Losing Our Moral Umbrella

As the recent presidential election has demonstrated, Americans reject a politics of exclusion-especially on grounds of religion. That's why, when Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice recently insisted that the United States is "a Christian nation," his fellow Republicans winced. Wasn't this the sort of divisive rhetoric that cost the party the White House?

But what about South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell's immediate counter-assertion? "From the beginning" of the nation, Campbell told the same meeting of Republican governors, American "values" have been based on "the Judeo-Christian heritage." By invoking this now familiar formula of inclusion, the South Carolinian was politically more correct. But for scholars of American religion, the idea of a single "Judeo-Christian tradition" is a made-in-America myth that many of them no longer regard as valid.

"Governor Fordice erred politically by failing to send out the proper linguistic signal," says Talmudic scholar Jacob Neusner, professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida. "But theologically and historically, there is no such thing as the Judeo-Christian tradition. It's a secular myth favored by people who are not really believers themselves." Hunter College sociologist John Murray Cuddihy agrees. "It's a device created by ecumenist public relations," says Cuddihy, one that only reveals "the cultural and theological illiteracy of our times. The more orthodox a Jew is and the more orthodox a Christian is, the more likely they are to say, 'To hell with the Judeo-Christian tradition'."

What in the name of God is going on? Think of the Tower of Babel: different people are speaking in different tongues for different purposes. Historically, the creation of the American ethos was the work of Protestant sectarians and an assortment of deists and other exponents the American Enlightenment. Nearly a century after the nation's founding, Jews were still not considered part of the American mix: in 1844, for example, Gov. James H. Hammond of South Carolina refused to alter his annual Thanksgiving proclamation so that his message (of prayer "to God, the Creator and his Son Jesus Christ") could include the state's "Israelite" citizens as well as its Christian citizens. According to author Mark Silk, the idea of a common Judeo-Christian tradition first surfaced at the end of the 19th century but did not gain popular support until the 1940s, as part of an American reaction to Nazism and its fascist fellow travelers. To distinguish the American democratic ideal from various right-wing groups such as "the Christian Aryan Syndicate," Silk says Protestants began to stress Christianity's Jewish roots and the common religious values that inspired a cohesive "Western culture." A nation at war needed religious harmony.

During the subsequent cold war against communism, the idea of a shared Judeo-Christian tradition was central to the era's politics of cohesion. "Our government has no sense unless it is founded on a deeply religious faith," President Dwight D. Eisenhower remarked, "and I don't care what it is." In his classic 1955 study, "Protestant-Catholic-Jew," the philosopher Will Herberg, a former communist, celebrated an adhesive American faith triunion of the nation's major traditions. Although Jews were numerically much the shortest leg on this ecumenical stool, most non-Orthodox leaders welcomed the opportunities that interreligious dialogue and cooperation provided. Anti-Semitism was, by common conviction, outlawed as anti-American. Differences in doctrine mattered less than the fact that Jews and Christians shared the same Bible, insisted on monotheism and taught that both the individual and society stood under the judgment of the same God. Jesus, after all, was himself a Jew.

However, after the Israeli victory in the Six Day War of 1967, which liberal Protestant leaders vigorously condemned, American Jews began to question the value of the Judeo-Christian formula. What good were warm feelings, many asked, if Christians could not recognize what Israel means to Jews? Since then, both Jewish and Christian scholars have come to recognize that-geopolitics apart-Judaism and Christianity are different, even rival religions. For instance, Jewish interpretation of the Hebrew Bible makes it a very different book from what Christians regard as the "Old Testament." Indeed, implicit in the whole idea of a common religious tradition, Christian scholars now realize, is the image of Judaism as parent to a Christian offspring. "That annoys many Jews," says veteran ecumenist Harvey Cox, a Protestant theologian at the Harvard Divinity School. "It implies that the child is the true spiritual heir and that the parent might as well retire."

Even so, political rhetoric still invokes a common moral umbrella. Ironically, during this year's presidential campaign, it was partisans of the Christian right who insisted that they were fighting to preserve "Judeo-Christian values," as Patrick Buchanan put it in his pugnacious address to the Republican National Convention. In fact, Jews and Christians were and are deeply divided, even among themselves, on the issues of abortion and homosexuality that Buchanan had in mind. But the real irony is that the idea of a common Judeo-Christian tradition is, for the United States at least, already outmoded. "What we need now to maintain social cohesion," says Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Judaism at Brandeis University, "is a new language of inclusion to encompass American Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus." Perhaps, but it will take years of dialogue to achieve-and a lot more hyphens.