It was perhaps not surprising just after the 2016 election to discover that a portion of president-elect trump’s base espoused ideologies of white supremacy. What was surprising to those who were paying attention but perhaps less familiar, was that trump also garnered significant support from Orthodox Jews, particularly Zionists, both in the US and Israel. While there are many reasons, both historical and expedient, that these particular Jewish groups chose to throw their support behind trump, it’s the coincidence that one of the most historically maligned groups would agree on their choice for political representation as the people who have fought both in the past and present for their extermination and removal from power. What is the connection between Zionist Orthodox Jews and white supremacists?
I’m not interested in drawing too many parallels between these groups, because I don’t actually want to suggest that they are the same or even related. But I do think that they share a common ideology that in fact runs through a lot of American group identities: so-called “Judeo-Christian values”. This term always seemed to me to be a way to invoke Christian morality while paying lip service to diversity. Acknowledging that Christianity comes from and uses core texts of Judaism is an easy way to make it seem more universal than it is. I have the sense, though I can’t really be sure, that this is a term more often used by Christians than Jews. Because the ways that Christianity diverts from Judaism are in fact significant and definitively contrary to it. In Judaism, the coming of the Messiah (whom Christians believe to be Christ) signals the end of the world. Christian morality of love and acceptance is in fact dogmatically opposite to the Jewish notion of justice, which relies on opposition and violence when necessary. Judaism is also not typically understood as a proselytizing religion – it has an infamously difficult conversion process- whereas Christianity is built on conversion by design. How, then, can these two religions share a common set of values, when their central dogmas and their histories are so opposed?
When centrist Americans (by which I mean people who are not on the ideological fringes or whose rhetoric is not generally considered controversial) use the phrase Judeo-Christian, especially in the context of American government, they are often referring to the biblical underpinnings of the system of morality that is codified in the American justice system. I think most directly, this phrase invokes the Ten Commandments, since these are among the few foundations of Jewish ideology that were not directly ignored or contradiction by Christian doctrine. But while the Commandments as an abstraction might evoke some sense of the rule of law or firmly-held values, the Commandments themselves don’t appear much in the American legal system. For instance, it is unconstitutional to legislate on God, so that leaves out #s 1 and 2. Adultery isn’t illegal nationally, even though it has been at the state level in the past, so much for #8. Dictating what can be expressed in art is unconstitutional, so that’s #3. The US didn’t have federally-mandated weekends until 1929, so apparently we didn’t care about #5 until then. You get the idea. The closest we get to legislating the Ten commandments is that larceny is illegal, but that’s a pretty generous interpretation of “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house”.
I’m not the only one to think critically about the term “Judeo-Christian” recently. In fact, I’m a bit late to the party. In 2019, The New Republic, the National Catholic Reporter, the Washington Post, and ABC News Australia all ran pieces about the fallacy of the “Judeo-Christian” tradition as a foundation for western thought. Washington Jewish Week and The Conversation ran pieces on this topic as early as 2016 and 2017, respectively. And the Atlantic ran another in 2020. Interestingly, all of these publications, which represent a fairly wide spectrum of perspectives, offered essentially the same point: Judaism and Christianity are not part of the same tradition and grouping them together is just a way to subsume one into the other. Among these, I was particularly interested in what Washington Jewish Week had to say, being both the earliest piece and the only one written by and for religiously-informed Jews. George Altshuler, author of the piece, asked both Orthodox and Conservative rabbis (those adhering to more or less strict interpretations of Jewish laws such as the Talmud, taking both historical and current political trends into account) about their use of the term “Judeo-Christian”. He was perhaps as surprised as I was to discover both rabbis like to use the term as a way of finding common ground with Christianity, perhaps as a defense mechanism from future anti-Semitic action. They argue that differences between Judaism and Christianity are overly divisive, and that even though Jewish theologians themselves have historically drawn very clear lines between the two, it is not always wise to do so in the present.
My interpretation of the reading of “Judeo-Christian”, therefore, is that most people who are at least somewhat well-informed about both religions are aware that the term does not accurately describe a common tradition between the two, but that the choice to use the term reflects a desire to find common ground for politically-expedient purposes. That desire for common ground is the subtext of any use of this term. In that sense, it’s not the term itself that anyone should be wary of, but who is using it and why. What most of these pieces argue is that “Judeo-Christian” tends to be invoked by conservatives as a way of appearing inclusive so that they can express inflammatory social views under some political cover.
I was curious how the use of the term matched up to political issues based on that reading, so I searched for it in google Ngram. According to google’s reading of books it has available, the term essentially doesn’t exist before the late 1830s, at which point it was briefly in rare use between 1837 and 1845. It then briefly reappeared again between 1903 and 1909. But in 1933, use of the term suddenly shot up and has been in regular and increasingly common usage since 1953. The term peaked in 1993 with a brief bump in the early-mid 2000s. So, despite the profusion of news pieces about the term in 2019, the term is very much going out of use. It’s hard not to see major world events in the use of this term, from the Progressive Era adoption of the term, likely as part of the efforts for systemic social reform of the early 20th century, to the sudden relevance of the term with the rise of the Nazi Party. I attribute the steady increase in the use of this term in the mid-century to the moral conservatism of that era, that sought to promote a particular behavioral ideal (centered in part on the nuclear family) as part of its social and political goals. It’s interesting to me that the term peaked in use during the era of political correctness – I could see this as either the most the term was ever tolerated, before the backlash to PC culture really began, or the turning point when intellectuals started to realize that the term was perhaps not as inclusive as it was intended to be. The final bump around 2003-2007 reads to me as the Bush-era alliance between the heart of the Conservative movement and Zionists.
So, I’m circling this idea that invoking Judeo-Christian values or tradition is a way for social conservatives to band together, even when their goals are diametrically opposed. This is going to be the subject of an article for the Medievalist Toolkit. I’m trying to figure out how this concept of Judeo-Christian developed in the modern period when the medieval history of Christianity was so actively opposed to Judaism. How has it become politically expedient to be associated with Judaism, even when Jewish culture and Jewish people are still marginalized? Let’s see what I can find.