Thursday, May 20, 2021

But What Is "Judeo-Christian"?

A fun story involving one my favorite students. As background, this student is (a) a somewhat recent immigrant to the United States and (b) Muslim.

Anyway, after class one day this student wanted to ask my opinion about some conservative radio shock jock he had read an article about. The radio guy had been defending some regressive gender ideologies on the grounds that they were mandated by his "Judeo-Christian" beliefs. My student asked me "what's 'Judeo-Christian'?"

At first I thought he was being arch, so I played along -- "LOL, I know right? What is 'Judeo-Christian'? I'm pretty sure it just means 'Christian'!"

But after a few moments, it became clear the question was meant in earnest. He thought "Judeo-Christian" must be a particular sect of Christianity -- like "Orthodox Christian" or "Lutheran Christian" -- and wanted to know more about it, because he hadn't really heard of it before except in contexts like "right-wing shock jocks justifying being misogynist" (in his home country, which was predominantly Muslim and had virtually no Jews, the term was not I imagine in regular circulation). What was this branch of Christianity that was always being deployed by right-wing reactionary public figures?

So I told him that the "Judeo-" was meant to refer to "Judaism", and the term was meant to connote a shared tradition supposedly common to Jews and Christians alike -- though, I hastened to add, 99% of the time it's really just "Christian". The shock jock in question, unsurprisingly, was Christian and not Jewish, and was just adding "Judeo-" to rope us into his own, 100% Christian, gender ideology.

My student was abashed that he hadn't put the obvious two-and-two together. To be clear, it wasn't that he had thought "Jewish" was a subsect of Christianity -- he knew Judaism was its own religion -- it just genuinely never occurred to him to link "Judeo-" and "Jewish" (it seems obvious, I know, but I can absolutely imagine it being one of those things you just never put together until it's stated and then it slaps you in the face). There were, he had thought, Jews and Christians, and then among Christians there were Catholic Christians and Orthodox Christian and Assyrian Christians and Judeo Christians.

But, in his defense, he found the "real" explanation -- that it was a sort of merging of "Jewish" and "Christian" together, by people who inevitably identified with one religion or the other, but not both -- even odder than his initial misapprehension.
"But those are two separate religions!"


"It'd be like me saying 'Islamo-Christian'!"


"That's stupid! I'd be really annoyed if someone of another religion tried to rope in my religion to justify his misogynistic beliefs."


Anyway, mystery solved, we had a good laugh about the uselessness of the term "Judeo-Christian" and how terrible the shock jock was. The end.


LWE said...

When was the phrase first used? It seems to be a purely American phenomenon. Did it began as a way to be more inclusive of Jews in American life? Of course, if so, it quickly started to have the same supercessionist implications it was meant to counteract.

Tucker Lieberman said...

There's a book answering this question: K. Healan Gaston's "Imagining Judeo-Christian America" (2019). The term was used in the late 19th century but only rarely, and it was politicized in the early 20th century when it could mean any of a variety of things depending on who was speaking, and since the late 20th century it has more consistently implied conservatism. I wrote about it for Shalom Magazine Boston, Rosh Hashanah/Fall 2022 (pp. 48–49).

Angelica said...

It's definitely not purely used in the US. It's commonly used by christian right-wing conservatives here in Belgium as well.