Religion & Liberty Online

What does Judeo-Christian mean?

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The Acton Institute was founded on the basis of ten principles that integrate “Judeo-Christian Truths with Free Market Principles.” You’ve probably heard the term your entire life, but do you know what “Judeo-Christian” means? And where exactly did the term come from?

While the concept of Judeo-Christian originated in the first century AD, as a number of Jewish believers aligned with the new movement of Christianity, the term was re-invented in America in the 1920s. As Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, explains:

In the 1920s, at a time that feels a lot like our era now, massive economic and social shifts, agrarian society to an industrial society, the country to the city, profound social and economic polarization, technological leaps, et cetera, et cetera, you had the rise of really ugly racist movements and xenophobic movements, mostly in the form of the KKK. And not only was the KKK anti-black, it was anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic. And in 1928, the first Catholic to run on a major party presidential ticket appears, a man named Al Smith who was the Governor of New York at the time, and the KKK torpedoes his candidacy, largely with anti-Catholic weapons. And a group of great Americans emerged out of that and say “We can’t have this.

With the growing Catholic and Jewish populations in the United States we can’t be a nation that excludes their contributions; that’s crazy.” They build an organization called the NCCJ, and they start doing a set of civic projects across the country, tri-faith dialogues, minister, priest, rabbi, going to different campuses and different cities and to different military bases around the world, the era of World War II, to talk about the importance of what they called The Brotherhood of Man Under the Fatherhood of God. And as a part of this, they decide a new narrative is important for a country that long thought of itself as a Protestant nation and so they invent a word. And the word is Judeo-Christian. It’s an invention. It’s not theologically accurate. Jesus is a central player in Christianity, he’s maybe a good rabbi in Judaism: discuss, right? It’s not historically accurate, it’s not like Jews faired especially well in Christian majority societies for much of history. What it is a genius civic invention. It is a term that helped us welcome the contributions of Jews and Catholics.

Patel is correct in noting that the term is not completely “theologically accurate” since it glosses over key differences between the faiths. But its usefulness comes from the fact that there are significant areas of overlap between the religions. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Rev. Johnnie Moore of The Congress of Christian Leaders explain what most Christians and Jews who embrace a Judeo-Christian view mean by using the term:

  • We believe in One G-d, the Being who is the source of all existence, and without which nothing would exist.
  • We believe that, despite the gap between finite Man and the infinite G-d, that we understand some things about Him, which allow us to relate to Him. First and foremost, we believe in His goodness.
  • We believe that all human beings are created in His image, and that this stands behind Man’s claim to specialness.
  • We believe in the eternity of the soul, and that Man achieves its blessing by establishing true connection with Him.
  • We believe that G-d communicates to Man, and that the chief record of this communication is the Bible.
  • We believe that G-d makes demands on people. As a perfect Being, those demands do nothing to add to Him. They are given to us out of His love. They are not arbitrary, but reflect His wisdom. They reflect realities that are immutable and unchangeable.  Not everything is up for grabs. Absolutes exist. Individuals and societies that ignore them will not achieve the happiness and fulfillment that they should.  Among the values He communicated is the centrality of the family as the optimum incubator to nurture the next generation.
  • We believe with complete conviction that G-d has guaranteed that human civilization will be perfected, but only when people will recognize His reality and live in accordance with His wishes.

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Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).