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“Judeo-Christian” is historically inaccurate and deliberately divisive

Historically, Europeans have described their civilisation simply as "Christian". The term "Judeo-Christian" was popularised by anti-communists, and then by anti-Muslim bigots.

Summary

Posted 16 May 2021. Updated 18 May 2021 for 1650 spike.

I have often written and spoken about the importance of the way we use language.

See for example my pages “Choose words that unite people” and “Why won't Muslims vote for the Conservative Party?

That has made me very conscious of the way others use language. For example, the way that America’s Democrat Party talks, in my view accurately, about “Voter suppression” while the Republican Party talks, in my view deceitfully, about “Election integrity.”

As some who studies the role of Islam in the modern world, I have become very conscious of the way the adjectival phrase “Judeo-Christian” is used to define the civilisation of what is often called “The West”.

Describing “Western civilisation” as Judeo-Christian purports to be a statement of fact.

In reality it is a polemical statement, intended to make the reader believe something that is simply not true.

Historically inaccurate

The civilisation of Europe had multiple historical sources. These can be traced back to the time when the invention of agriculture led to humans living in fixed locations. Before then, we were all mobile hunter gatherers.

I don’t want to list all the sources, but just a few include:

From the time of St Paul, Christianity defined itself against both paganism (in various forms the religions of the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians) but also strongly against Judaism.

When you read the writings of the Church Fathers, they are full of anti-Jewish polemic, since Christianity saw itself as superseding Judaism.

In Europe, from the time that Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Constantine, Jews were sometimes tolerated, sometimes persecuted, sometimes expelled, sometimes killed.

Historically Christian Europeans would never have described Europe as "Judeo-Christian", only as "Christian."

The evidence from books

The large number of books digitised by Google makes certain kinds of historical research very simple.

I decided to look at the frequency of usage of the term “Judeo-Christian” in the books in Google’s database between 1500 and 2019. The resulting chart is below.

What is striking is how the term is simply not used to any meaningful extent, until we see a temporary spike around 1650. It then virtually disappears again, apart from some small blips, reappearing around 1950.

The spike around 1650

A friend offered me an interesting possible explanation for the spike around 1650. This was a time of religious fervent in England, including the English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell's re-admission of Jews to England. This is just an educated guess at present, but if anyone researches the issue I would like to hear from them.

The Google Books Ngram Viewer

The above embedded chart is "live". Accordingly you can search for other terms, date ranges, etc.

Deliberately divisive

The Wikipedia article “Judeo-Christian” explains what led to this increase in usage from around 1950.

Divisive against communism

It was the cold war, and anti-communists wanted a phrase to define their cause against the communist USSR. By 1950, especially because it was after the Holocaust, historic European antisemitism was no longer acceptable, and a reasonable number of the active anti-communists were Jewish rather than Christian.

From around 1950, “Judeo-Christian” was used to emphasise the difference between “our values” (North America and Western Europe) and “their [communist] values.”

While there were many things wrong with communism, Marxism and Leninism had emerged from European civilisation, so could not be called anti-European. Communism was as European as capitalism and liberalism.

Accordingly "Judeo-Christian" was used to describe what communism was not.

Divisive against Islam

More recently of course, "Judeo-Christian" is regularly used by those who wish to define Muslims as the alien, uncivilised, enemy “other”, to be distinguished from the civilised values of the Judeo-Christian “West”.

As I showed in my article “Triangulating the Abrahamic faiths – measuring the closeness of Judaism, Christianity and Islam” as religions Islam and Judaism are very close to each other, and very different from Christianity. Of the two, it is Islam which is closest to Christianity, not Judaism, due to both Muslims and Christians believing in the Virgin Birth, which means nothing to Jews.

Conclusion

It is important not to let others control the language used for discussion.

Accordingly, everyone who cares about building a cohesive society, not just Muslims, should reject the use of “Judeo-Christian” to describe the civilisation of countries like the UK, France or the USA.

While the civilisation of Europe and North America has many sources, as mentioned above, if you wish to emphasise its religious features, the accurate adjective is “Abrahamic” (a term which encompasses all three religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam), not "Judeo-Christian".

There is endless evidence of the Islamic contribution to the civilisation and culture of Europe, some of it on this website. As just one example, see my page “Tortured by algebra? Who can you blame?

 

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