A Judeo-Christian Looks at the Judeo-Christian Tradition

by Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, October 5, 1986, pp. 858-860. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


To turn Jewish and Christian faiths into generic philosophies for civil purposes is to misunderstand whatever in them ever gave people hope or power.

A 19th-century American once had to explain why he had been tarred and feathered in a small town. The hapless fellow told interviewers that the community had put him to the test on the Monroe Doctrine. "I told them that I loved the Monroe Doctrine. I lived by the Monroe Doctrine. I said that I would die for the Monroe Doctrine. I just told them that I did not know what the Monroe Doctrine was."

Today, people are tested by a new shibboleth, the "Judeo-Christian tradition." And though the tar pots and bushels of feathers are only figurative, haplessness is still in. One may believe in the God of Israel; believe that, as President Ronald Reagan has said, "We’re all children of Abraham"; and believe that the biblical script is important for our society—count me in among such believers—but still have trouble with "the Judeo-Christian tradition." One may believe in it, live in it and die for it, but still not be quite sure what it is.

In The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition (Harper & Row, 1970), Jewish theologian-novelist Arthur A. Cohen questions the theological appropriateness of the term and suggests that it was essentially an invention of American politics. Three cheers for that earlier political use, for it grew out of an effort to promote interfaith concord and to put an end to ageless prejudices. Now that the "Judeo-Christian tradition" is back for a second round in American politics, give it at best one and a half cheers, for its use can also license or disguise mischief. Criticism of the term will not and probably should not abolish its use (though I, for one, believe a better historical case can be made for referring to "the biblical tradition"), but it may encourage citizens to regard it with suspicion.

The term started to come back when people needed an adjective to go with "tradition." Some of the utopians of 20 years ago wanted a cultural tabula rasa, a historical clean slate, that would permit them to bring in the Age of Aquarius or the secular millennium or whatever. Reactors to these rejecters then began to plead for tradition, and they still do. The shelves marked "tradition" become attractive, however, only when they are stocked with attractions. In the United States, "Judeo-Christian" turns out to be the most marketable. The new conservative intellectuals, politicians and populists began to advertise the virtue of this tradition, and soon support for it became a test of true Americanism. The word went out in education, mass communications, public philosophy and political life: "Be the first kid on your block to reappropriate the values of the Judeo-Christian tradition." You will hear more about the term in debates about our pluralism—for instance, in discussing military chaplaincies. But what happens to the "Judeo-Christian tradition" when the Muslim constituencies get chaplains, or, in civilian life, when California’s Senate chaplain is a Buddhist?

The most controversial use of the term is in judicial and legislative debates. It comes up in controversy over school prayer amendments or in education bills. In one recent bill, undefined and indefinable "secular humanism" was legally ruled out of the schools in the interest of Judeo-Christianism, the faith of the majority. What it comes down to is the notion that this majority faith should somehow be legally privileged if not formally established as America’s faith. The campaign succeeds old and failed ones that would have passed a Christian amendment to the Constitution officially designating America a Christian nation. This new campaign stands a better chance of success than did the older, more restrictive-sounding ones, though not a few Jews and other Americans think that "Judeo-Christian" is often a code word for those promoting a Christian America.

I offer, then, a bill of particulars against the political use of the term.

First, as the Monroe Doctrine story suggests, we don’t know exactly what this tradition is, which makes it a dangerous test of values and citizenship. The tarred and feathered victim could at least have looked up the Monroe Doctrine in a book and read about it. Those hit by wielders of the "Judeo-Christian tradition" won’t know what hit them.

Not only do we not know what the tradition is, we might do well to suggest what it isn’t. Cohen’s argument on this point raises scores of historical and theological issues too complex to revisit here. They come down, theologically, to the fact that though the Jewish and Christian faiths are kin—we do share the same God and the same covenant—as philosophies of history they are only analogous. And it is as philosophies of history that they impinge on the civil order. Being analogous, they have similarities in their differences and differences in their similarities. Each is misused if this is forgotten. As Cohen points out: "The Jews expected a redeemer to come out of Zion; Christianity affirmed that a redeemer had come out of Zion, but that he had come . . . for all mankind. Judaism denied that claim" (p. xi). To muffle the latter observation is to do an injustice to Christian truth claims; to subsume the former into the latter leads to a violation of Judaism—or worse, a violation of Jews.

Such violations, often glossed over in the "Judeo-Christian tradition," have provided the main plot of Jewish-Christian interaction. Indeed, if we want to do justice to the Judeo-Christian tradition, we would have to talk mainly about imposed ghettos, pogroms, persecutions and killings. If the "Judeo-Christian tradition" is a civil counter to that history (in which case, give it one and a half cheers), theologically it threatens both components (hence, withhold the other one and a half cheers).

Third, the civil sense of the term has an inner contradiction. The New England Puritans and their putative heirs have to draw on the "Judeo"- side, since it is the law of Moses that provides scripts for their theocratic intentions (intentions that survive in much "Judeo-Christian" talk today). The "-Christian" side of the hyphen, which would draw on the New Testament, is not of much help in defining laws for civil society. The New Testament is too eschatological to display many values for a Christian society; its writers are preoccupied with life in a cosmos not of their making, not to be made by them, and ruled by "principalities and powers, Caesars and the Antichrist. What the Hebrew Scriptures set up theocratically, the New Testament knocks down eschatologically. President Harry S. Truman liked to say that American life should be ruled by the Sermon on the Mount. Picture that ethic legislated: we would have a nation of 200 million-plus amputees, right eyes and right hands being removed from all but the listless or lustless. We would also, of course, have a nation without weapons, though it is not likely that we would follow Jesus that far. We would employ well-paid government exegetes to obscure those sorts of commands while asserting the militant ones of the theocracy.

There’s a fourth problem with the "Judeo-Christian tradition": clearly the term is designed to exclude someone. The best candidate is the secular humanist, the liberal individualist, or the Enlightened Founding Father (until the last of these gets baptized into "born-again" status). Yet in areas of justice it is hard to think of anything distinctive that the tradition contributes. Substantively, what do its partisans contend for that is not available somewhere in ancient or modern philosophy? The motives for being just and ensuring justice are distinctive in Jewish and Christian faiths, and that is terribly important. Yet the contents of just acts done on Platonic, Aristotelian, Kantian, Millsian or Jeffersonian grounds can be the same as those done on Jewish or Christian ones.

The issue, then, is that of the place of religious motivations in the public realm. Privileging the "Judeo-Christian tradition" means putting a premium on a particular scriptural revelation not open to all. Not open, that is, unless, as the Founding Fathers feared, the state wants to make hypocrites or knaves of rulers and citizens by forcing them to pretend. To turn Jewish and Christian faiths into generic philosophies for civil purposes is to misunderstand whatever in them ever gave people hope or power, and amounts to a desecration. That result is a high price to pay for attaining a momentary political advantage.

In creating motives for following the laws of the "Judeo-Christian tradition," one must also deal with sources and sanctions. The Jew delights in the law of the Lord and pleases the Lord by following it. "The love of Christ controlleth" the Christian, who would follow the new commandment of love for God’s own sake". As for sanctions, check out the McGuffey ‘s Readers and other school texts invoked by today’s traditionalists, which truly get into rewards and punishments. The Third Reader, after talking about a boy who snitched a too-large piece of cake from his mother’s plate, reminds students: "There is a day of most solemn judgment at hand. When you die, your body will . . . moulder in the dust . .but your spirit . . . will have gone to judgment. How awful must be the scene which will open before you." As for God, the Savior and the angels, "Do you think they will wish to have a liar enter heaven. . .? No! They will turn from you with disgust" and throw the offender into the eternal fire. Bringing back the "Judeo-Christian tradition" to the classrooms is sure to be interesting.

Apparently the "Judeo-Christian tradition" evokes for some the Little White Church and the Little Red School House. It signals a weariness with pluralism, and promises to restore a time of civil harmony. But would we have consensus of values if this tradition were re-established? Look at the record.

If ever there was a homogeneous version of this tradition in national life; if ever, after legal disestablishment, a faith was re-established in the popular ethos; if ever there was agreement on biblical authority, on God, Jesus, heaven and hell and the true, the beautiful and the good, then it was in the high years of what one of my book titles terms the Protestant Righteous Empire. Did all that commonality breed civil peace? Hardly. Those "high years" were just before 1861 and the Civil War.

What would privileging the "Judeo-Christian tradition" mean for civil peace today, when the profound disputes are within the faiths that make it up, not between them and the secular world? Southern Baptists fight Southern Baptists with more passion than either flank fights Muslims or Buddhists or secular humanists. As soon as we can get their two parties to agree, and then get them to be reconciled on civil matters with northern Baptists, and then have all Baptists come to terms with the Catholic bishops’ statements against the Bomb, or get all Catholics to do so, then the tradition will settle arguments and produce common values. Until then, the tradition itself is broad and loose, and we are all better off for that fact.

One of the most curious features of the recent plumping for the "Judeo-Christian tradition" is the way its advocates regard capitalism as the necessary corollary and expression of that tradition. This view ignores the fact that the God of the tradition got along without capitalism for a millennium or two, and that capitalism gets along without this God in Japan and elsewhere.

The real curiosity, however, is that such advocates want the government and the public schools—the coercive, not the voluntary, elements of American life—to propagate the tradition. Why ask the schools to promote faith and not ask the same of the truly distinctive expressions of free enterprise life, where persuasion has such potential? Find traces, please, of the Judeo-Christian tradition anywhere in the world of advertising or primetime television.

Fundamentalists say that a small cabal of secular humanists screens out the tradition’s symbols. But deal with advertisers, public-relations experts and mass communicators and you will find that practical-minded people, not secularists, are screening them because the partisans of the "Judeo-Christian tradition" are divided against each other. As for foundations or corporations, which make their money off consumers within the "Judeo-Christian tradition," what law says that they should devote such a tiny percentage of their funds to anything broadly defined as religious? Is it not a sign of weak faith or bad faith to force coercive elements in public life to propagate what voluntary ones do not?

The last thing this heir of the Judeo-Christian tradition, whatever it is, wishes to do is to take away from the grandeur of its expressions. The first thing he would do is to promote the teaching of elements of the tradition in schools. Our record in this respect is appalling; we remain a nation of idiots concerning religion’s positive and negative elements in our culture, past and present. The second thing he would do is celebrate the institutions—synagogues, churches, religious schools—which promote loyalty to whatever ever gave life to the tradition. These institutions have hardly profited at all from all the talk about the virtues of that tradition.

Finally, this Judeo-Christian would celebrate elements of the tradition that can be chosen voluntarily and promoted publicly. In a time of moral crisis and political upheaval, biblical themes like freedom and sin, creation and liberation, deserve fresh examination and hearing. They are not likely to get it if we make an icon out of the tradition and use it as a test of citizenship.

Whatever is worthwhile in that tradition has prospered best when people propagated it voluntarily—because they believed it and lived by it and commended it to others by word and example. Whatever is mean and ugly or even terrifying in the tradition has been and is most likely to be promoted through coercive means. The trend toward coercion today is best fought by people who know and love the faiths behind the tradition, who articulate them clearly and live by them passionately, but who also understand and live with their fellow citizens who see these faiths differently.