Judeo-Christian Values

So hey, America, there’s, like, this election thing tomorrow.  You should go vote in it, if you haven’t already.

And also come tomorrow, I can stop talking about religion and the election. But until then…

Paul Ryan told a group of evangelical Christians that President Obama threatens “Judeo-Christian values,” so this seems like as good as time as ever to talk about the concept of Judeo-Christian values.  Short version – they don’t exist.

This is not to say that there aren’t similarities between Christianity and Judaism.  That’s certainly true.  But when it comes down to trying to demarcate a specific list of principals or theological concepts that apply to all branches of Christianity and Judaism, but that don’t also apply to Islam or the wider range of Abrahamic religions, there isn’t a whole lot that falls into that category.

As the Wikipedia article on the subject helpfully demonstrates (and if you can’t trust Wikipedia…), the problem with the concept is that no one can quite define what “Judeo-Christian values” are, and so they end up being a bit like the old Supreme Court definition of porn – “I know it when I see it.”  Lots of things get lumped under the blanket term, but few if any of those things actually apply to all of Christianity and Judaism.  Just to take some highlights from the Wikipedia page and Congressman Ryan’s speech:

– An excerpt from the Declaration of Independence, which reads, “All men…are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness”: as much as this is indisputably American, actually the concept that all men are created equal is not universally accepted by Judaism and Christianity, and certainly hasn’t been for most of the two religions’ histories – man is created by God, but both the concept of the Fall and subsequent reconciliation with the Children of Israel in Judaism and the concept of Original Sin in Catholicism imply that some men are more redeemed in the eyes of God than others.  Moreover, some forms of Calvinist Protestantism argued for the salvation of only a small minority – similar ideas are found in the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

– A proclamation by President Ronald Reagan marking 1983 the “Year of the Bible”: okay, for the life of me, I can’t imagine why 1983 would have been the Year of the Bible.  Although it does give a fun new dimension to the Neon Trees’ song.  But also, “the Bible” does not have a set definition shared between all Christians and Jews.  In addition to the obvious split, that Jews would argue that the New Testament is a false revelation, there’s also a great deal of variation between Christian sects as to what books of the Bible are canonical.  Catholics accept the so-called Apocrypha, whereas most of the Eastern churches have never accepted the Book of Revelation as part of the canon.  Moreover, many of the 18th and 19th century churches added to the canon, such as the Book of Mormon or the Book of Health and Science.  So really, it should matter *which* Bible we’re recognizing as “the Bible”.

– The statement by Ralph Reed, in response to Congressman Ryan’s speech, that there is a religious duty of Christians to cast their ballots, saying the “Bible clearly teaches” that there is an obligation to take part in their government: except that Jehovah’s Witnesses often refuse to vote, considering it an inappropriate form of worldliness, and the Quakers have a long history of eschewing politics, particularly in times of war, as they consider it a violation of the first commandment of Jesus.

The list could go on indefinitely, but the point is that there is almost nothing that applies to all Jews and Christians.  And, for the most part, the term “Judeo-Christian” is used as short-hand for a particular kind of Christianity (pretty much exclusively – I have come across the term as used in interfaith dialogues with Jews, but even then, I’d guess it’s used more often by the Christian participants than the Jewish ones) and a particular kind of Christian, one who is part of a mainstream denomination of Protestantism or Catholicism, and generally one from the conservative evangelical wing of those faiths.  But even that becomes a ridiculous definition when you start talking about canon or eschatology (the doctrine of the End Times) – for example, many evangelical Protestants still hold to the Reformation-era idea that the Antichrist is the Pope or will appear from within the Papal state, a concept generally not endorsed by many Catholics.

And so “Judeo-Christian” ends up just being words, a vague implication of similarities, and a vague admonishment not to consider those similarities too closely.  And, at least in my opinion, it’s also a slightly offensive concept, effectively overshadowing the tremendous and often deeply-felt and deeply-fought distinctions between religious sects.  It might not strike most of us as offensive to imply that Jehovah’s Witness, Mormons or Quakers aren’t *really* Christian, but it means something very different for members of those religions, particularly coming from a country founded on its defense of the variety of religion.

So there you go, with hours before Election Day, I got in one last rant around the plurality of American religion.  Go me.


About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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4 Responses to Judeo-Christian Values

  1. All I have to say is
    It always confuses me when people lump the moral values of two very different and disparate religions in with one another, and while I can UNDERSTAND that Judaism and Christianity both grew out of the same branch of the religious tree, it seems to me that there might be as many things in Judaism that would upset Paul Ryan as there are in Islam. :/ Especially since Paul Ryan is a total rock nerd, I bet he has all kinds of tattoos.

  2. Yes, that’s definitely true, as well – the really vague ideas that do apply to all of Christianity and Judaism generally apply to Islam, as well (and also the other Abrahamic religions). There are also some theological concepts, like the belief that Jesus is the Messiah, which apply to Christianity and Islam but not Judaism, but no one wants to talk about Muslim-Christian traditions.

  3. Pingback: Abrahamic Monotheism: Do they all worship the same God? | askanislamicist

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