Judeo-Christian Tradition

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Judeo-Christian Tradition

The Judeo-Christian tradition ( JCT) is a concept that has played a shifting role in the construction of American religious identity since the eve of World War II. Originally invented to designate connections between Judaism and Christianity in antiquity, "Judeo-Christian" began to be used to signify the common religious inheritance of the West by left-wing authors in the 1930s—a time when "Christian" had become a political code word for fascism and anti-Semitism (e.g., the Christian Front of Father James Coughlin). Liberal Protestants and Catholics in particular stressed the existence of the Judeo-Christian tradition to indicate their spiritual solidarity with the threatened Jewish population of Europe.

During World War II, "Judeo-Christian" was taken up by liberal intellectuals as an umbrella term to designate the religious dimension of the Allied cause. But as a shibboleth, the term fully came into its own in the early years of the Cold War, when it was employed by pastors, politicians, and pundits to mobilize the spiritual forces of America against the "godless Communist" foe. As Daniel Poling, president of the Military Chaplains Association of the United States, asserted at the association's 1951 convention, "We meet at a time when the Judeo-Christian faith is challenged as never before in all the years since Abraham left Ur of the Chaldees." The following year, in a speech before the Freedoms Foundation, President-Elect Dwight D. Eisenhower declared, "Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is. With us, of course, it is the Judeo-Christian concept but it must be a religion that all men are created equal."

Besides functioning in Cold War political discourse, the JCT was imbued with theological substance by Reinhold Niebuhr and his neo-orthodox associates, who regarded Christianity as deriving more from "Hebraic" than from "Hellenic" influences. They saw the JCT less in terms of specific articles of faith or moral ordinances than as a common view of the flawed nature of humankind and an embrace of the prophetic critique of human institutions and idolatry of all sorts. This outlook was criticized by some Roman Catholics, who rightly saw it as bound up with the neo-orthodox critique of Catholic natural-law philosophy. For their part, some Jewish writers assailed the JCT for, as they felt, subordinating Jewish distinctiveness to a larger, essentially Christian reality. Not until the late 1960s, however, did the JCT come in for sustained cultural criticism.

In The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition (1969), novelist and editor Arthur Cohen asserted that the only tradition shared by Jews and Christians was one of mutual enmity; indeed, he went so far as to charge proponents of the concept with laying the groundwork for Nazi anti-Semitism. At about the same time, voices from the contemporary American counterculture were blaming the JCT for afflicting the world with Western spiritual imperialism and conventional bourgeois morality. But while the JCT, like other emblems of the American Cold War consensus, took its lumps during the Vietnam War era, within a few years it had discovered new friends, this time in the emergent Christian Religious Right.

Beginning in the late 1970s, the Reverend Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority organization made extensive use of Judeo-Christian language as part of an effort to present itself as an organization of religious believers of different faiths rather than simply of evangelical Protestants. During the Reagan presidency and on through the 1990s, "Judeo-Christian" (now often embedded in the phrase "Judeo-Christian ethic") became a standard rhetorical feature of American social conservatism, even as the Moral Majority was succeeded by the seemingly less religiously inclusive Christian Coalition as the Religious Right's premier membership organization. Rhetorically, the phrase became interchangeable with "traditional family values." Substantively, its twin pillars often seemed to be opposition to abortion and to homosexual rights. Where once the enemy had been communism, now it was secularism or, according to some, secular humanism.

As it did duty on the conservative side of America's fin-de-siècle culture wars, the JCT lost its capacity to stand for the country's common religious heritage. This was not only the result of its appropriation by the Religious Right. Given greater awareness of the presence of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and other religious communities within American society, the idea that the United States was a "Judeo-Christian" country was felt to be as exclusionary as "Christian" had seemed after World War II. The Western religious tradition itself had to be characterized in a way that included Muslims; in some ecumenical religious circles "Judeo-Christian" began to be replaced by "Abrahamic"—a term expressing the common ancestry of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in the patriarch Abraham of the Hebrew Bible.

But even as its use as an umbrella term was undermined by greater awareness of religious diversity, the JCT was gaining a new degree of intellectual respectability. In comparison with other world religions, Judaism and Christianity could more easily be recognized as possessing common features, and religion scholars could increasingly be found unself-consciously referring to "the Judeo-Christian tradition" in articles for academic journals. Thus, after two millennia of Judeo-Christian history and a half century of popular usage, the JCT seemed to have established itself as a useful concept outside the realm of world and domestic politics.

See alsoChristian Coalition; Culture Wars; Ecumenical Movement; Judaism; Moral Majority; Niebuhr, Reinhold; Religious Communities; Religious Right; Religious Studies.


Silk, Mark. Spiritual Politics: Religion and America SinceWorld War II. 1988.

Mark Silk