What are ‘Judeo-Christian values’? Analyzing a divisive term





By George Altshuler

When Steve Bannon, now President-elect Donald Trump’s White House strategist and senior counselor, outlined his worldview at a 2014 conference at the Vatican, he returned repeatedly to the term “Judeo-Christian” in describing his political beliefs.

“When capitalism was, I believe, at its highest [power] and spreading its benefits to most of mankind, almost all of those capitalists were strong believers in the Judeo-Christian West,” said Bannon, who did not define “Judeo-Christian West.”

Bannon lies at a far edge of conservatism. He once said the website he ran, Breitbart News, was a “platform for the alt-right,” a movement that Trump has disavowed and the Associated Press vice president for standards recently described as a “mix of racism, white nationalism and populism.”


Still, use of the term Judeo-Christian extends well beyond the so-called alt-right. During his 2016 presidential campaign, Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) proposed creating a new federal agency “to promote Judeo-Christian values.”

For conservatives from Bannon to Kasich to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the term is a building block of American society. ­But for critics of how the term is used today, Judeo-Christian is vague, historically flawed and even inflammatory. These opposing views reflect a deep rift in American society and illuminate very different fundamental political beliefs.

“This is a term defined by exclusion,” said Shalom Goldman, a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, arguing that the term is often used to reject secular values and Muslims.

“It’s essentially saying our values are not the values of the Enlightenment or the Constitution, but instead our values are the values of the Bible,” he said.

Rabbi Jack Moline
Rabbi Jack Moline

Rabbi Jack Moline, president of the Washington-based Interfaith Alliance, called the term a “generalization” and said it is one “Christians in particular use to put a patina of universality on a certain Christian culture in the United States.”

“Whatever the term may have meant in the 1930s and in the 1950s, what it now means is the religious right — and you can’t ignore that,” he said.

Although there is not necessarily one definition of the term among conservatives who use it, they often mean the fundamental values of Western society that, they believe, come from both Judaism and Christianity.

Daniel Lapin, an Orthodox rabbi, author and radio show host in 1998 wrote a book with the subtitle, “An Orthodox rabbi insists that Judeo-Christian values are vital for our nation’s survival.” In an interview, Lapin defined “Judeo-Christian values” as “those values that are held commonly by Judaism and Christianity.” For him, these include the ideas that “wisdom comes from an external source rather than from our hearts” and that “the nuclear family is the fundamental unit of society.”

Lapin argued that “Judeo-Christian values” are fundamental to contemporary society, in part because they state that the basic element of society should be “the family and not the individual.”

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, an author and frequent political commentator, also uses the term. Like Lapin, he said “Judeo-Christian values” represent what the faiths of Judaism and Christianity have in common.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

And like Lapin he said that “Judeo-Christian values are the underpinning of Western civilization.”

Boteach argued that the principles of democracy, for example, stem from the biblical principle that everybody is created equal.

“The best way to preserve the rights that we all value in society is to have them based on something eternal and not just modern egalitarian political ideas,” he said.

Moline, on the other hand, argued that the term does a disservice to interfaith dialogue and cooperation.

Instead, Moline argued that one should look to the United States’ founding documents as a source for interfaith dialogue.

“There is no mention of any religious tradition in our founding documents because there is instead a reliance on nature’s God,” he said. “Our founders were interested in a society that is based on law and not faith.”


The history of a term

Although the phrase originated in late 19th-century England, it was liberals in the 1930s who popularized the term in the United States to counter what Goldman called “the rise of American nativism and xenophobia during the Depression.”

But Judeo-Christian soon fell out of fashion among liberals. It became a rallying cry during the Cold War as a proxy for Western values that were fighting atheist Communism.

Scholar Gene Zubovich of the University of California, Berkeley, argued in 2016 essay that the term was adopted by evangelical Christians in an effort to appear more inclusive after their failed attempts in the 1940s and 1950s to pass a Constitutional amendment stating that the United States “recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of all nations.”

In the 1970s, the evangelical Rev. Jerry Falwell then played an important role in popularizing the phrase Judeo-Christian, according to Goldman.

