty will also probably [be obtained here] … The United States will embosom all the religious sects or denominations in Christendom ... The Baptists, the Friends, the Lutherans … will cohabit together in harmony … That liberal and candid disquisition of Christianity which will most assuredly take place in America, will prepare Europe for the first event, with which the other will be connected, when, especially on the return of the Twelve Tribes to the Holy Land, there will burst forth a degree of evidence hitherto unperceived, and of efficacy to convert a world … A time will come when six hundred millions of the human race shall be ready to drop their idolatry and all false religion, when Christianity shall triumph over superstition, as well as Deism, and Gentilism, and Mohammedanism.
Religious freedom meant freedom for Christians. Jews might be accommodated, though not necessarily with full equality, on a temporary basis until their eventual conversion. Like many other founding-era leaders, Stiles actually exhibited deep curiosity about Jews and Judaism. He spent six months attending services at the Newport, Rhode Island, synagogue to learn from a rabbi, Haim Isaac Carigal. The experience inspired Stiles to institute a short-lived Hebrew-language requirement for all Yale College freshmen. Yet he held to a theology of replacement in which Judaism would yield along with other faiths to a world unified in Christianity. Nor was he alone in this conviction. True, Western thinkers spoke of Athens and Jerusalem, but the latter was exclusively embodied in the Christian Church, not the rabbinic tradition. If anything, the shared patrimony of Judaism and Christianity was more a point of theological friction than a site of secular reconciliation.
That traditional belief reflected itself in the slow pace of Jewish inclusion in American society. Even as legal barriers for non-Christians slowly fell state by state in the 19th century, Christian Americans hardly viewed their country, much less Western civilization, as embodying a tradition shared equally by Jews and Christians. During the Civil War and early Reconstruction years, Congress repeatedly considered a constitutional amendment to declare the United States a “Christian nation” under the ultimate sovereignty of the “Lord Jesus Christ.”
Only in the 1930s did that slowly begin to change, as the rise of Nazism alarmed American Christians who saw in fascism, as in communism, an ideology that threatened to destroy the broader spiritual culture of the West. A European émigré, the German liberal theologian Paul Tillich, was among the first to use the phrase, warning in 1933 that the “Protestant church in Germany has on the whole fallen under the spell of Hitlerism … [the] Jewish-Christian tradition [must fight] totalitarianism.” Tillich’s comment typified much of the American Christian response to Nazism, which focused less on the concrete anti-Semitic threat to Europe’s Jews than the spiritual and political danger Nazism posed to Western religion as a whole.
The years following America’s entry into World War II saw a rapid rise in the new Judeo-Christian discourse, as Americans tried to make sense of their country’s role in repelling the Nazi assault on Western civilization. The intertwining of religion and democracy provided a helpful means for Jewish and Christian clergy and politicians to signal their shared commitment to anti-fascism. But its heyday would really arrive only at war’s end, as the rhetoric morphed easily into the new vocabulary of Cold War politics. Anti-communist liberals found in the phrase a convenient shorthand “for religious pluralism in general, identifying unbounded diversity and unfettered freedom of belief as the keynotes of democratic life,” Gaston writes. What mattered most in the Cold War, and in a rapidly changing America, was making a common commitment to faith. “America prescribes religion: but it does not care which one,” wrote the sociologist Nathan Glazer in 1955. Postwar America had developed its own “religion of religion,” marked by a striking ecumenical spirit.
Yet it was not quite true that America didn’t particularly care which religion its people chose. Conservatives interpreted the same idiom in narrower, exceptionalist terms to argue that only Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism could inoculate American society from the dangerous viruses of Marxist secularism and excessive pluralism. In 1954, for instance, the Protestant pastor George Docherty persuaded President Dwight Eisenhower to officially add the words under God to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God we trust” to American currency as part of a “theological war”:
[We face] a militantly atheistic Communism that has already enslaved 800 million of the peoples of the earth, and now menaces the rest of the free world. The one fundamental concept that completely and ultimately separates Communist Russia from the democratic institutions of this country [is our] Judeo-Christian civilization.”
