Judeo-Christian Mythology

I last wrote about the injection of religion in American politics and the mythology of the founding of America in the “Judeo-Christian” framework as antithetical to American governance.

It is too often said, with head-nodding acceptance, that this nation was founded on Judeo-Christian principles – in fact, the powerful Political Action Committee the Family Research Council, states: “The fostering of religious observance within a framework of religious freedom is a hallmark of our culture as shaped by our Founding Fathers.  In the United States, the Judeo-Christian worldview has provided a sound basis for the flourishing of our national culture and our political system.” FRC goes on to say:

“The Founders’ intention in this was clear–that Congress should not name an official national church or denomination. However, they did not intend a “wall of separation” between all expressions of faith in God and all aspects of public life. Government has no obligation to ignore or deny, and has every right to acknowledge, that the United States was founded, primarily, by Christians, and that our laws and government are rooted in a Judeo-Christian worldview.”

The reality is that the Judeo-Christian framework only came in to the American vernacular in the 1950’s – after World War II, the holocaust, and recognition of the State of Israel in 1948 – which was not at the time supported by a majority of Americans. Before the 1950’s, American views toward Jews were colored by institutionalized anti Semitism. Prior to the inclusion of the Bill of Rights in the American Constitution, religious tests were required in order to exclude Jews from holding public office. Individual states did not end this practice, as well as using religion as a litmus test for voting, until 1877 when New Hampshire repealed the practice. The litany of examples of American anti Semitism is obscenely long; however, there are some highlights:

  • In 1862, while the de-facto military governor of Tennessee during the Civil War, Ulysses Grant issued a general order expelling Jews from the areas under his control. President Lincoln overrode the order weeks later under pressure of a small Jewish lobby and congressmen.
  • Immigration legislation enacted in the United States in 1921 and 1924 was interpreted widely as being at least partly anti-Jewish in intent because it strictly limited the immigration quotas of eastern European nations with large Jewish populations, nations from which approximately 3 million Jews had immigrated to the United States by 1920. [Wikipedia] These immigration laws disallowed the landing of the SS St. Louis in America in 1939. The Voyage of the Damned as it became known, carried 937 German-Jewish refugees that were unable to off-load in Cuba, America, or Canada and eventually returned to Europe. Ultimately, 254 of the St. Louis’ passengers were killed in the holocaust. [Holocaust museum]
  • In one 1938 poll, 41 percent of respondents agreed that Jews had “too much power in the United States,” and this figure rose to 58 percent by 1945. In 1939 a Roper poll found that only thirty-nine percent of Americans felt that Jews should be treated like other people. Fifty-three percent believed that “Jews are different and should be restricted” and ten percent believed that Jews should be deported. Several surveys taken from 1940 to 1946 found that Jews were seen as a greater threat to the welfare of the United States than any other national, religious, or racial group.

A confluence of factors following World War II led to the establishment of the “Judeo-Christian” framework. These include the gross scale of German anti Semitism that allowed the Holocaust caused Americans to reevaluate their Jewish prejudices, the rise of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, and the location of Israel on the Cold War map. This marriage of religions served the political interests of both the US and Israel throughout the Cold War and continues to exist today. While Christianity has certainly played a role in the formation of the American culture, once again it can be shown that our generally accepted myths of religious founding can be traced to recent memory. “In God We Trust” did not appear on a US coin until 1865 and while expanded to additional coinage in 1873, it did not become a requirement until 1908 when Congress passed a law over the objections of President Theodore Roosevelt. “In God We Trust” did not become the official motto of the United States until 1956 – two years after President Eisenhower signed into law the inclusion of the words “under God” in to the Pledge of Allegiance. If we look to the 1950’s as the founding of modern America, and Eisenhower as a modern founder-version of George Washington, then the myth works. In many respects, this was completely understandable as America needed to demonstrate it was the absolute opposite, in politics, religion, and moral values, than its Cold War rival the Soviet Union.  

