The Forgotten History of “Christian” Political Activism


Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels. He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.

Across the political spectrum, most Americans would automatically describe the country’s religious heritage as “Judeo-Christian.” Rarely, though, do they think about the origins of this term, or how exceedingly odd it would have appeared before the 1950s (and still does to many non-Americans). In fact, the Judeo-Christian concept has a highly political origin, and was a deliberate response to ugly conflicts that had badly tainted the simple “Christian” label.

The Judeo-Christian label apparently originated with George Orwell, writing as recently as 1939, and it was popularized by several events of the 1950s. In 1952, critically, Dwight Eisenhower declared that “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us, of course, it is the Judeo-Christian concept.” (That second sentence is often omitted when the well-known speech is quoted, making Ike sound foolish and woolly-minded). The phrase was further popularized in 1954 when “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and in 1956, the nation’s official motto became “In God We Trust.” So which God? Why, the Judeo-Christian one. Who else? In the same years, the Judeo-Christian concept became a foundation for the emerging notion of American civil religion.

“Judeo-Christian” made multiple sense in the context of the time, because it was a good reflection of American society, or at least in the cities. In 1955, Willi Herberg wrote his famous analysis of American religious life, divided into Protestant, Catholic and Jew. Also, in the context of the Holocaust and the Nazi era, Judeo-Christian sounded like a ringing endorsement of mutual tolerance and harmony. The triumph of Judeo-Christian reflected the campaigning of various movements formed to promote Christian-Jewish understanding. Such groups originated in the 1920s, and in 1938 they developed into the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

This story is reasonably well-known, but it omits a critical part of the story, and the critical urgency of redefining American religious identity in those years. Briefly, in the 1930s and 1940s, the label “Christian” had been widely appropriated by far Right sects. In that political context, the word Christian was not an assertion of faith or theology, but a confrontational rejection of Jews and Judaism. Obviously, such movements were a minority, but they were not insignificant, especially in the cities. Between 1938 and 1942, so-called “Christian” extremist movements proliferated, and some became dangerous and violent.

Do not misquote me here. I am not saying that American Christians in general were anti-Semitic, still less thuggish and terroristic. But a vocal minority of extremists certainly was, and as so often occurs, they made much more of a public splash than the peaceful and tolerant mainstream....

Read entire article at Patheos

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