Accordingly, Docherty argued, American society must promote its own identity as a “God-fearing nation” defined by the “Christian revelation” and the “Christian ethic.” To do so would proclaim to the world that “in this land, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female, for we are one nation indivisible under God.”
Docherty’s sermon persuaded Eisenhower to make the symbolic changes. It also inadvertently highlighted the problem with Jewish-Christian relations at the heart of the imagined “Judeo-Christian” tradition. The reference to Saint Paul’s famous vision of Christian universalism—“neither Jew nor Greek”—cast Jews as a people destined to disappear in a future all-Christian world. After thousands of years of persecution and missionizing, some American Jews viewed their “Judeo” hyphen as little more than a fig leaf masking an unabashedly Christianist agenda. They likewise winced when Commissioner of Education Earl McGrath, who led the federal Office of Education, declared in 1950 that American public schools must uphold the “ideals of the Judeo-Christian conception of life” to build a “truly Christian, democratic community.”
Remarkably, Eisenhower was one of the first to flag the problematic nature of Judeo-Christian. Despite Eisenhower’s promotion of God language in American governance, including the inauguration of the National Prayer Breakfast, Gaston observes, he seldom used the specific phrase Judeo-Christian. Eisenhower seems to have been less concerned with its repercussions for America’s Jews or others than with the way it would be received by a global audience. In a fascinating letter written in 1954, Ike cautions his brother on his use of the phrase:
You speak of the ‘Judaic-Christian heritage.’ I would suggest that you use a term on the order of ‘religious heritage’—this is for the reason that we should find some way of including the vast numbers of people who hold to the Islamic and Buddhist religions when we compare the religious world against the Communist world. I think you could still point out the debt we all owe to the ancients of Judea and Greece for the introduction of new ideas.
Eisenhower’s move away from exclusionary religious rhetoric suggests the complicated nature of religion and democracy in a postwar American society. Some conservatives recognized the problem with their own language at the time. By the same token, liberals saw how the phrase might be strategically mobilized for the cause of civil rights. In a 1960 speech, for example, Martin Luther King Jr. denounced racial discrimination as a “cancerous disease that prevents us from realizing the sublime principles of our Judeo-Christian tradition. It relegates persons to the status of things.”
As it turned out, King’s lofty invocation of “our Judeo-Christian tradition” in the name of civil rights marked the high point of the phrase for American liberals. Even at that time, King’s 1960s Jewish civil-rights allies pushed hard to separate Church and state through a series of landmark Supreme Court cases. Privileging religion would not end well for American Jews and other religious minorities, they argued. True religious freedom required separation of government from faith.
Beginning in the 1970s, as the new religious right ascended in American politics and immigration and post-civil-rights liberalism reshaped the American left, Judeo-Christian became closely tied to the American right. As liberals retired the term, conservatives doubled down on it. The phrase appears with regularity in rhetorical attacks on Islam and the progressive left, in attempts to restrict immigration and LGBTQ rights, and in arguments in favor of religious freedom that would collapse the wall of separation between Church and state. Now it has surfaced again in the Trump administration’s unlikely quest to identify a unifying principle for an American human-rights agenda. Once again, the theological bond between Judaism and Christianity has been invoked to justify the inclusive potential in the “Judeo-Christian” religious tradition supposedly underlying American politics.
The incredible religious diversity that has blossomed in the United States since the 1960s has changed our country for good, and for the better. We cannot turn back the clock to a mythical “Judeo-Christian America” in order to chart a new course for America’s moral imagination. Nor can we ignore the fact that the catchphrase has failed to shed its Christian religious residue. Living through an unprecedented era of anti-Semitism, American Jews no longer wish to play the role of guest stars in someone else’s theological drama. An authentically American human-rights vision cannot rest upon a flawed historical reading of how our country first came to imagine rights. In a 1773 sermon attended by Ezra Stiles, Rabbi Carigal warned future Americans that “imaginary conceptions” and “remote applications” of the Hebrew Bible were no basis on which to justify American revolutionary politics. The same holds true for our visions of human rights and religious freedom today.