Monday, January 29, 2007

What's Judeo-Christian about America?

We often hear in the rhetoric of the Religious Right an appeal to the Judeo-Christian heritage of our nation. But what does that mean? Since few Jews use the language, but is instead a largely Christian slogan, it's probably not a word of inclusion -- as if Jews and Christians should dominate American political and cultural life. Instead, it's a word that appeals to the alleged biblical foundations of the nation -- that is the nation's roots look to things like the Ten Commandments as a guide to public life, etc. It's a phrase bandied about by such folks as Virgil Goode in his reaction to Keith Ellison and by others who want to "protect" American values.

Randy Balmer has a nice definition of the "Judeo-Christian Tradition" in the appendix of Thy Kingdom Come (p. 194-95). He warns us to check our wallets when we hear the word used because someone's trying to pull something over on us. He notes it's original usage --OED, 1899 -- use in 1930s in response to fascism -- but and here's the kicker:

"Contrary to appearances, however, the primary effect of the term was exclusion rather than inclusion; that is, by enlarging the bounds of religious acceptability beyond Protestantism to include Catholicism and Judaism in the 1930s, this newly coined Judeo-Christian tradition sought to exclude all others -- practitioners of Asian religions, Mormons, pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the like -- from the realm of 'American' religion. More importantly, what was once a progressive term in the 1930s evolved over several decades into a phrase , that in the hands of the Religious Right, has become a synonym with 'Christian nation'."

Balmer notes as well that the use of the term misleadingly gives the impression that Jews are supporting this Religious Right agenda -- but as he says "few American Jews lie awake at night worrying about whether or not the Ten Commandments are posted on the walls of American courtrooms."

Maybe it's time to retire this overused phrase and recognize that American life is much more diverse than this and that's okay, even for someone like me who is a committed Christian.

1 comment:

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