Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The Commentariat Speaks (24)

Social media platforms are apparently now engaging in crosstalk. This recent exchange on Twitter prompted a few responses on Gab concerning a familiar expression:

Nick writes, “America is a Judeo-Christian nation, period.”

Erin responds, “Dear Christians: Jews have absolutely no desire whatsoever to be co‑opted and absorbed into your religion. Judeo-Christian is not a thing that exists. Your attempt to erase us is blatant. Bonus education for you: Jewish beliefs require access to abortion.”

Ah yes. Well, that definitely distinguishes Christians from self-described Jews of this sort at least.


A few years ago our own Immanuel Can wrote a post entitled “Judeo-Christianity” in which he lists all the things we Gentile Christians owe to Jews and Judaism: our Bibles, the Lord Jesus, the apostles, and so on. He points out that there would be no Christianity without the foundation provided by the Judaism that existed up until the first century, though the spiritual direction Judaism has taken since then is quite another story. As Paul states in Romans, “To them [Israel] belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever.” Despite all their well-chronicled Old and New Testament failings, most of all their failure to recognize their own Messiah when he came to them, Gentile Christians owe the Jews of the first century and prior a tremendous debt and have received from them a priceless legacy.

To be crystal clear, we owe it to the Judaism of the Torah, not the Judaism of the Talmud. Christians do not owe a fig to Talmudic Judaism.

If all that is generally understood when we use the expression “Judeo-Christian” is that Christians owe godly ancient Jews and Israelites a great deal, then there is no reason for believers to object to the use of it, even if today Jews and Christians believe very different things about Judaism’s Messiah.

But is that what the term really means when others use it?

A People Set Aside

Like IC, I grew up in an evangelical tradition that loved and appreciated the Old Testament people of God and believed that despite their temporary “setting-aside” as God’s primary instrument of blessing and testimony in this world (which has been of great spiritual benefit to me personally), they have a bright future nationally in the plans and purposes of God once they have been refined and purified through suffering and the Lord Jesus returns to call them to repentance. And of course there has been a godly Jewish “remnant” in every era; in this era, faithful Jews are fellow-Christians. I greatly enjoy engaging with some of these folks online.

I am not the only one, of course. Many evangelicals have traditionally been strong supporters of the nation of Israel (though this is now changing with the growing popularity of Replacement Theology in evangelical circles). And while dispensationalists and other non-Reform Christians understand very well that the largely-secular Israel of today is not the repentant Israel of the Great Tribulation period, we also recognize that any prophetic future for Israel is predicated on the continued existence of its people. Also, as people of goodwill, we support the maintenance of a safe home for the nation of Israel on the same basis that we would wish for the ultimate good of all people groups.

Where Did It Come From Anyway?

Now, Erin’s Twitter comment makes it crystal clear that as a Jew she finds the expression “Judeo-Christian” both offensive and illegitimate. Perhaps Erin does not speak for all Jews, but she at least seems to understand the term very differently than IC does, and associates the use of it with Christian attempts to “co-opt”, “absorb” and “erase” her people.

I never really thought about where the term “Judeo-Christian” came from, and certainly was not offended by the association of Christians with Jews, knowing that our faith and their religion have a common source and that the destinies of both the true church and true Jews are tied together in Christ. But then, I didn’t coin the expression, and I don’t get to assign it a specific meaning simply because I am unoffended by Jews generally — even the unbelieving, secular Jews of today who are often deeply hostile to the Christian faith.

Perhaps Erin is right, and the adjectival use of “Judeo-Christian” is actually some horrible evangelical plot to hijack and erase her people’s identity. We should probably do a little digging and find out.

Reading the Ngram Leaves

The Google Books Ngram Viewer is an online tool designed to analyze the gazillions of books Google has scanned. It provides a quick and dirty way of identifying when a popular expression made its first appearance in Western literature and how frequently it has been used since. A search for “[Judeo - Christian]” gives us a line graph that shows a miniscule number of entries from 1800 on, with a huge surge in popularity beginning in the late 1930s and peaking in 2012. Its modern popularity may have begun with George Orwell, who in 1939 referred to “the Judaeo-Christian scheme of morals”, roughly the same sense in which IC has used the term.

