This article was originally published in the Spring 2021 Humanistic Judaism Magazine. It was written by Lincoln Dow. Lincoln is the Community Organizer of Jews for a Secular Democracy, a pluralistic initiative of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. He studies politics and public policy at New York University.
If you find yourself listening to a far-right news source or political pundit, you’re likely to hear the phrase “Judeo-Christian values,” perhaps invoked in criticizing social progressivism. Today, this phrase is widely misused, employed almost exclusively by political leaders on the religious right to falsely imply that support for a Christian-nationalist agenda extends more broadly than it actually does, including among Jews.
The phrase is problematic for many reasons and its usage has shifted. In the 1930s, “Judeo-Christian” was first coined by liberals as an inclusive term to challenge anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish sentiment. Through the 1950s, however, as fear of “Godless Communism” spread throughout the U.S., “Judeo-Christian values” came to represent an anti-secular, anticommunist rallying cry. Over time, progressive Christians and Jews have largely abandoned the terminology.
“Judeo-Christian” has never been a truly inclusive term, as America has never been comprised of only Jews and Christians, rendering the phrase exclusionary. Though some political leaders, including Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, have referred to the U.S. as being founded in “Judeo-Christian tradition,” this is a patently false claim. Our constitutional framers deliberately created a secular government with strong protections for and from religion, tenets that Christian nationalists today challenge under the guise of “Judeo- Christian values.”
Make no mistake, the Christian-nationalist agenda is socially regressive and harmful. In recent years, policies promoted by Christian nationalists have allowed publicly-funded child welfare organizations to prohibit families from adopting based on differing religious beliefs or for being a part of the LGBTQ community; have authorized religiously-affiliated hospitals to withhold medical care from patients based on the organization’s religious views; and have required public schools to teach the Bible and display the motto “In God We Trust.” During the same time period, Christian nationalists have been laying the groundwork for future state-level attacks on the separation of religion and government.
Former President Donald Trump claimed in his 2017 speech at the Values Voter Summit that he was “stopping the attacks on Judeo-Christian values” by allowing religious business owners to deny their employees access to birth control, and the same phrase was used by Congress as far back as 1996 to justify passage of the Defense of Marriage Act, federally prohibiting same-sex marriage.
“Judeo-Christian” co-opts the Jewish community’s voice while misrepresenting the values that most of us stand for. An overwhelming majority of American Jews (80% or more) support women’s rights, racial justice, environmental policies, LGBTQ equality, science-based reproductive freedom, and secular educational standards in our public schools. These social imperatives are founded in our Jewish tradition as well as an understanding that the First Amendment guarantees a secular government that does not privilege one religion over others, or religion over no religion.
As Jewish Americans, we have a history of overcoming religious discrimination and must not stand idly by as others are discriminated against, which is why Jews for a Secular Democracy is seeking to educate our community about the term “Judeo-Christian,” challenge its usage, and stand up for the separation of religion and government. Jewish leaders across the country are signing onto our open letter expressing concerns over “Judeo-Christian” terminology, and we invite you to do the same at jfasd.org/judeochristian. The full text of our statement follows:
As American Jews, we are deeply concerned by the misleading use of the phrase “Judeo-Christian values” to falsely claim Jewish support for harmful Christian nationalist policies, such as allowing state-funded child welfare agencies to discriminate on the basis of religion, permitting healthcare providers to impose their religious beliefs on patients, or promoting Christianity in public schools. We reject the inappropriate portrayal of these discriminatory policies as Jewish values. American Jews stand for progress and against discrimination toward women, the LGTBQ community, religious minorities (including Jews), and any others. Today, the phrase “Judeo-Christian” is deeply embedded in the language of Christian nationalists who seek to establish Christianity as the dominant political, cultural, and social force in society. Elected officials and all citizens must understand how the phrase has been weaponized in the hands of religious fundamentalists. We are committed to upholding the constitutional separation of religion and government and building an America where people of all or no faith traditions are equal under law. We therefore call for an end to the use of the phrase “Judeo-Christian” in all political contexts.