Some Jews and Christians object to the term “Judeo-Christian.” How can there be Judeo-Christian values, they argue, when Judaism and Christianity differ? In a previous column, I explained that one should not confuse theology with values. Theological differences are not the same as value differences.
Nevertheless, there are some value differences between the religions. But that is precisely the greatness of Judeo-Christian values: They are greater than the sum of their parts. That is why in this series of essays I have been making the case for Judeo-Christian values, not for all Christian values and not for all Jewish values.
The combination of Jewish Scripture (the Old Testament) and Christian thought and activism – as worked out mostly in America and mostly by Judeo-based Christians – has forged something larger and more universally applicable than either Judaism or Christianity alone.
Let me give two examples of specifically Jewish and Christian values that are not Judeo-Christian values.
As Judaism progressed, it developed a legal system (Halakha) that increasingly aimed to separate Jews from non-Jews. One purpose was to keep Jews from incorporating pagan practices and values into the one monotheistic religion. Over time, however, it was also a result of the constant decimation of the Jewish people by anti-Semites. Jews, for good reason, feared disappearing. Thus survival – in part through avoiding social contact with non-Jews – became the primary concern of Jewish life, not influencing the world. Whatever the reasons, Judaism retreated from the world. Judeo-Christian values bring Jewish values back into the world.
An example of a Christian value that is not Judeo-Christian is Christianity’s traditional emphasis on faith above works and on an exclusive credo. Many Christians, including those who forcefully advocate Judeo-Christian values, believe that one must profess faith in Christ in order to be saved, that no amount of good deeds a person may perform, even if that person also has a deep belief in God (the Father), suffices in God’s eyes. And though Catholicism has emphasized works along with faith, for most of church history, the importance of works was restricted to Catholics. Non-Catholics, no matter how good, were often denied salvation and frequently persecuted solely for their different faith (e.g., Huguenots and Jews).
Until the 20th century, European Christianity, as embodied in the church, de-emphasized its Jewish roots, and it usually persecuted Jews (though never ordered, indeed opposed, their physical annihilation – annihilation required a secular ideology, Nazism). No Christian state referred to itself as “Judeo-Christian.” That identity arose with the Christians of America, who from the outset were at least as deeply immersed in the Old Testament as in the New. Rather than see themselves as superseding Jews, American Christians identified with them.
These American Christians chose a Torah verse – “Proclaim liberty throughout the land” – for their Liberty Bell; learned and taught Hebrew; adopted the Jewish notion of being chosen to be a light unto the nations; saw their leaving Europe as a second exodus; had every one of its presidents take the oath of office on an Old and New Testament Bible – and while every president mentioned God in his inaugural address, not one mentioned Jesus.
Of course, most Protestant Christians who hold Judeo-Christian values continue to believe that there is no salvation outside of faith in Christ. But precisely because they do hold Judeo-Christian values, they work hand in hand with others whose faith they deem insufficient or incorrect (e.g., Jews and Mormons). So while they theologically reject other faiths, evangelical Christians are the single strongest advocates of Judeo-Christian values.
They are what can be called “Judeo-Christians.” Since they founded America, such Christians have recognized the critical significance of the Jewish text – the Old Testament – which forms the foundation of Judeo-Christian values. It provided the God of Christianity, their supra-natural Creator, the notions of divine moral judgment and divine love, the God-based universal morality they advocate and try to live by, the Ten Commandments, the holy, the sanctity of human life, the belief in a God of history and that history has meaning, and moral progress. All these and more came from the Jews and their texts.
But while the Jews provided the text, the Christians brought the text and its values into the world at large and applied them to a society composed of Jews, Christians, atheists, and members of other religions.
Those Judeo-Christian values have made America the greatest experiment in human progress and liberty and the greatest force for good in history.
And they are exportable. In fact, they are humanity’s only hope.