The right and the “Judeo-Christian” myth

How a term that sounds inclusive promotes exclusion.

Art by Jocelin Chan.

In a 2017 speech at the Values Voter Summit, American President Donald Trump addressed the crowd by saying, “We are stopping cold the attacks on Judeo-Christian values… we’re saying ‘merry Christmas’ again.” It seems patently absurd to assert there is an intrinsic Jewish value in celebrating a Christian holiday, not least when the holiday in question largely revolves around eating a huge hunk of ham and copious amounts of prawns (in Australia at least). Nonetheless, the term “Judeo-Christian” has come to be deployed fairly frequently by those on the political right, from Republicans to alt-right message board dwellers. So, what does it all mean?  

On the face of it, it might seem like an act of good faith inclusion to incorporate Judaism into an imagined set of “Western” values. But this has not been how the term has operated. Instead, the term has functionally served to exclude rather than include. Indeed, it is clear that Trump has no genuine intentions to be pluralistic or pro-Jewish. This is, after all, the same guy who labelled neo-Nazis at Charlottesville’s “Unite the Right” rally “very fine people” and trafficked in antisemitic tropes when he questioned the loyalty of most of America’s Jewish population to the Democratic Party.

Majority Christian nations, particularly those in the Anglosphere — such as Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States — like to assert themselves as being grounded in a Judeo-Christian values system. However, it is critical to acknowledge that Jews have been historically persecuted and excluded from these countries. Whether it’s the 13th century expulsion of Jews from England, the 1905 British Aliens Act, or the cap on Jewish immigration to such countries even after the Holocaust, it is abundantly clear that for the vast majority of history, Jewish people have been deliberately treated and cast as unwelcome in the Christian world. 

It is only recently that Jewish people have been, for the most part, welcomed within Christian countries, albeit on someone else’s terms. Of course, now Muslim people, especially Muslim immigrants and refugees, are receiving similarly racialised and exclusionary treatment. Accordingly, the term Judeo-Christian is now most frequently used as a way to be falsely inclusive of Jews whilst excluding Muslims. 

The phrase operates in drawing a false distinction between a set of imagined “Christian”, “Western” values on the one side, and Islam, as an “ideology” alongside the percieved threats of Muslim immigration on the other. This framing is encapsulated by right wing populist Nigel Farage, who in denouncing the Islamic fundamentalist, Anjem Choudary, stated “my country is a Judeo-Christian country. So we’ve got to actually start standing up for our values.”

Here, Farage is linking his fears about Islam with Judeo-Christian values. However, it’s apparent that he is not really concerned with including Jews, but with excluding Muslims. Further, seeing as Farage has been roundly criticised for antisemitic comments, including complaints about the impacts of “the Jewish lobby” in American politics, it’s seemingly unlikely that he places much value on Jewish people, Jewish culture or Judaism as a religion. Instead, the “Judeo-” functions as a useful shield with which to attack Islam and Muslims.

When those on the right, like Trump and Farage, deploy the term they are fundamentally engaging in an “us versus them” division regarding the West and Islam. Importantly, this is not about incorporating Jews within this, but about the deliberate and xenophobic exclusion of the “other.” Additionally, it is often used to propagate a mythic narrative of Christian persecution in the West.

It is not just those on the populist right, but those on the more radical right who are beginning to embrace Judeo-Christianity as a framework through which to propagate their views. Their willingness to embrace the term represents a strategic shift in how the right deals with Jewishness. Of course the radical right remain enchanted by the antisemitic fiction of Jewish financial control, a centuries old conspiracy theory largely embodied in the modern George Soros myth. Further, as Robert Bowers, the Pittsburgh synagogue murderer outlined in his manifesto, many on the radical right view Jews as supporting non-white (particularly Muslim) immigration, casting them as the real force behind “white genocide.”

However, whilst this is the case, Israel is often held in high regard within sections of the radical right as a powerful embodiment of “Western” values. The country’s military prowess against its Muslim neighbours combined with its ethno-nationalist philosophy, as explicated in the 2018 “nation-state law”, which asserts that Israel belongs to Jews alone, enamour the radical right. As America’s most famous white nationalist, Richard Spencer, has proclaimed “Jews are, once again, at the vanguard, rethinking politics and sovereignty for all the future, showing a path forward for Europeans.” 

Importantly, this is not just a phenomenon in the Anglosphere. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and French National Front leader Marine Le Pen also propagate antisemitic myths about Jewish financial control and “globalism”, whilst at the same time musing on Judeo-Christianity and cuddling up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Even a cursory search on social media will show that while large sections of the right have embraced the term, Jewish people have overwhelmingly rejected it. Jewish people are not falling for what is fundamentally a right wing dog whistle, and the myth that Judaism and Christianity are one and the same when it comes to values. Indeed, “Judeo-Christianity” represents a longer, historical trend of erasing Judaism and Jewishness by subsuming it into Christianity. As K Healon Galston, a lecturer at Harvard Divinity School explains, some Christians “have for many years viewed Judaism as the dead root of the flourishing branch.” 

It is clear that the notion of Judeo-Christianity functionally excludes both Jews and Muslims whilst centring Christianity. The phrase implicitly excludes Jewish people by subsuming Judaism into Christianity and explicitly excludes Muslim people in its intention to justify anti-immigration rhetoric and Islamophobic policy. Practically, “Judeo-Christian” values make reference to a specific form of right wing Christian values.  As Rabbi Jill Jacobs wrote on Twitter: “Much of “Judeo-Christian” tradition involves centuries of Christians trying to kill us. If you mean ‘not Muslim’ say it.”

Ultimately, the popularising of “Judeo-Christianity” is part of a broader political trend within the right, wherein progressive terms are weaponised for their own political gain. For example, “freedom of religion”, meant as a universalist term and practice has been appropriated by the Christian right in defence of conservative values. This is currently the case with the Federal Government’s “Religious Freedom Bill” which seeks to allow for sexist and homophobic discrimination. Indeed, the same parallel can also be drawn when it comes to those weaponising the right to free speech. Deployed by disgraced figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos or Bettina Arndt,  “freedom of speech” is strategically used as a shield to harass and insult minorities and survivors, rather than being used as some great defence of liberal values.

If we are to celebrate religious pluralism and inclusion, rather than exclusion and bigotry, we should reject and retire the word “Judeo-Christian” immediately.

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