While religious values have invaded governance before, an infamous example being the Volstead Act (or the 18th Amendment – Prohibition), as a result of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union – its repeal over 13 years later served as a rejection of forced Christian values on the population. One cannot shake the irony! Could you imagine Temperance today? You can’t turn on a television without a commercial decrying the government sticking its nose in your food – or worse, your health care! So it is with surprise to see powerful Christian PACs – whose membership largely consists of those “less government” types lobbying and litigating for their religious ideals to be inserted into the public arena. I don’t even have to make it up – it’s right there on their political agenda:

  • We oppose attempts by educational institutions to indoctrinate students in a manner which offends their religious beliefs or penalizes them for expressing those beliefs.

Translation: We want prayer and biblical canon (e.g., 10 commandments) back in public schools

  • President John F. Kennedy once said, “The greatest enemy of truth is often not the lie, deliberate, contrived, and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.” One of the greatest deceptions ever perpetrated upon modern America has been through the myth of the “Wall of Separation between Church and State.”

Translation: There should not be a separation of church and state. – Even though, in this case, JFK was wrong – Jefferson indeed saw the 1st Amendment in that light and himself wrote the quotation above.

  • We oppose the vigorous efforts of homosexual activists to demand that homosexuality be accepted as equivalent to heterosexuality in law, in the media, and in schools. Attempts to join two men or two women in “marriage” constitute a radical redefinition and falsification of the institution, and FRC supports state and federal constitutional amendments to prevent such redefinition by courts or legislatures.

Translation: We don’t want gays to marry and we will do what we can to ensure the government adheres to our biblical reference point on the sanctity of marriage.

  • Risk avoidance or abstinence messaging serves as the best primary prevention approach for those who both have and have not been sexually active outside of marriage.  This public health approach promotes the optimal reproductive health, sexual health, and psycho-social and societal outcomes. [source]

Translation: Abstinence is the cornerstone of sexual education and should be taught in schools.

And I haven’t even gone down the moral rabbit hole of the abortion issue!  

Here’s the point. America is not a liberal country – and I mean liberal in its best sense of the word – not the four letter word, but the classic definition: a philosophy committed to the ideal of limited government and liberty of individuals including freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and free markets.

The definition is confusing. I read that and for the most part I read, or thought I read, what modern-day conservatives say they stand for – limited government, individual liberty, uh oh, freedom of religion – not so much – only as long as that religion is part of the Judeo-Christian archetype. Conservatives, many pictured in the graphic above, work tirelessly through PACs (and Fox News) to either overturn legal, constitutional precedent and interpretation, or to ensure bans on gay marriage continue, either at the state or federal level, either in the courts or through swaying public opinion.  

We, as a country, continually change our outlook toward the world we are a part of. Even fundamentalist Christians change their outlook (maybe through divine inspiration?) – otherwise we would continue to live in a country where women neither voted or worked outside the home, black people would still be slaves and account for 3/5 a person in a decennial census, let alone to marry a white person. Jews would not be tolerated, and gays would remain in the closet. Things change – a growing percentage of conservatives, many young adults, are in favor of supporting gay marriage. At some point, prominent religious leaders will reveal a new message from God saying He’s changed his mind and now can tolerate a GLBT lifestyle (and sanctioned union)– but that is utter nonsense – God’s not changing – we are! Which is why we need to be extremely careful and ever vigilant to ensure that “Wall of Separation” remains standing tall. It took 13 years to end Prohibition. It took 18 years before Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed. Every time we enact laws based on a moral coda of a religion we come to regret it down the line and end up having to fix it.  

Some, if not many, will read this (assuming you made it this far) and think that I am being too hard on Christians and nothing is further from the truth. While I am against, in all forms, Christian hypocrisy, I am a strong supporter, and defender for that matter, of the 1st Amendment. Even Jesus was a proponent of secular government and keeping religion out of it: “render unto Caesar…” While I’m not an adherent, let alone a subscriber to the Christian faith, I respect those who do believe – just that those beliefs simply do not have a place in secular government.

The last thing to add is that the beauty of our Constitution, and where our Founding Fathers deserve all the credit, was in establishing the three branches of government. Conservatives often cry foul over an “activist court” rendering opinions on constitutional matters; constitutional interpretation and application of legal precedent is part of a long history of common law and that which makes our government truly that “light on the hill.” Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, writing for the majority in the 1947 Everson v. Board of Education, eloquently sums up this issue: 

The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the federal government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and State.”

Sources (where not directly attributed): 

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