NEW YORK — Over the the past five years, the once benign terms “Judeo-Christian values” and “Judeo-Christian tradition” have been turned into veritable cudgels against President Obama. A concept that was originally intended to represent a spirit of inclusiveness and tolerance has instead become a battle cry of reactionary narrow-mindedness.
I found a recent op-ed article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to be especially disconcerting. In “Straying from our Judeo-Christian Roots,” published Feb. 7, Robert M. Schwartz, an adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, sharply criticizes Obama for his alleged “unwillingness to directly credit the ‘Judeo’ part of our Judeo-Christian tradition for the contributions it has made toward our way of life.”
The most objectionable aspect of Schwartz’s article is not the specious nature of his attacks on the president —more on that below — but his perpetuation of the canard that Jewish values and the Jewish and Judeo-Christian traditions are somehow the undisputed property of fundamentalist right-wing theologians and politicians.
Sixty years ago, on Dec. 22, 1952, then President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower told the directors of the Freedoms Foundation, “Our government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith and I don’t care what it is. With us, of course, it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion that all men are created equal.”
Eisenhower never endorsed one form of religiosity to the detriment of any other. Indeed, five years later, he wrote to his brother Milton, “You speak of the ‘Judaic-Christian heritage.’ I would suggest that you use a term on the order of ‘religious heritage’ — this is for the reason that we should find some way of including the vast numbers of people who hold to the Islamic and Buddhist religions when we compare the religious world against the Communist world.”
By now, unfortunately, the very mention of so-called Judeo-Christian values evokes the most repressive moralistic mindset of the ultra-conservative religious right. It brings to mind such things as an uncompromising opposition to abortion under most, if not all, circumstances, often even when the pregnancy in question is the result of rape or incest; an implacable hostility to same-sex marriage specifically and to other forms of civil and human rights for gays and lesbians; and the anti-scientific insistence that creationism must at the very least be taught alongside, although preferably instead of, evolution.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum justified his absolute opposition to gay marriage by saying, “The question is whether we should change the laws of this country to reflect a different value structure. What we’re talking about here are different values. We have the Judeo-Christian values that are based on biblical truth and truth that can be acclaimed and resolved through reason. And those truths don’t change just because people’s attitudes may change.”
At the close of the 2012 presidential campaign, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP vice presidential nominee, warned a group of evangelical Christians that Obama’s policies, especially with respect to health care and religious freedoms, constituted “a path that grows government, restricts freedom and liberty and compromises those values, those Judeo-Christian, Western civilization values that made us such a great and exceptional nation in the first place.”
As far as many, if not most, mainstream religiously affiliated Jews and Christians are concerned, enabling the more vulnerable among us to have access to adequate medical care is an imperative rooted in our understanding of our respective religious and moral traditions. So is ensuring civil and legal rights to all regardless of their sexual orientation. So are the protection of our environment and the preservation of our natural resources. And so is embracing other faiths and cultures as equal to ours.
Schwartz’s first objection is that in his 2009 inaugural address, Obama supposedly “deviated from the familiar cadence of political leaders describing America as ‘a nation of Christians and Jews’ and declared instead, ‘We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers.’ ”
Schwartz specifically deplores the possibility that such tolerance of and receptivity toward the religiosity of all Americans “may be viewed as the president’s attempt to promote a vision of the future in which America’s Judeo-Christian roots will be replaced by a Christian-Islamic culture that defines our civic life.”
Schwartz neglects to mention that during a press conference in Ankara, Turkey, on April 6, 2009, Obama said, “One of the great strengths of the United States is — although as I mentioned, we have a very large Christian population, we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation; we consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.” In other words, far from seeking to replace America’s spiritual roots with anything, the president’s understanding of our nation’s religious identity is fully in line with the views expressed by Eisenhower decades earlier.
Schwartz goes on to bemoan the “absence of traditional religious references” in Obama’s second inaugural address. While acknowledging that the president “referred to God several times” on this occasion, Schwartz takes umbrage that “he didn’t reference any religious groups. Such rhetoric underscores Mr. Obama’s continued movement away from the belief that the basis of our collective strength is derived specifically from the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
The fact is, Obama has repeatedly and consistently expressed his deep respect for, appreciation of and adherence to the values and principles of both Christianity and Judaism. At the same time, not surprisingly, his religious philosophy is broadminded rather than regressive, openhearted and ecumenical rather than narrowly focused on the beliefs and dogmas of the most inflexible absolutists on the theological spectrum. His worldview does not reject out of hand the tenets of other faith communities. In Jewish terms, this means that he identifies far more with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. than he does with the ultra-Orthodox.
Schwartz and others who disagree with the president politically are, of course, entitled to their opinions. They should not, however, be allowed to get away with suggesting that his record and agenda are anything but reflective of Jewish and, for that matter, Christian values as these are perceived by many of us who also consider ourselves to be authentically religious.
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches the law of genocide and war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.)