The United States of America is the only country in history to have defined itself as Judeo-Christian. While the Western world has consisted of many Christian countries and consists today of many secular countries, only America has called itself Judeo-Christian. America is also unique in that it has always combined secular government with a society based on religious values.
But what does “Judeo-Christian” mean? We need to know. Along with the belief in liberty — as opposed to, for example, the European belief in equality, the Muslim belief in theocracy, and the Eastern belief in social conformity — Judeo-Christian values are what distinguish America from all other countries. That is why American coins feature these two messages: “In God we trust” and “Liberty.”
Yet, for all its importance and its repeated mention, the term is not widely understood. It urgently needs to be because it is under ferocious assault, and if we do not understand it, we will be unable to defend it. And if we cannot defend it, America will become as amoral as France, Germany, Russia, et al.
First, Judeo-Christian America has differed from Christian countries in Europe in at least two important ways. One is that the Christians who founded America saw themselves as heirs to the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, as much as to the New. And even more importantly, they strongly identified with the Jews.
For example, Thomas Jefferson wanted the design of the seal of the United States to depict the Jews leaving Egypt. Just as the Hebrews left Egypt and its values, Americans left Europe and its values (if only those who admire Jefferson would continue to take his advice).
Founders and other early Americans probably studied Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, at least as much as Greek, the language of the New. Yale, founded in 1701, adopted a Hebrew insignia, and Hebrew was compulsory at Harvard until 1787. The words on the Liberty Bell, “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land . . . ,” are from the Torah. Vast numbers of Americans took Hebrew names — like Benjamin Franklin and Cotton Mather (kattan in Hebrew means “little one” or “younger”).
The consequences included a strong Old Testament view of the world — meaning, in part, a strong sense of fighting for earthly justice, an emphasis on laws, a belief in a judging, as well as a loving and forgiving, God, and a belief in the chosenness of the Jews which America identified with.
The significance of this belief in American chosenness cannot be overstated.
It accounts for the mission that Americans have uniquely felt called to — to spread liberty in the world.
This sense of mission is why more Americans have died for the liberty of others than any other nation’s soldiers.
It is why those who today most identify with the Judeo-Christian essence of America are more likely to believe in the moral worthiness of dying to liberate countries — not only Europe, but Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. That is why America stands alone in protecting two little countries threatened with extinction, Israel and Taiwan. That is why conservative Americans are more likely to believe in American exceptionalism — in not seeking, as President Bush put it, a “permission slip” from the United Nations, let alone from Europe.
The second meaning of Judeo-Christian is a belief in the biblical God of Israel, in His Ten Commandments and His biblical moral laws. It is a belief in universal, not relative, morality. It is a belief that America must answer morally to this God, not to the mortal, usually venal, governments of the world.
That is why those who most affirm Judeo-Christian values lead the fight against redefining marriage. We believe that a pillar of Judeo-Christian values is to encourage the man-woman sexual and marital ideal, and to provide children with the opportunity to benefit from the unique gifts that a man and a woman give a child, gifts that are never replicable by two men alone or two women.
That is why those who most affirm Judeo-Christian values are unmoved by the idea that the war in Iraq is moral if Germany, France, China and Russia say so, but immoral if they oppose it. We ask first what God and the Bible would say about liberating Iraq, not what Syria and other members of the U.N. Security Council say.
That is why those who most affirm Judeo-Christian values believe that war, while always tragic, is on more than a few occasions a moral duty. Nothing “Judeo” ever sanctioned pacifism. Of course, the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah yearned for the day that nations will beat their swords into plowshares. But another Hebrew Prophet, Joel, who is never cited by those who wish to read the secular value of pacifism into the Bible, said precisely the opposite: “Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears. Let the weakling say, ‘I am strong!'”
And that is why those who want Judeo-Christian values to disappear from American public life affirm multiculturalism, seek to remove mention of God from all public life, and make Christmas a private, not a national, holiday.
The battle over whether America remains Judeo-Christian or becomes secular like Europe is what this, the Second American Civil War, is about.