Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college’s Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.
I was up in Cambridge last week to talk about “Imagining Judeo-Christian America,” a terrific new book by Harvard Divinity School teacher Healan Gaston. As someone who began writing about the Judeo-Christian concept in American religion and politics in the early ’80s, I’m considered the old man of this little field of study.
With an awesome array of examples, Gaston traces the history of the concept from its 19th-century origins up to the present. Her central analytical contribution is to differentiate its “pluralist” from its “exceptionalist” usage.
At the pluralist end of the spectrum are the liberal Christians and Jews who in the 1930s began to characterize the Western religious tradition as “Judeo-Christian” to combat the rising tide of anti-Semitism. The premiere exceptionalists have been the leaders of the religious right, who appropriated the term in the 1980s as a label for the values they were pushing in the new American culture war.
Now, four decades into it, most Americans think of “Judeo-Christian” as little more than a weapon in the rhetorical arsenal of conservative preachers and politicians.
Over lunch with a group of Gaston’s students, I was asked whether I thought there was a way for progressives to recover “Judeo-Christian” for themselves. My answer was, “Why would you want to?”
As a term of pluralist inclusion, “Judeo-Christian” served its purpose in the period when America was conceived as a tri-faith country of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. Nowadays it’s hopelessly inadequate, what with the recognition that a host of Americans — up to and including members of Congress — are not Judeo-Christians at all but Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and, of course, Nones. Indeed, the biggest story in American religion is the rise of the Nones over the last quarter-century to a quarter of the population.
Nevertheless, there may still be a role for progressive Judeo-Christianity in Donald Trump’s America.
In its postwar heyday, the religious thinkers who attended most deeply to the concept were the neo-Orthodox, whose standard-bearer was the theologian and premier public intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr. In Niebuhr’s view, the distinguishing feature of the Judeo-Christian tradition was the role of the prophet in speaking truth to power and, as well, in discerning false prophets.
One thinks of Amos, the 8th-century BCE shepherd who denounced economic injustice and prophesied the end of Israel’s northern kingdom. One thinks of Jesus, speaking for the poor and denouncing the corruption of the clerical establishment.
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Source: Religion News Service