At a rally for conservative voters in Washington last week, Donald Trump vowed to stop the “attacks” on Judeo-Christian values. “We’re saying Merry Christmas again,” he told the crowd. The juxtaposition of the terms “Judeo-Christian” and “Merry Christmas” has raised questions for some Jewish Americans, who don’t typically center their values on the celebration of Christmas.
The term Judeo-Christian has a long and loaded history in the US. Once used in defense of multiculturalism, some fear its new meaning, propagated by the far right, is meant to exclude Muslims and diminish the status of the Jewish community.
The term “Judeo-Christian” emerged and gained cultural currency during World War II, says Douglas Hartmann, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota, who analyzed the changing uses and meanings of the term in a 2005 paper. Scholars and campaigners of that era used to term to highlight the shared values between Christians and Jewish Americans, as liberal Jewish and Christian leaders sought to condemn the Nazi ideology growing in Europe and fascist sympathizers in the US, who mobilized around Christian identity. It was “a way to expand the parameters of inclusion for American citizenship and national identity,” Hartmann says. The US was a Christian nation, these liberal leaders argued, but it was also a nation for Jews and other religious minorities who were the bedrock of US democracy.
That definition began eroding by the 1980s, when Christian conservatives began narrowing their terms of morality to marriage, traditional gender roles, and law and order. At the same time, they countered civil rights movements that called for gender, racial, and sexual equality. By the 1990s, political conservatives were most likely to positively use the term Judeo-Christian, while liberals were far more likely to be critical of the term, according to Hartmann.
As Christian conservatives have moved further to the right, so has the term Judeo-Christian. Over the past decade, “it’s not only about the culture and morality, but is an appeal to a white dominant audience,” Hartmann explains. 9/11 turned the experiment of America’s core culture into a question of what (and who) put it in jeopardy, specifically Muslim Americans.
“Judeo-Christian values” are at the heart of Steve Bannon’s ideology (the Trump administration’s former chief strategist, now back at the helm of Breitbart News). Bannon, who defines Judeo-Christian values in both moral and tacitly racial terms, believes exalting them will restore America’s economy and foster social cohesion.
Trump supporters “are driven—not by material, economic interests—so much as a sense of their culture, their visions of the traditional core and culture of America is under threat; by immigrants, or racial minorities, or people of different religious beliefs,” Hartmann says.
In the US, overt appeals to white race are still somewhat taboo. But by using the term “Judeo-Christian values,” Trump’s message is: “we’re just trying to protect white culture,” Hartmann says.