Monday, February 29, 2016

What Does "Judeo-Christian" Mean?

We hear much in this endless presidential election, though not much of any substance.  Among the many things spoken of are Judeo-Christian values, or ethics.  They have been fodder for pandering politicians for many years, of course.  I wonder, though, whether anyone knows just what they are.  I personally find them hard to describe.  I find it even harder to grasp why they are considered Judeo-Christian.

As they're characterized as Judeo-Christian, there may be a tendency to infer that they consist of values or ethical precepts held in common by Judaism and Christianity.  Presumably, then, they may be ascertained through contemplation of similarities between the two religions.  One can't help but note, though, that a Jew cannot be a Christian, nor can a Christian be a Jew, because of certain fundamental disagreements pertaining to God's nature and plan.  The two religions are contrary in significant respects.  Thus fundamentally opposed, what can they have in common?

The Ten Commandments are usually claimed to be part of Judeo-Christian values.  Certain of those commandments seem to call to mind the differences between the two religions, however, and not their similarities  Just who do Jews and Christians, jointly, believe to be the Lord their God prohibiting them from having any other gods?  Jews necessarily don't think Jesus is God; Christians necessarily do.  Is there some other God that's the subject of their agreement?  The part about graven images presents some problems as well, at least as far as certain Christian communities are concerned.   The two religions don't even agree on the Sabbath which is to be kept holy. 

It's notable that those who speak of Judeo-Christian values, ethics and tradition seem to be professed Christians in particular.  I suspect this is because those who believe in things of any kind that are Judeo-Christian mean when referring to them that they are, in fact, Christian.  They are "Judeo" in the same sense Christianity is, Christianity being what true Judaism became and should be.  It's convenient to refer to them as Judeo-Christian, though, as it's convenient to acknowledge that Jews exist and much as one may try, one can't get around the fact that what is called the Old Testament was prepared when there were no Christians but there most certainly were Jews.

We Americans seem most inclined to refer to these ethics, values and tradition.  And if Google is any guide, it seems that we believe that our Great Republic is founded on them; is in fact their embodiment.  The Declaration's evocation of a creator endowing us with inalienable rights is generally cited as being Judeo-Christian.  So of course are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  So likewise is the rule of law.  Locke, it seems, and the Enlightenment generally didn't influence this document.  Something Judeo-Christian did. 

The belief in a creator, human rights and the rule of law isn't peculiarly Judeo-Christian, though.  Such beliefs, such values, may be peculiarly Western, in the sense that they are Graeco-Roman.  It's no coincidence that so many of our institutions are modeled on those of the Roman Republic.  One may find these beliefs and values in Cicero or the Stoics.  They found their way into Christianity as did so much else of the ancient pagan world, and via Hellenism even into Judaism after Alexander's conquests.  But there is nothing particularly Jewish or Christian about them; there's nothing even particularly religious about them, unless the belief in God in itself is religious in the same sense as Judaism and Christianity.  Clearly, though, the "god of the philosophers" and the Stoic deity are not gods of the kind worshipped by Jews and Christians.

These days, "Judeo-Christian" is generally distinguished from Muslim, just as it was in the past distinguished from Communism.  But if we must draw such distinctions we can do it just as well by referencing the even more ancient past of the West, and in doing so we have a greater claim to accuracy. 

Much as we may want to, we can't disregard the many centuries in which Christianity governed the world through the Church and various surrogates of the Christian Roman Empire in defining Christianity or Judeo-Christian.  "Liberty" isn't something we can easily associate with those many years, and "happiness" in those times was not properly attainable on Earth, but rather in heaven.  We may maintain that Judeo-Christian values suddenly came into being in the late 18th century when the U.S. was formed, but if we do we fool ourselves.

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