What does Judeo-Christian mean?
Let’s consider what Prager says: “Along with the belief in liberty — as opposed to, for example, the European belief in equality, the Muslim belief in theocracy, and the Eastern belief in social conformity — Judeo-Christian values are what distinguish America from all other countries.” For Prager, the Judeo-Christian is not liberty itself, but along with liberty, it is a distinguishing characteristic of our culture. What is it?
Prager believes the founding fathers saw themselves as Jews and “probably studied Hebrew, the language of the Jewish Bible at least as much as Greek.” Actually, they studied Latin to get into college and read the Ancient Latin authors in addition to the Greeks as their core liberal arts curriculum. Roman Republicanism was in vogue with authors singing their editorials with names such as Publius (for the Federalists) and Cato (for the anti-Federalists.)
Prager believes the founders modeled themselves on the Hebrews, which “accounts for the mission that Americans have uniquely felt called to — to spread liberty in the world. … It is why those who today most identify with the Judeo-Christian essence of America are more likely to believe in the moral worthiness of dying to liberate countries — not only Europe, but Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.” Apparently the founding fathers were neo-conservatives with an altruistic mission to “make the world safe for democracy,” to use Woodrow Wilson’s phrase.
While I give Prager credit for addressing the issue, his description of our culture eliminates the centrality of individual liberty. Our posture abroad has traditionally been one of self-defense: avoiding entangling alliances, hesitant of becoming the global policeman, shying away from conquering nations and establishing colonies, etc. His commentary on American principles is wanting. But back to the main question, is Prager correct in his definition of Judeo-Christian?
The term itself is only one hundred years old. It appears to be a replacement for “the West,” “the American way,” “the free world,” or, for some, Christendom. The rationale is clear: to define an alternative to communism, which is atheist and materialist in nature. But the problem with communism isn’t that it is non-Christian – so were Aristotle, and Cicero – but that communists were collectivist and dogmatic utopians. Their pseudo-science was a rejection of science and reason; they concept of collective will was a rejection of natural law; their concept of democracy was everything the Ancients (and founding fathers) hated about democracy: mob rule.
Prior to the phrase Judeo-Christian, our Protestant heritage in general, and Calvinism in particular, was often touted as a key to the uniqueness of the Anglo-sphere. Instead of atheism let’s play Devil’s Advocate and ask if Catholicism is a problem.
In the last two centuries, Catholic nations have been poor bulwarks against tyranny. All the major Catholic nations have succumbed to dictatorship. Italy had Mussolini; Spain had Franco. Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Mexico had dictator after dictator. Mussolini invented the term totalitarianism. Italy was clearly not anti-religious nor did we see anything like the anti-clerical hysteria of the French Revolution. Argentina, one hundred years ago, had the same standard of living as America and given its climate appeared to be our southern mirror image.
Would we not say that Catholic nations are Judeo-Christian? If excessive immigration (i.e. beyond the assimilation rate) from south of the border threatens our culture, then it can’t be because Latin Americans aren’t Christian. Is it because they aren’t Protestant? Clearly not!
It would be better to ask what is it about the British culture that has spawned so many civilized off-springs: the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, etc. That’s an ambitious topic but let’s note the tradition of law, liberty, private property, and an empirical disposition. Most of all, it is individualism: self-responsibility, self-reliance, independent spirit, and individual liberty. Without an explanation and extensive exposition these notions can only hint at the total picture.
Surely someone has written a better defining article of the essence of Judeo-Christianity. Has anyone found one?
Update: Michael Marriott takes issue with the idea that America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles because he says they were found on Enlightenment principles. It isn't clear that he defines Judeo-Christian. Does he need to?
Update2: Dictionary.com defines Judeo-Christian as "of or pertaining to the religious writings, beliefs, values, or traditions held in common by Judaism and Christianity." Isn't that just another way of saying Jewish? Does Judaism and Christianity both have Jesus in common? Does a Judeo-Christian founding mean Jesus' teachings have no influence on our country's founding?