"Were I to be a founder of a new sect, I would call them Apriarians, and after the example of the bee, advise them to extract honey of every sect."
-- Thomas Jefferson to Thomas B. Parker, May 15, 1819.
In order to settle the debate over what to call America's principle Founders [Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and others], perhaps we should term them "Apriarians." This system is neither strict Deism, nor orthodox Christianity. Dr. Gregg Frazer has suggested "theistic rationalism," a term I like. But not everyone does. My co-blogger at American Creation, Tom Van Dyke has voiced his disagreement with it (I need not reproduce that here) and instead offers, "Judeo-Christians." TVD would note, after Michael Novak that the "strict Deist" God is a non-interventionist one, but it's the "Judeo-Christian" God who is an active personal God. And all five of those above mentioned Founders believed in an active personal God.
Here are some potential problems with the term "Judeo-Christian." First it's an a-historical term. The term was not used during the Founding and the Founders didn't call themselves "Judeo-Christians." But they didn't call themselves "theistic rationalists" either. Both Van Dyke and Frazer would argue their terms are properly "descriptive" however.
The second problem is it suggests some special relationship between Judaism and Christianity, but that excludes other "non-Judeo-Christian" faiths. And that dynamic didn't quite exist during the Founding era either. You had "Protestant Christianity" as the dominant faith and the "in" group. Jews and Roman Catholics tended to be cast "outside the box" with Muslims, pagans and infidels. There were only a very small number of anti-Christian Deists or atheists who wanted nothing to do with Jesus, the Bible or the Christian label. But there were an huge number of "deistic" or "unitarian" minded folks, most of whom were formally or nominally associated with a Protestant Christian Church. Though they may not have been regular attendees or communicants and they otherwise didn't believe in their Church's orthodox doctrines. Men like Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington could feel like "insiders" in a way that Jews, Muslims, Roman Catholics, non-Christian-Deists and atheists couldn't precisely because they maintained formal and nominal connections to Protestant Christianity.
Another potential problem with "Judeo-Christianity" is that it could mean a lowest common denominator between Judaism and Christianity; but then we'd have to throw out Jesus and the New Testament. And the Founders didn't do that.
But my biggest problems with the term "Judeo-Christianity" is that I see a number of orthodox Christians invoking that term and then seeking to use the "Judeo" part as a "handmaiden" to orthodox Christianity. From their self-serving perspective, it's not surprising they would do this because Judaism does indeed play an extremely special role as an antecedent to orthodox Christianity. But that clearly doesn't describe the "Judeo-Christianity" of America's key Founders.
Maybe this is just the result of an encounter I had with an orthodox Christian named Gordon Mullings, which was the blatantest, grossest example of this dynamic of attempting to use Christianity's Judaic roots to serve as a handmaiden for orthodox doctrine. He wrote:
As to the idea that the biblical, Judaeo-Christian worldview is ill-defined or hard to outline, that is laughable. Yes there are disputes or debates over relatively narrow points of doctrine [we are here speaking of worldviews not theologies and schools of thought within a worldview], or because of ignorance and twisting of the scriptures, but the core of that worldview is long since on public record as bith [sic] NT documents and subsequent easily accessible creedal statements, regularly publicly recited, e.g. the Nicene creed - which aptly summarises the faith once for all delivered unto the saints.
Did you get that? He just equated the "Judeo-Christian" worldview with the Nicene Creed. And Jews, like America's key Founders, reject almost every single word of the Nicene Creed, or at least after the first paragraph. The kind of "Judeo-Christianity" as represented by the "theistic rationalists" (or the "Apriarians") can reject, often bitterly and mockingly, the Nicene Creed.
I remember once explaining to a group of people, via email, "theistic rationalism," how it was neither strict deism nor orthodox Christianity and one commenter noted, "they sound like they were Jews." There may be some truth to that. When I hear Rabbi Shmuley Boteach debate Jesus I hear a lot of Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin. He sees Jesus as a great moral teacher and Rabbi, but rejects Him as Messiah. They may have seen Jesus as a "savior" in some sense but rejected the Trinity or Jesus' divinity. AND Boteach asserts that parts of the New Testament were likely fabricated (Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin would certainly say something similar about the Old Testament). Boteach also discusses the Jewish doctrine of how men are saved by their virtue, which is also what those Founders believed.
So, ultimately if there is a "Judeo-Christian" or even a "Christian" theology that undergirds the American Founding, it's so ecumenical that it includes lots of things (Trinity denial, universal salvation, rejection of the infallibility of the Bible; today it would have to include such things as Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnessism, cafeteria Christianity and embrace of the Gnostic Gospels) "historic" Christians don't consider "real Christianity" at all.