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Why Mitt Romney is wrong about a “Judeo-Christian” America

Mitt Romney has been increasingly speaking in terms of a “Judeo-Christian” America.

The term “Judeo-Christian” initially was intended to differentiate Christians who were from their Fascist and anti-Semitic co-religionists.  
It gained further popularity in the 1930’s to the 1950’s in response to the Nazi Holocaust.     

We will leave aside for a moment the way in which the term “Judeo-Christian” dilutes the particularity of the Jewish tradition by seeing it as the preamble to a “Judeo-Christian” tradition.   Very few people who speak in name of “Judeo-Christian” tradition have any intention of taking Jewish legal traditions seriously.

The great British historian Eric Hobsbawm, who has just passed away, is worth keeping in mind here.   His notion of “invented tradition” reminds us that what is presented as a given—in this case a “Judeo-Christian tradition”, is never entirely transparent, but always a construction, or to be more precise: 

a set of practices…which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past... However, insofar as there is such reference to a historic past, the peculiarity of 'invented' traditions is that the continuity with it is largely fictitious. In short, they are responses to novel situations which take the form of reference to old situations..

The historicity of such a “Judeo-Christian” civilization has already been called into question, including by the Columbia historian Richard Bulliet that:

The unquestioned acceptance of 'Judaeo-Christian civilization' as a synonym for 'Western civilization' makes it clear that history is not destiny.  No one with the least knowledge of the past two thousand years of relations between Christians and Jews can possibly miss the irony of linking in a single term two faith communities that decidedly did not get along during most of that period.  One suspects that a heavenly poll of long-departed Jewish and Christian dignitaries would discover majorities in both camps expressing repugnance for the term.

However, in the 1980’s and the 1990’s, the phrase “Judeo-Christian” has become part of the Culture Wars, after Ronald Reagan and others began referring to it as a way of demarcating “American” values from Communism.

Romney’s usage these days has been a way of mustering support among Evangelical and social conservatives.    Since Romney is faring so badly with Latinos, African-Americans, gays/lesbians, the elderly, the poor, Muslims, and so many other voting groups, it is not surprising that he sees solidifying his base among socially conservative Evangelicals as his last best strategy to get to the White House.

However, Romney is operating under a few fundamental misunderstandings about “Judeo-Christian” values.

Romney stated:

"The Judeo-Christian ethics that I was brought up with -- the sense of obligation to one's fellow man, an absolute conviction that we are all sons and daughters of the same God and therefore in a human family -- is one of the reasons I am doing what I'm doing," he said.

Romney’s error comes in not acknowledging that these teachings are not unique to the “Judeo-Christian” tradition.    This notion of all of humanity being related to the same God is also a fundamental teaching of the Islamic tradition.    The Qur’an speaks of the Bani Adam “Children of Adam” as the global and universal community of all human beings who are children of Adam and Eve—in other words, all of us—and who stand before the same God.     Just as God is one, so is humanity ultimately one.

In other words, the notion of unity of humanity before a single God is not exclusively “Judeo-Christian”, but shared in the Islamic tradition that Romney (and others) have excluded from the construction of “Judeo-Christian.”

Romney also stated:  "Americans respect for life is the product of our Judeo-Christian heritage, which teaches that we are created in the image of God."

Again, what Romney misses is that this respect for life is not uniquely a product of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  In fact, the Qur’an also acknowledges that to have saved one human life is as is to have saved the life of whole humanity, and to take the life of one human being is as if to have taken the life of whole humanity.  
[Qur’an 5:32]

This respect for the welfare of humanity is talked about explicitly in the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.  The Prophet even said that the life of humanity is more precious than the most sacred spot on Earth for Muslims, the temple of Ka’ba established by the Prophet Abraham in Mecca:

“I saw the Messenger of Allah (saw) performing the circumambulation around the Holy Ka`ba saying to it: “how pure and good you are! how pure and good your fragrance is! how great and exalted you are! and how great and exalted your sanctity is! But by Him in Whose hand is Muhammad’s soul, the sanctity of a faithful human being’s blood and property in the sight of God is greater than your sanctity!’“

So my main assertion so far has been that the values that Romney comes to associate with a “Judeo-Christian” tradition are also found in the Islamic tradition.  Given the way that many socially conservative evangelicals are hesitant to see the way that Islam is genuinely a part of the fabric of the American [and European] society, recognizing the shared spiritual and ethical foundation of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity is important.

But I would not stop there.

I am concerned about much more than claiming that “we Muslims too” can belong in the exclusive club of “Judeo-Christians.”  
We need more than transforming the “Judeo-Christian” exclusive club to an “Abrahamic Club” where Muslims can also be full members.   
We need a fully inclusive club for all of us.

If there is an exclusive and privileged club, would we want to belong to it, or would we stand back and inquire why everyone should not be welcomed?    

In other words, more than asking whether Muslims too should not be recognized as belonging to the “Judeo-Christian” club, I hope we can also ask whether all of us—Muslim and Jew and Christian and Hindu and Buddhist and agnostic and atheist and multi-faith—do not fully belong.   

What we need is not a Judeo-Christian president.  
We do not need a President for American Jews.
We do not need a President for Christians.
We do not need a President for Agnostics.
We do not need a President for Atheists. 
We need a President who recognizes that we as a nation are strengthened and not weakened through our diversity.  

We need more than a President for Judeo-Christian America.
We need a President for the United States of America.


Images of Mitt Romney are from Shutterstock.

Tags: america, bible, evangelicals, islam, judeo-christian, mitt romney, muhammad, qur'an, socially conservative, united states


  1. First, I think this is the first time (and perhaps will be the last time) I say anything that could be taken as a defense of Romney, but….
    His claim that various values are part of a particular tradition (that may or may not exist) is not the same as stating they are found exclusively in that tradition, simply that they are in fact found in that tradition.
    Second, not all traditions hold the same values. If we are to have values (as Romney states he does), they may be found in some traditions and not others. If they are genuinely values we hold, I think it would be reasonable to value the traditions in which they are found, more than traditions in which they are not found. That is not to say other traditions are not of value, just that they would necessarily of be of value for fostering some other set of values rather than the ones in question.
    I know that your main point is one against exclusivity. However, I would want to defend the idea that it is not inappropriate to value a tradition because of the values it fosters (and which may not be universally fostered by all traditions). Our values come from somewhere and are imbedded in some sort of tradition (usually). To esteem those traditions because they bring forth these values to us is not a bad thing but simply a humble recognition of where we have found value (and to some extent, may be a prerequisite for holding values at all—except I suppose some idiosyncratic ones we might have just dreamed up for ourselves).

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