More on the Whole ‘Judeo-Christian’ Meme December 2, 2015
In my post four years ago, “9/11, Ten Years Later” I talked a little bit about the concept of ‘Judeo-Christian’. I’d like to expand on it. As my source says, the meme ‘Judeo-Christian’ originated in the United States after World War II, partly in response to the Holocaust, partly in recognition that Jews were still unjustly discriminated against in some quarters [the use of the term ‘Christian’ to mean ‘Gentile’, offensive to me today, had not vanished from the scene], and third, America was invoking an undefined theism on its coins and in its flag salutes to differentiate itself from the Communists, i.e., “In God We Trust” but Jesus is divisive and we’ll leave Him out of it [I’ve called this Moralistic Stoic Deism, to contrast it with the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism of our time]. This meme bore an interesting resemblance to the ‘Pancasila‘ that the founders of Indonesian national identity had made into ‘founding principles’ of that country; one of the principles is “Belief in the One God” and although Indonesia is 85% Muslim or nominal Muslim, this principle is intended to embrace Christians, Hindus, and even Buddhists as well. Another delightful feature of the Judeo-Christian meme is that it could include those American Founders, like Jefferson and Franklin, whose Christian orthodoxy was dubious, and several others whose Christian faith was rather nominal. [The only outright atheist among the Founders was Thomas Paine.]
Early in American history the Navy tangled with the pirate states of the North African coast, which were Muslim [though how Islamist by today’s standards, I couldn’t say]. It gave us the line “the shores of Tripoli” in the Marine Hymn, and a war hero named Stephen Decatur; so now you know why there are so many towns named ‘Decatur’ in the Midwest and South. In one of the treaties with one of these states, it was declared that “the Government of the United States is in no sense based on the Christian Religion” and this was and is true. It was not true at the state level necessarily; I agree that the intent of the First Amendment was to prevent a national established denomination over the states, some of which had established churches as late as 1833. The real document of non-establishment in America is not the First Amendment, but the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom of 1786. I hold therefore, that the United States is not a ‘Christian Nation’ in any official sense, though it has till recently harbored a Christian-ish, shall we say, culture. And I further believe that the way to treat other religions in a country like this is the Golden Rule: Treat other [however false] religions as we wish our Christian faith to be treated.
Jewish exclusion did not become a common thing until the 1880s when large numbers of Yiddish speaking Eastern European Jews began to flood in. [It must be said, by the way, that the ‘Yekke’ or Jewish German Americans, who had come earlier and founded many of our chain department stores, turned up their nose at these people too.] And it must be said, sadly, that in real estate and club membership covenants, the word ‘Christian’ was used to mean Gentile, nothing to do with the Gospel or anything in the Epistle to the Romans! Slowly after 1945 discrimination against Jews eased, and we had Will Herberg’s famous triad of ‘Protestant-Catholic-Jew’. Muslims were hardly to be seen in those days. Practicing Buddhists were fairly numerous in Hawaii, which was far away, and in California Hindu-ish cults like the Self Realization Fellowship were admitted to the consensus. Evangelicals swallowed hard at the thought of Mormons and Christian Scientists being ‘Protestant’, but they shut their mouths at the time.
The oil shocks of 1973 and 1979, and the hostage crisis, began to force Islam back onto American mental radar screens, and 9/11 made it loom large again. But what was it? Clearly it was part of the larger ‘Abrahamic’ or ‘Western’ tradition as opposed to being an ‘Eastern Religion’ [some forms of Sufism excepted], but was there a Judeo-Christian tradition of which it was not a part? Muslims, over the years, being taught to think of Jews and Christians as being ‘People of the Book’, are the ones who might have thought in terms of there being a Judeo-Christian tradition; but a Spaniard until recent times, worried about Catholic blood purity, and confronted with the underground presence of two religions that didn’t believe in Jesus and didn’t eat pork [though unlike Orthodox Jews, Muslims consume shrimp, crab, and lobster without a twinge of conscience], would have been likely to think in terms of a Judeo-Islamic tradition! And so might those Jews who, being exiled from Castile and Aragon in 1492, took refuge in Ottoman held Istanbul and Thessaloniki.
Judaism, though it rejects Christ and the Trinity, has held more firmly to the idea that God has a specific character and is good, and that humankind is made in His image [I wonder how Islam deals with ‘human exceptionalism’?] and, I think, more to the point, has followed the Christians in renouncing polygamy. And changes in ‘Christian’ attitudes in the last 200 years since the Enlightenment, even among those Christians who claim to reject the Enlightenment, such as the acceptance of religious liberty, have gone a long way to promote the idea of a ‘Judeo-Christian tradition’. Plus the fact that the Christians have insisted that the Jewish Scriptures are fully part of their own [though to be interpreted in the light of the New Testament] whereas the Muslims have insisted that the Jewish and Christian scriptures as we have them are distorted and we must start over. [Maybe by ‘Judeo-Christian’ we really mean Biblical.] And there is the influence, in some quarters, of prophecy and Christian Zionism. It is ironic, as I pointed out in an earlier post that Muslims now regard Israel as a ‘Crusader State’, whereas the original Crusaders treated Jews singularly badly! Jerusalem was Judenrein while the original Crusaders held it.
And as I pointed out in another earlier post, 9/11 caught the Western world at a point of transition; it surely saw Islamism as the enemy, but what did the West affirm? Its historical Christian roots, or a new ideology only now taking shape? For the most part, the West chose the latter. I speculated in that post, and still think, that possibly we have same-sex civil marriage now partly because 9/11 happened. The ‘liberals’ and ‘PC people’ seem divided; some bend over backwards to embrace non-Islamist Muslims because they are ‘the other’ and don’t bear the burden of ‘white Christian’ historical guilt, whereas others, like Bruce Bawer, Andrew Sullivan, and Bill Maher, who have no love for historic Christianity, will affirm, and here I quote Maher; “I disapprove of Christianity, but in the last few centuries there has been only one religion that slaughtered a lot of people, and it wasn’t Christianity!”
But if some of you are reading this to find out whether I think ‘Judeo-Christian’ is a useful concept or not, I’ll be frank; I don’t know.