Motherhood, apple pie, and the Judeo-Christian heritage of the United States of America: three indisputably good things, right? But what if I explained to you that “the term Judeo-Christian was always deeply contested and served a wide range of political and religious purposes”? (231) Would you reconsider your own use of the term and be curious about the constellation of ideals and principles that you associate with it?
K. Healan Gaston’s book, Imagining Judeo-Christian America: Religion, Secularism, and the Redefinition of Democracy, provides an engrossing look at the evolving usage of this hyphenated rhetorical device in the 20th century. Her book is a social-historical assessment of this term. She marshals an extensive array of American intellectual and popular voices to explain the shifting usage of the term Judeo-Christian from its earliest use in the 1890s into the present day.
In the early chapters of this book, Gaston argues that appeals to a Judeo-Christian heritage originated as a project of American liberalism as it sought to open up discourse to non-Protestant voices. There was “an emerging conviction in America that democracy required Judeo-Christian faith and other groups of religious adherents, secular Jews, and non-believers endanger democracy.” (100) Thus, an appeal to a Judeo-Christian society would be more inclusive of Roman Catholic and Jewish peoples while still serving as a bulwark against non-theist or polytheist peoples.
With the rise of the Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, the coalition of public interests in America shifted and the term Judeo-Christian became associated with conservatism in America as Catholic and Protestant organizations made common cause together to confront the social changes being introduced by the Roosevelt administration. After World War Two, strenuous efforts were undertaken to unite Catholics and Protestants as allies with some allowance being made for Jews as well. “It was Judeo-Christian exceptionalists,” Gaston explains, “with their shrill warnings about the dangers of secularism, materialism, and atheism, who generally controlled the tenor of public debate in the 1950s, although they faced opposition within the universities and could not necessarily count on the Supreme Court to defend their views.” (154) The Cold War and the Reagan presidency amplified the conviction that it was only the resources of the Judeo-Christian tradition that could satisfactorily account for “the importance of the individual and the orderliness of the universe.” (188) At this point, the shift from a liberal focus on inclusion to a conservative focus on exclusion was seemingly complete. Gaston’s final chapters survey the usage of the term Judeo-Christian by American presidents in the last few decades and this analysis is very pertinent to our current circumstances.
There is much to commend in this work. In particular, this book will move you to wrestle with the warning of the Reform Rabbi Bernard Heller who wrote that “Judeo-Christianity’s advocates homogeniz[e] the religious landscape, ignor[e] other faiths, and clai[m] for religion a commitment to tolerance that actually stemmed from humanistic sources, especially [from] the literary tradition”(172).
For those interested in political discourse, this book provides a valuable social-historical companion to Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age or the more popularized presentation of Taylor’s work found in James K.A. Smith’s How [Not] to Be Secular.
Norman Van Eeden Petersman (MDiv) is the pastor of Vancouver Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Canada. He lives in Richmond, BC, with his wife and son.