Leading up to the 2016 presidential election, Republican Vice Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan accused President Obama’s policies as being “a threat to Judeo-Christian values.”
It got me thinking: Just what would be the definition of Judeo-Christian values?
And how are these different from Western values? Or are they the same?
And if they are different, can a nation subscribe to both at the same time?
Both Judaism and Christianity are religions born in the ancient Middle East, and both are rooted in Biblical text and faith – making Jewish values and Christian values what we might therefore call eastern values. These values place God squarely at the center of all aspects of life.
On the other hand, western values were born primarily in ancient Greece and Rome, and are rooted in reason. Democracy and the centrality of the individual are western values. When Jews moved into the European Diaspora, and later when Christianity became predominant in Europe, a merging took place between the eastern religious values of Biblical Faith and Morality and the western values of reason above all. This mingling led to the embracing of reason as fine-tuned by Biblical morality, and a renewed commitment to faith as adjusted to be more compatible with reason.
Two great thinkers and writers – Maimonides and St. Thomas Aquinas – were among those significantly affected by this merger, and both paved the way for many of us today who are most comfortable setting one foot firmly in the wisdom, teachings and practices of antiquity, while stepping with the other onto the conveyor belts of modernity.
So called “Judeo-Christian” values, it seems to me, are really a combination of the moral teachings of Judaism and Christianity as they have been further shaped by the guiding light of human reasoning…a process that was in place for a long time, but was accelerated in the modern era.
We might suggest then that “fundamentalists” consider this merger to be a desecration of eastern values, while “secularists” consider the merger to be a stifling of pure western values.
America’s founding fathers – most of them Anglicans, often defined as Christians whose beliefs fell middle way between Catholics and Protestants – were very clever. In order to preserve the best of both worlds, to embrace a combination of Judeo-Christian-Western values, they adopted a Declaration of Independence that speaks of our God-given and irreversible right to Life and Liberty and the pursuit of happiness – combining Eastern values of Biblical faith and morality with Western values of pleasure and reason. Then, the church, but not God, was detached from government; and thus the 1789 Constitutional separation of Church and State was coupled with a pre-existing 1776 declaration of the unity of God and State. They charted a way for integrating the best of both East and West.
Therefore, we might suggest, American Judeo-Christian values are meant to assert the infinite value of the individual made in the image of God, while simultaneously promoting the freedom of individual choice and reason.
Not an easy combination, and no doubt the reason why there is only one country in the world that proudly calls itself Judeo-Christian.
Let me conclude with what are considered some of the most patriotic words ever uttered – “God bless America.”
Rabbi Morey Schwartz is the Director of Education at the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning.