Derek Thompson: Three decades ago, America lost its religion. Why?
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tradition was virtually unthinkable, because Christianity viewed itself as the successor to an inferior, superseded Jewish faith, along with other inferior creeds.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.