At about this time, critics of the term’s usage began to respond.

In a seminal 1969 essay,­­­ “The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition” in Commentary magazine, theologian Arthur Cohen argued that it is historically inaccurate to think of Judaism and Christianity as a shared tradition. Thinking otherwise is “an artificial gloss of reason.”

Nevertheless, the cultural significance of the phrase continued to grow. In 1983 Ronald Reagan said, “I know this may be laughed and sneered at in some sophisticated circles, but ours is a Judeo-Christian heritage, and ours is a loving and living God, the fountain of all truth and knowledge.”

The term was commonly used in the 1990s in the so-called culture wars over abortion and same-sex marriage and remains popular among evangelical conservatives today.


Inaccurate? Exclusionary?

Two central critiques of the current usage of “Judeo-Christian values” are that the terms excludes people of other religions and atheists, and that it is historically fallacious to talk about a unified “Judeo-Christian tradition.”

Rabbi Daniel Lapin
Rabbi Daniel Lapin

Boteach acknowledged that the term is sometimes used in an exclusionary way, and he pushed back against those uses of the term.

“These are universal principles that form the basis of modern civilization,” he said, adding that the term can apply to the values of some Muslims, atheists and people of other religions.

Lapin argued that Islam isn’t included in “Judeo-Christian values” because Muslims would argue that there are inaccuracies in the Hebrew Bible, such as the disagreement over whether Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac or Ishmael, while Christianity does not reject any part of the Hebrew Bible.

Both Lapin and Boteach emphasized that there are major differences between Christianity and Judaism, and that the term “Judo-Christian values” speaks to shared values and not a shared theology.

On the other side of the debate, Goldman argued that particularly when conservatives like Bannon use the term, it is used to exclude Muslims.

In an essay for the Religion Dispatches, Goldman also quoted Maimonides, the medieval Jewish scholar, to suggest that it is wrong to discuss a shared Judeo-Christian tradition. He cited the Israeli theologian Eliezer Berkovitz, who wrote, “Judaism is Judaism because it rejects Christianity and Christianity is Christianity because it rejects Judaism.”

In response to the challenge that Judaism and Christianity have often been in opposition, Lapin responded that it is important not to dwell on old religious conflict.

“To linger on the past is as dangerous as driving with your eyes entirely on the rear view mirror,” he said.

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  1. I just stumbled upon this article. It is interesting, but also puzzling. Of course, Christianity has a theology (about Jesus) that is not accepted by Jews. But the teachings of Jesus are in the main-stream of the Pharisees at the time, with perhaps a few exceptions. The late Professor Hyam Maccoby set this out in his book, “Jesus, the Pharisee.” He shows that the conflicts of Jesus with the Pharisees reported in the New Testament do not reflect conflicts in Jewish law.
    We don’t have to have the same theology to have similar values. Jesus certainly taught values right out of the Torah and the Prophets. That is more than enough to speak of a Judeo-Christian tradition.

  2. Exclusionary? Absolutely. But, why must my identity and worldview be so trivialized that I belong only to some amalgam of humanity? It is neither atheism nor Hinduism that formed my character and core beliefs. It is the Biblical values that Jews and later Christians defined as framing my ultimate concern.

  3. America was founded by men with very strong Christian values, despite revisionist historians stating otherwise currently. The Western values refers to Europe West of Russia and North America, obviously. It is not exclusionary but rather honest and accurate to say America was founded and shaped by Judeo-Christian Western values. Eastern values– whether based on Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, or other Eastern based religions– are not the same as America’s. This is simple truth, not hate or bigotry. Our values allow for people with other values to come here, live here, work here, pray here, and succeed here regardless of their background. That is not a shared value with many Eastern cultures. And to say that Judeo-Christian values is somehow a departure from the Enlightenment or our Constitution is fallacious. “Values” does not require or even imply practicing a religion, but rather culturally normalcy and conformity.

