Letting go of the term “Judeo-Christian”

Judeo-Christian. A term used today by some to show a unity between two religions. A bridging of two religions that are, in many ways, at odds with each other. With this term, it seems as if a majority-Christian nation, with the best of intentions, opens itself up to connecting with Judaism, the ancient source of Christianity. This is a term to describe shared values and concepts of two religions, moving forward together with a shared plan and goals. 

What could possibly be wrong with this word?

Turns out, a lot, actually. The current usage is often inaccurate, and the original usage brings even more baggage. With the current usage and history of this word, it should be removed from the language of anyone that truly believes in religious diversity and inclusion.  

The earliest uses of this word were about early Jewish converts to Christianity. Instead of it being unifying, instead of covering two religions, it covers a major divide. With the history of early Christians, especially once they became the official religion of Rome, towards Jews, these people are viewed very differently depending on if you are Jewish or Christian. It was linked to a source of conflict, and was not really about Jews as much as early converts to Christianity. 

This usage was pretty much the norm until the early decades of the 20th century, when the term became linked to a more current conflict. “Judeo-Christian” became the self-description of many Christians that were against Christian fascists like Father Coughlin. Father Coughlin was virulently anti-Jewish, and the “Judeo-Christians” were against this level of hatred of Jews. This was a Christian-vs Christian battle regarding the Jews. It was still not really about Jews, as much as about how Christians saw Jews. 

The next major shift is a product of the cold war. This time, it was “Judeo-Christians”  (The West) versus “Atheists” (Communism). In the Cold War game of US vs “the Reds”, many in the US saw a war between religion and atheism. At this time, the main religions in the US were perceived to be Christianity and Judaism (even though Jews have never made up more than a low single-digit percentage of the US population). Like every other usage, this was from a Christian perspective, and while Jews were clearly not atheists, there was still some animosity towards Jews as outsiders even among those using the term. Some of the same people talking about the beauty of “Judeo-Christian tradition” were also fine with quotas on Jews in universities, excluding Jews from many aspects of social life, and other kinds of bigotry. 

The final shift, the one that still exists at some level today, is connected to yet another “Christian vs atheist” conflict. In the 80’s, the “great communist enemy” of the USSR plus it’s hegemony, began to crumble. Russia began to globally be seen as a place of religion. The Russian Orthodox Church made it hard to use “religion” vs “atheism” against them. The “moral majority” needed a strong scary enemy, and they found it in the “liberals”.  Modern American issues, such as defining the required separation of church and state, “family values” rights of women, and what kind of social equality should be allowed, were often dividing lines between “Judeo-Christian conservatives”, versus “Atheist liberals”. 

While the use as a “side” in a conflict is similar to past uses, for the first time, some Jews were really part of “Judeo-Christian” groups, in visible numbers. What makes the term still problematic, though, is that Jews were on both sides of the issue (as are Christians). When used in this way, it is more about conservative vs liberal ideology than religion. 

While this is still part of the usage today, there is another aspect to the usage, that of excluding other religions. Many who use “Judeo-Christian” today are not just anti-liberal, but against every other religion almost entirely. Especially since 9/11, it has often become an “us vs the Muslims” term. This is not the only usage today, but is unfortunately a usage that is propagated enough to make it hard to avoid the link. 

With a long history of divisiveness attached to this term, I feel it is simply not redeemable anymore, and people that truly accept and love the diversity of our world, our country, and our city need to put this term to pasture. 

In a place like Tri-Faith Initiative, we can recognize that most things that are similar among Jews and Christians are also similar for Muslims. This term excludes a part of the core initiative in that regard. For things that fit the definition of being linked to all three groups, “Abrahamic” might be better. If there are other groups that might also be linked, maybe “common among many groups” would also be a good term to use. Many names and places are found in all three of our groups’ holy books. Few important concepts that span Judaism and Christianity are not also in Islam. 

Perhaps you have heard the term used for things you are pretty sure are just part of Christianity and Judaism. Are you sure these are not just Christian concepts? On more than one occasion, the term has been used for things that were not, in any way, Jewish. 

There is nothing wrong with calling Christian views, opinions, and ideas Christian, especially when it is the most accurate term.  As a Jew, I would much rather a Christian speak from and embrace their Christian identity. 

Humans are, on the whole, a diverse bunch. Embracing our diversity and uniqueness is as important as it is to identify and connect on our similarities. Connecting and enjoying those around us is already something we try to do, so why not do it just a little bit better?

Recommended Reading: 
Silk, M. (1984). Notes on the Judeo-Christian Tradition in America. American Quarterly, 36(1), 65-85. doi:10.2307/2712839

Mark silk on the history of the term ‘Judeo-Christian’. (2019, April 15). National Catholic Reporter. https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/distinctly-catholic/mark-silk-history-term-judeo-christian

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