Now, we all know what was going on the late 1930s. There was no national home for Israel anywhere in the world, and Jews were scattered all over the place. WWII was about to hit full swing, and Jews in Hitler’s Germany would shortly be sent to concentration camps to be murdered in great numbers. The writing was on the wall and many Jews wanted to get out. America seemed like a great solution. But there was a problem: the US had a set of extremely restrictive immigration laws based on national origins. Many Jews looking for a safe haven found their efforts thwarted by quotas and demanding visa requirements. These were not unpopular with the American people, 72% of whom had no interest in importing more Jews in 1938. In the end, 123,868 Jews immigrated to America between 1938 and 1941. Hundreds of thousands more would-be immigrants were trapped in Europe and murdered by the end of WWII.

It would not be unreasonable to speculate that the phrase “Judeo-Christian” may have been repurposed and popularized in an attempt to encourage Americans to take a more accepting view of Jews.

What Really Happened

In fact, this is precisely what happened. Wikipedia summarizes the conclusions expressed in American Judaism: A History (2004) by Jonathan Sarna:

“Promoting the concept of United States as a Judeo-Christian nation based upon Judeo-Christian ethics first became a political program in the 1940s, in response to the growth of anti-Semitism in America. Jews played a small role in that but the rise of anti-semitism in the 1930s led concerned Protestants, Catholics, and Jews to take steps to increase mutual understanding and lessen the high levels of anti-semitism in the United States.

In this effort, precursors of the National Conference of Christians and Jews created teams consisting of a priest, a rabbi, and a minister, to run programs across the country, and fashion a more pluralistic America, no longer defined as a Christian land, but ‘one nurtured by three ennobling traditions: Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism ... The phrase “Judeo-Christian” entered the contemporary lexicon as the standard liberal term for the idea that Western values rest on a religious consensus that included Jews.’ ”

So then, the rise in popularity of the phrase “Judeo-Christian” was a calculated political move, if not directly initiated by Jewish community leaders in America, then made at least with their full knowledge and support. Cynical? Perhaps. But it worked. At this point in the mid-twentieth century, unbelieving Jews like Erin were not terribly concerned about being co-opted, absorbed or erased by their association with Christians. In fact, garnering as much Christian support as possible had become Job 1 for a people concerned with its very survival.

Irony, Anyone?

So we come back to our little Twitter exchange that prompts today’s discussion. Associating themselves with Christians and accepting our help has been very useful to Jews in the West. But the truth is that America was never a “Judeo-Christian nation”. In fact, America was never even truly a Christian nation, though it was initially much more Christian-influenced than it is today. But “Judeo-Christian”? Please. Jews actually arrived in North America in three waves, the most significant of which did not even occur until the 1840s. To suggest post-first-century Talmudic Judaism had anything whatsoever to do with America’s Constitution or founding documents is preposterous, though historical revisionists like Ben Shapiro certainly make that claim as vigorously as possible. In reality, the only way in which Judaism can be said to have influenced the Founders at all was indirectly, through the filter of the New Testament.

But more importantly, there is this: Talmudic Jews like Erin living in the US and Canada — not to mention the state of Israel — have benefited massively from their public association with Christians over the last sixty-some years. They helped promote that very tentative connection when it served their purposes. Today, in the midst of “woke” culture, Christians are suddenly the bad guys, and Jews like Erin would like to get off the “Judeo-Christian” bus they helped popularize.

I get it. But I do find it highly ironic that the two issues sufficiently divisive to splinter this historic and ecumenical political alliance are: (1) Jesus Christ; and (2) the right to abortion, which Erin insists is part of her core “Jewish beliefs”.

Hey, anybody who wants to dissociate themselves from me over either of those issues is most welcome.

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