  4. It’s very silly to me that conservatives use this term to basically try and take credit for the work that science and secularism did for the west. Scientific and secular thinking is the exact opposite of religious thinking, if we had simply stuck to “Judeo-Christian values” we would have never made it this far. If the United States was ever meant to be a Christian country, why is the first ammendment of our constitution the separation of church and state? Human flourishing only happened the farther we distanced ourselves from Judeo-Christianty.

  5. It’s very silly to me that secularists basically try to take credit for the work that science and Judeo-Christian values did for the west. Just because murder is in the bible is no valid reason to dismiss proscribing homicide; a core Judeo-Christian value requiring no faith in religious doctrine. There exists a cogent set of such values our founding fathers claimed come from nature and nature’s God. However the authority of that statement comes by way of the Judeo-Christian Bible, otherwise it’s just made up and we get our rights from the king, Jefferson, the court, or popular opinion. The term isn’t divisive because it’s not religious obviously; so to argue against it on religious grounds is silly. It’s inclusive because it includes transcendent values common to Christians and Jews which others of good will can agree with or at least consider and discuss (see The Great Books of The Western World). It’s a values statement and a character statement.
    We can see the material progress science brings (even by Christian and Jewish scientists —that’s not oxymoronic!) but what progress or inclusive principles depend on secularism as such? It seems that it’s primary function is to besmirch Judeo-Christian values even while individually they seem OK or even good. Lets be clear about the function of science and secularism, there are no oughts in science, and no hospitals, nor universities, nor great books in nature.
    How can any article fairly claim to analyze a term that’s pre-judged as divisive?

  6. Reads as if the actual purpose of this article is to bash those who use the term “Judeo-Christian” as some kind of “right wingers”.

    All the academic stuff—whether from Middlebury or liberal Jewish theologians or “after the fact” historiography (of course from ultra-liberal Zubovich at Berkeley) in the article is abstract. I had no Christian evangelicals teaching me about the “Judeo-Christian tradition” in the 1960s: it was my Rabbi in a conservative schul and red-flight social studies teachers in a public high school.

    Instead of “fake news” this article is over-loaded with “fake history”.

  7. For 1776 years, 6 months and 4 days, “Judeo-Christian” principles were an intercessory priesthood and an absolute monarch on whose head the priesthood poured the oil of ordination and seated the crown on his head. Our Founders overturned that entirely. For Christians to claim that our government is somehow a Biblical formulation is a demonstration of either ignorance or willful blindness of both. Our Founders were brilliant and, if you must, divinely inspired. They created a secular government that freed individuals to pursue their beliefs and desires. The ones who vehemently oppose this are those who either wish to have control of others or believe that we are required to maintain a collective religious belief to please an unhappy God. One may disagree with it, but let’s not try to characterize it for other than what it is.

  8. Believing in the so-called “Judeo-Christian” doctrines will only make me compromise my Christian faith; which will never happen. Religion could be used to control the masses, but the worse part is when politicians get involved.

  9. “Judeo-Christian” is the oxymoron of the ages. On one side, you have a religion that denies Christ as the Messiah and on the other side you have a religion that nullifies the exclusivity of Judaism through the belief that Gentile and Jew alike can be saved through the same Messiah.

  10. Judeo-Christian Values for me means that we follow the principles that the Jewish Biblical prophets and teachers gave and we also accept and follow the principles that Jesus Christ taught and demonstrated plus the teaching of Paul and the other New Testament disciples. That might sound like allot to follow, so when you may find contradictions, you pray and ask the Holy Spirit for understanding of God’s inspired word.

    For true students of history, you cannot ignore the positive impact that the bible has had on humanity. In the development of our laws, our morals, and beliefs. The bible says “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows,” 1 Chronicles 16:11-12. and you will also find the same teaching in James 1:17 – This is one of many perfect examples where Jew and Christian believe the same thing.

    My reply to EM regarding separation of Church and State is for him or anyone to study why Thomas Jefferson said “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” Thomas Jefferson simple did not want the Government to mandate a state based religion, because this had been a problem in the colony that caused persecution of other Christian faiths like Methodists. Let us all be very careful to get the facts right when arguing such an important question.!


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