The American far right fondly acclaims the sanctity of the nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage. That’s true in part. It’s also a blatant fallacy.

For many Christians, “Judeo-Christian” comes down to incorporating the “Old Testament”—close to but not exactly the same as the Hebrew Bible—into their canon. This fails to acknowledge reality.

While America has given Jews great opportunities, antisemitism, on both right and left, long has existed here and continues to do so. Jews are aware of the hostility and/or distain many Americans exhibit towards us. In The Atlantic online and in the printed April issue, Franklin Foer comments in “The Golden Age of American Jews is Ending”: “Anti-Semitism is a mental habit, deeply embedded in Christian and Muslim thinking, stretching back at least as far as the accusation that the Jews murdered the son of God.” 

Older American Jews remember university quotas—back in new guises—and restrictions on homebuying, jobs and travel accommodations. Many Jews today face physical and verbal assaults, including on campus. We know about the murders in Pittsburgh and San Diego. Antisemitism also presents itself in ugly tropes. A headline in last Monday’s San Francisco Chronicle: “Neo-Nazi campaign corners city councils with hate.”

Cultural antisemitism long existed. Businesses maintained a six-day workweek. Jews had to choose between observing Shabbos on Saturday (if they did) and losing wages. “Blue laws” mandated store closings on Sundays. Observant Jewish retailers had to make a difficult choice when Christian-owned stores could open six days, Jewish stores five.

Some years ago, Jack Rakove, a political-science professor at Stanford and Pulitzer Prize winner, spoke at Congregation Sherith Israel. He related how Calvinism and other Protestant denominations shaped a young America with their devotion to capitalism and hard work. He concluded, “In the end, we’re all Protestants.” Dr. Rakove acknowledged Protestant influence but not the legality or desirability of government to impose Christian practices on non-Christians—and Christians, too.

Recently, New York Times columnist David French wrote in “What Is Christian Nationalism Exactly?” (2-25-24): “The problem with Christian nationalism isn’t with Christian participation in politics but rather the belief that there should be Christian 

primacy in politics and law.”

Abortion has become a major issue expressing Christian legal primacy. Judaism does not consider abortion just another form of birth control. But Judaism permits abortion to save the mother’s life and health—physical and emotional. 

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, a major Jewish ethicist, wrote (before Roe v. Wade was overturned) in To Do the Right and the Good, “Where Americans of good conscience differ widely on a given issue, though, as in the case of abortion, the government should remain neutral.” If there is to be equality on either side of the Judeo-Christian hyphen, freedom of religious practice and non-practice must be respected when unanimity cannot be found. And it can’t.

Nearing the United States’ 250th anniversary, many American Jews see more reasons for pessimism than optimism. Foer believes we’re in “a golden age of conspiracy, reckless hyperbole, and political violence.” His conclusion: “Extremist thought and mob behavior have never been good for Jews. And what’s bad for Jews, it can be argued, is bad for America.”

Less talk about America’s mythical Judeo-Christian heritage and more demonstrations of equality and decency would be very good for us all.

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  1. David Newman on March 8, 2024 at 11:33 am

    Thanks David. The term “Judeo-Christian” almost inevitably means Christian and the ways that Christians of whatever stripe choose to (mis)interpret the Hebrew Bible. For example, the Alabama Supreme Court Justice who quoted Torah to justify treating frozen embryos (kid-sicles) as fully human picked the wrong parashah. The few references to fetuses in Torah pretty clearly treat the unborn child as not yet fully human.

    The different Jewish denominations have differing views on abortion: the Orthodox view abortion as permissible only to save the life of the mother, while Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews tend to take a more expansive view. Nevertheless, there is broad agreement both historically and across denominations that a fetus is not fully human until it has drawn breath and thus not entitled to the full protections accorded to humans, particularly the mother. Anti-abortion advocates who cite religious justifications for their position find little textual support in the Jewish part of “Judeo-Christian.” So, if you’re going to base your political advocacy on “Judeo-Christian” values, it might be a good idea to look at what the “Judeo” part of that has to say.

    • David Perlstein on March 8, 2024 at 11:42 am

      David, thanks for your comment. We are agreed.

  2. Bruce Abramson on March 8, 2024 at 11:55 am

    Good column, David. One of the first events I attended in SF was a Sherith Israel symposium “Being Jewish in a Christian America.” I’ve never been a fan of the term “Judeo-Christian.” Where relevant, I tend to prefer the term “Biblical.” That’s what I use throughout my new book to refer to the ethical code and broad Deist beliefs so central to the American founding.

    • David Perlstein on March 8, 2024 at 1:02 pm

      Thanks, Bruce. As I remember, that event was the one in which Jack Rake spoke. “Biblical” is a nice way to phrase it. I note, re David French’s and others’ writing, that some people who identify as evangelicals have neither Bible or church in their lives. But they can call themselves anything they want, although for some, evangelical may be a euphemism.

  3. Bill Williams on March 8, 2024 at 4:22 pm

    I grew up Southern Baptist. I do not recall the term Judeo-Christian being used in church. I do seem to recall the phrase “Judeo-Christian work ethic” from economics courses in college.
    What is most interesting to me about this discussion is how the word ‘Christian” has become toxic. People want to run away from it. Don’t associate me with those people.

    • David Perlstein on March 8, 2024 at 4:30 pm

      There are many Christian attitudes, Bill. One size doesn’t fit all. (That applies to Jews and all other people.)

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