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A very young Judeo-Christian tradition

Our country’s religious identity is a surprisingly new -- and it hasn’t always meant what it does now.

Franklin D. Roosevelt.Bettmann/CO/CO

With the Fourth of July approaching, people across the nation are preparing to celebrate what it means to be American. Even in times of unity, this means different things to different people. Add religion, and things get trickier still. These days, one of the most politically loaded ways to describe America's national identity is as "Judeo-Christian."

Today, the term tends to be used by Republicans as a way to rally their supporters around a presumed set of traditional values. During the GOP primaries, Rick Santorum invoked the term in an attack on Barack Obama's health care plan ("a president who is systematically trying to crush the traditional Judeo-Christian values of America"); more benignly, Mitt Romney credited America's world stature to "our Judeo-Christian tradition, with its vision of the goodness and possibilities of every life."


Implicit in all these references is a deep sense of history, in particular a belief that the United States is, and has always been, a nation rooted in the faiths of the Old and New Testaments. Those who hold this view assume that the Founders grounded American democracy in Judeo-Christian values and ethics. Those who differ argue that the Founders took pains to separate church from state, and that the idea that the United States is historically Judeo-Christian is a conservative myth.

Yet both sides are mistaken. The Judeo-Christian "tradition" is not as old as people think. If it had a precise date of origin, we would likely be marking its 75th anniversary this year. And perhaps more surprisingly, considering how the term is used now, the notion of a "Judeo-Christian tradition" was born during the presidency of a liberal Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Santorum (left), Romney (top) and Obama invoke different visions of religious America.

Like Romney, FDR believed America's role as a global power was underpinned by a Judeo-Christian worldview. But the birth of the term says much more about the particular travails and horrors of the mid-20th century than any deeper historical values. By wrapping Jews and Christians together in one tradition, Roosevelt meant to suggest a commonality that much of the world was rejecting.


The short and surprising history of the "Judeo-Christian" view of America also reveals something important about the broader relationship between religion and American foreign policy: It is a more intimate relationship, and a more bipartisan one, than either side might like to think.


Americans have always been a religious people. But George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Woodrow Wilson wouldn’t have recognized the term “Judeo-Christian,” or the notion that American identity is built on those interwoven traditions.

In fact, nobody did until the 1930s and '40s, and the reason they did had more to do with the imperatives of foreign policy than with domestic culture wars.

In Europe, the Nazis were attacking Protestant and Catholic churches as well as the Jewish people; they seemed to pose a threat to all religions everywhere. At the same time, other totalitarian political systems were challenging the role of traditional religion in Italy, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere.

In order to differentiate the United States from the rising undemocratic regimes in Europe—and in order to forestall the rise of brown shirts and other fascist and pro-Nazi groups within the United States—Franklin Roosevelt pointed out that Americans had a long history of respecting religious liberty and tolerating religious difference. In a series of pronouncements on American civil religion, Roosevelt introduced the underlying idea that American values could claim descent from both of these biblical faiths. Though he didn't use the phrase "Judeo-Christian" itself, he argued that it was this unique heritage, one that fused religion and democracy, that placed the country on the side of pluralism, tolerance, and peace. The "chief religious issue is not between our various beliefs," Roosevelt told the newly formed National Conference of Christians and Jews, in 1936. "It is between belief and unbelief. It is not your specific faith or mine that is being called into question—but all faith."


Over the next decade, this would become a common Rooseveltian refrain, and others would follow FDR's lead. In 1941, the Protestant Digest, a progressive magazine, called for the promotion of "the democratic ideal which is implicit in the Judeo-Christian tradition." A year later, a University of Chicago study observed that because of the war, Protestants, Catholics, and Jews were "increasingly aware that they are allies in a common cause." And a year after that, Catholic Bishop Fulton Sheen told his radio audience that the war pitted "the totalitarian worldview which is anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and anti-human" against an American worldview "which grounds the human and the democratic values of the western world on a moral and religious basis."

In subsequent decades, Harry Truman (a liberal Democrat) and Dwight Eisenhower (a moderate Republican, and the first president to use the term in public) found the Judeo-Christian tradition an effective weapon in the Cold War against the "godless" communists of the Soviet Union. Until the 1960s, the United States announced itself to the world first and foremost as a Judeo-Christian nation.

But two things then changed, dramatically. First, decolonization gave the non-Western world, and its non-Western religions, geopolitical power and influence. All of a sudden, being proudly Judeo-Christian in a world that was mostly Buddhist, Muslim, or Hindu was more an assertion of difference than a message of openness. Second, shifts in American society during the 1960s and '70s—the Supreme Court's hardening of the wall of separation, the emergence of a more secular society, the decline of the mainline Protestant churches, the growth of the Religious Right, the surge in non-Christian immigration from Asia and elsewhere—meant that many Americans became less comfortable about identifying their place in the world in religious terms.


However, the notion of a "Judeo-Christian" nation didn't die out. Instead, from the 1980s onward, it went from being a unifying term—a centrist nod to religious tolerance—to a badge of identity for Christian conservatives who wanted to chip away at the wall of separation between church and state. Defining America as fundamentally "Judeo-Christian" became a way of staving off secularism at home rather than standing against intolerant ideologies abroad. In a typical statement arguing against a ban on school prayer, Ronald Reagan said: "I know this may often be laughed and sneered at in some sophisticated circles, but ours is a Judeo-Christian heritage, and ours is a loving and living God, the fountain of all truth and knowledge. I can't help but believe that He, who has so blessed this land and made us a good and caring people, should never have been expelled from our classrooms."


The irony here was acute: A foreign policy idea once promoted by a liberal Democrat as a way to promote national unity had become a domestic political wedge issue.


It might seem that battle lines have hardened between secular voters uncomfortable defining America in terms of its religious history and a Christian right determined to do so.

But for those who have watched closely, a third way has been coming into view. Throughout his presidency, President Obama has begun harking back to Roosevelt's evocation of a pluralistic American religious tradition. In keeping with the times, Obama has broadened it to include religions besides Christianity and Judaism. And, for the first time, he has added another crucial group: humanists, agnostics, atheists, and other skeptics. As he declared in his inaugural address, "We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth."

Like Roosevelt, Obama has placed religious pluralism at the heart of US foreign policy. In his most notable foreign speech to date—the June 2009 speech in Cairo—Obama focused on religious liberty in calling for peace through tolerance. He also attempted to launch "a new beginning" for the United States and the Islamic world by stressing their common bond of faith. Obama's new beginning would be "based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap and share common principles, principles of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings."

This reliance on shared faith might still seem an affront to Americans who see their country as a purely secular proposition. But religion has had a long history in American war and diplomacy, often as a very progressive tool—from the cause against the British in the 1770s to the world wars and the Cold War. To see it invoked this way is a reminder that the tradition is a deeply bipartisan one—and a reminder that the common bonds of religious faith are one thread that has helped keep a diverse country united.

Andrew Preston is the author, most recently, of "Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy."