Judeo-Catholic-Protestant America

Chris Beneke

Kevin Schultz’s Tri-Faith America begins with the story of a priest, a rabbi and two Protestant ministers. It might be the first line of a joke, but it's deadly serious. The four chaplains were aboard the U.S.S. Dorchester when it was sunk by a German torpedo in February 1943. They all went down with the ship, prayerfully, arm-in-arm after having given their life jackets to sailors who lacked them.

The sacrifice of the Four Chaplains represented something of a landmark in the history of American religious comity. These men were "celebrated ... as emblems of the new tri-faith nation." Yet, as Schultz shows, Americans were already prepared to appreciate the larger significance of their heroism because of the ecumenical groundwork that had been laid over the previous decade by the anti-prejudice proselytizing of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ), which confronted a revitalized Ku Klux Klan and a swelling, virulent strain of Western antisemitism in the 1920s and 30s.

Schultz's assiduous research demonstrates that the NCCJ wasn'tmerely engaged in a half-ass exercise of holier-than-thou idealism. During WWII alone, the organization sponsored traveling "tolerance trios"--consisting of a rotating roster of priests, rabbis, and Protestant ministers--who visited nearly 800 military installations and addressed 9 million Americans. This was missionary work on a par with the massive evangelizing and Bible distribution efforts undertaken by American Protestants during the Civil War.

In the early postwar period, such everyday features of American culture as films, manners, and educational programming were shaped by the tri-faith model that the NCCJ had so carefully cultivated. Postwar liberalism was in turn infused with the mostly tolerant and religiously derived moral imperative that went by the name of the "Judeo-Christian tradition."

Upon this somewhat narrow foundation, postwar Americans would adopt broader conceptions of tolerance that included a larger range of religious groups. Religious bigotry and discrimination certainly didn't disappear, but they were largely driven from public life by the early 1960s. Though groups such as the NCCJ proved slow to promote civil rights for African Americans, the trope of inclusion that they popularized resonated throughout the 1960s. Meanwhile, before the Judeo-Christian tradition was appropriated by the Religious Right in the 1970s, it was employed by Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders to discredit racist institutions and policies in the 1950s and 60s.

There were deep, intangible costs accompanying the triumph of the tri-faith ideal, which Schultz details. Among them was the loss of communal identity by Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. Also endangered were some of the vibrant, distinctive traditions within each of these larger faith categories. Prophecy withered as ecumenism bloomed.

Still, Schultz provides us with an unapologetically progressive account. He makes clear how profoundly important religious differences were to early twentieth-century Americans and how tirelessly some worked to transcend, or at least mediate, them. Tri-Faith America gives religious tolerance its due as a crucial component of postwar liberalism. In this, it represents a sharp rebuke to the fashionable idea that American religious freedom and religious tolerance have been little more than subtle exercises in coercion


Chris Beneke said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said…
i cannot wait to read this!!!
Tom Van Dyke said…
Elegant, Mr. Beneke, and thx. I linked at my home blog.

"Judeo-Christian" is a uniquely American term, no? 20th century at that.

That would make it a "neologism," a new term coined later to describe a phenomenon of the past. I'm a supporter of the term as descriptive albeit not definitive. It's also inclusive of unitarian Christianity of the Founding era, since Jews don't believe Jesus is God either.

Hey, "The Enlightenment" is a neologism, too, and was treated as such as recently as 1910 or so. [So the internet tells me.]

The Founding was "Judeo-Christian" in many ways, but neither they nor "The Enlightenment" used such terms to describe themselves.

Do the terms hold up, or are they just catchalls that blur necessary distinctions? Jews aren't Christians; neither was the Scottish Common Sense Enlightenment as taught by John Witherspoon the same as Voltaire's or Diderot's Enlightenment.

Does "Judeo-Christian" mean anything, or is it helpful in the American context? Was 20th century American ecumenism a papering-over of theological differences or a fuller realization of America's pluralism, one that had made peace between the Protestant sects and now found itself demographically obliged to widen the net to Roman Catholics as well? [The Jews being rather caught up as bycatch as the net was widened.]

Thx again, Mr. Beneke, and to Paul for posting this. Neologismically [?!] speaking, if we're an "Enlightenment" nation, "Judeo-Christian" seems not very objectionable either, by the same lights.
Chris Beneke said…
Thank you, Mr. Van Dyke. You caught me without my copy of Tri-Faith America on hand, but I recall Prof. Schultz pointing out that the idea actually emerged in the 1890s (earlier than I was aware). I'd be surprised it was exclusively of American provenance, though it did seem to have been particularly American in resonance. Judeo-Christian certainly blurs, but as you indicate, it also reveals--and, given mid-twentieth-century anti-semitism--was socially vital. To that point, it doesn't seem to me that Jews were merely swept up in the Protestant-Catholic net. But Schultz could give you a more authoritative answer. Thanks too for re-posting!
First, the admission: yes, I do comb the comments section of reviews of my own book, especially on such a blog where I contribute.

Anxious self-consciousness admitted, to the question: as a term, Judeo-Christian derives from the 1890s, from France. And what it means and/or signifies is an open question, as it changes over time.

Lots of people I cover in the book said that it was a mere papering over of important distinctions, a feel-good social concept that demoted religion from its rightful perch. Lots of other people struggled to give it meaning, theological or otherwise. These folks often failed to create something theologically new and interesting, but they buttressed a sociological conception of tolerance and of America that had real world implications.

If you want more, let me know, or read the book!

To me, these battles are fascinating, and I have a whole section on why Jews are included--in part to introduce a mollifying third party to a historically complicated dance between Protestants and Catholics, in part because of what was happening in Europe in the 1930s and 40s. That they left out Muslims was a conscious decision with one guy saying "well, I guess we'll have to deal with them in fifty years." Ah, the joys of history.
Tom Van Dyke said…
Thank you kindly, gentlemen. "Judeo-Christian" dating back to France in the 1890s seems to trace to the Dreyfus Affair and the Dreyfusard defense against its anti-Semetic dimension. [So sez Mark Silk.]

I had no idea, but the timeline and circumstances sure fit. Thx again. Kevin's book sounds fascinating and the "tolerance trios" are an inspiring light in our usually troubled history.
Unknown said…
I'm delighted to see the JCT being discussed in this lively way. Back in 1984, I published "Notes on the Judeo-Christian Tradition in America" in American Quarterly, and I look forward to reading Kevin's book to see how he's advanced the discussion. As Tom noted, I did a bit more research back in January--thank you Google--and it was no trouble to find how the term was originally used in English and French biblical studies: http://bit.ly/hLvJuq. The Judeo-Christians were the Jewish-Christians who opposed Paul's outreach to the Gentiles. It seems it was the French who first extended the usage to identify the Western religious (as opposed to Classical) tradition.

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