Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Recent Invention of the term "Judeo-Christian":

Dennis Prager is at it again with his case for "Judeo-Christian Values." In this latest installment, he claims,

For much of Christian history, the majority of Christians either ignored or denied the Jewish origins of Christianity and the Jewishness of Jesus and the Apostles. That is how many Christians were able to rationalize their anti-Semitism, and that is why Europe self-identified as "Christian," not as "Judeo-Christian" as America has.

But America has not long defined itself as "Judeo-Christian." Our Founders never used the term "Judeo-Christian" to describe America anymore than they used the term "values" (they instead spoke of virtues). It's only been in the last 50 years or so that this word has been used.

Even though it is a novel term, I think it's useful and I use it sometimes. It denotes that Christianity, the dominant religion in the West, has its origin in the Judaism of the Old Testament and so on and so forth. But I notice religious conservatives like Prager (and Medved and Lapin) use it to demonstrate their unity in a coalition of religious conservatives that consists of evangelical Protestants, orthodox Catholics and Jews. They can all take heart in America as a religious, "Judeo-Christian" nation, where they are in the proper box, but atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, Pagans, Muslims, Hindus, and everyone else are outside of the box.

Before the term "Judeo-Christian" was recently invented, Christian conservatives thundered that America is a "Christian Nation," without the "Judeo" and many of them still do.

If you go back to the Founding, there were roughly two schools of thought regarding the religious character of the nation (I'm simplifying; I realize that there are gray areas): One school which thought that only Protestant Christians should be given the full rights of citizenship -- with Jews and Catholics placed in the box with deists, pagans, infidels, Hindus, Muslims and everyone else. Many state constitutions reflected this point of view. And the other that believed in granting the full-rights of citizenship to all, not only to Jews and Catholics, but also to deists, freethinkers, pagans, Hindus and Muslims. The federal constitution reflects this latter view which states, in Article VI, section 3, "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

Some today argue that the founders only had Christianity in mind when that provision was written. But their interpretation is wrong for three reasons:

1) The text doesn't state this, and, given that many state constitutions did identify only Christianity as deserving protection, the US Constitution could have very easily explicitly specified this interpretation, but it didn't;

2) There is evidence that many heavyweight founders, -- Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin -- did believe in extending tolerance and rights to non-Protestants and non-Christians. And it should therefore come as no surprise that these men involved in constructing the Federal Constitution -- and yes, I know Jefferson was in France -- would take an approach on religion that starkly contrasted with the approach of the "Protestant only" or "Christian only" state constitutions.

3) The religious conservatives of the day knew that Article VI, because it didn't specify "Christianity only," would apply to non-Christians, and many opposed the US Constitution for precisely that reason. For instance, a North Carolina minister, in his state's ratification debated, noted that Article VI was "an invitation for Jews and pagans of every kind to come among us." At the Massachusetts convention, one speaker noted that unless the President was forced to take a religious oath, "a Turk, a Jew, a Roman Catholic, and what is worse than all, a Universalist, may be President of the United States."

Look at what box Jews and Catholics were put in then by the "Christian Nation" crowd.


Anonymous said...

Prager stesses this point only because the place of religion in America is under constant attack from the left via courts which have distorted the constitution. For example, the ACLU has filed suit to force the removal of ten commandment plaques at court houses. One case involves the court house in West Chester, PA. That plaque was in place for 90 years, it wasn't unconstitutional 90 years ago, and the Constitution has not been amended regarding religion in that time. "Judeo-Christian" is accurate for much of our history, but not all of it. We started out as a Protestant country, expanded to Christian (with the arrival of Catholics), and later became Judeo-Christian with the arrival of Jews. You are both right. However, throughout our history, religion has been part of our public life. It should remain so wherever a majority of the people so wish. If this does not sit well with secular fundamentalists, they should seek to amend the constitution properly.

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