John G. Turner, “How the dream of a Judeo-Christian America shaped the culture wars,” review of Imagining Judeo-Christian America by Healan Gaston, Christian Century, March 4, 2021

Excerpts (verbatim):

[…] When pluralists spoke of Judeo-Christian America, they leaned on civic definitions of American identity, definitions that stressed a commitment to a shared set of democratic assumptions and values. Pluralists used the term not to suggest that only Christians and Jews could be good Americans but as a shorthand way of inviting religious minorities and even nonbelievers into the public sphere.

The exceptionalists, by contrast, argued that American democracy would perish “unless its citizens hewed to certain modes of Christian and Jewish faith.” Few Jews found any version of Judeo-Christian rhetoric attractive, but they especially recoiled at exceptionalist critiques of secularism and attempts to undermine the separation of church and state. Jews knew that many Americans lauded “Judeo-Christian values” while working to make the public sphere more explicitly Christian and Protestant, not more inclusive. Indeed, many Protestant defenders of the “Judeo-Christian civilization” spoke disparagingly about Judaism and expressed hopes that Jews would come to their senses and convert to Christianity.

Still, the idea of Judeo-Christian America flowered during and after the Second World War. Reinhold Niebuhr and Will Herberg rarely used the exact term, but they popularized the idea that only explicit and vigorous formulations of Christianity and Judaism could underpin democracy against “godless” communism. As the Vatican made peace with religious diversity and the separation of church and state, increasing numbers of Catholic leaders found the idea of tri-faith America useful, especially when Protestants joined them in denouncing Supreme Court decisions that held school-led prayer and Bible reading unconstitutional.


The term was especially useful to Republican politicians courting the votes of evangelicals. In August 1980, Ronald Reagan made a campaign stop at the National Affairs Briefing, addressing an audience of 15,000 conservative Protes­tants. “Traditional Judeo-Christian values based on the moral teaching of religion,” Reagan warned, “are undergoing what is perhaps their most serious challenge in our nation’s history.” As Gaston notes, no president employed the rhetoric of Judeo-Christianity more frequently than Reagan. It lent a veneer of inclusivity to his courtship of evangelical voters. “I know that you can’t endorse me,” he quipped at the National Affairs Briefing, “but . . . I want you to know that I endorse you.” (Gaston might have included the irony that Southern Baptist leader Bailey Smith told the same gathering that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.”)

By the 21st century, the idea of Judeo-Christian America was confined to one part of the American political spectrum. Less artfully than Reagan, but no less effectively, Donald Trump blended Judeo-Christian rhetoric with pandering to evangelicals. “We are stopping cold the attacks on Judeo-Christian values,” President Trump told the Values Voter Summit in 2017. “We’re saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.” Forget Hanukkah.

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