Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Judeo-Christian Values of America

More in my series on whether American Christianity is in decline:
So we arrive at America. Was America founded with Christian values? Was the foundation of America "Judeo-Christian"?

1. First, to collect some thoughts from the previous posts above. One thesis is that, as far as real Christians go, people with the Holy Spirit within who are serving God with their whole heart, this is always a minority of people. So Europe may have been Christian for a millennium, but we should only expect to see a fraction of them in the coming kingdom of God, maybe as small a number as 20% of all those who have called themselves Christians throughout the ages (somewhat arbitrarily using contemporary statistics).

2. So in what sense was Europe Christian in form, having a form of godliness? It was mostly orthodox Christian in belief. To be sure, the diminishment of Catholic power made deviations like Socinianism (which didn't believe in the Trinity) or the pantheism of Spinoza possible to be held more openly. Deism was quite popular in intellectual circles in the 1600s and 1700s.

Was it Christian in its outward actions? Certainly the Spanish conquest of the new world had nothing of any substance to do with Christianity. I doubt we will see Columbus, Cortez, Pizarro, or any of these gold-thirsty murderers in the kingdom of God.

If the kings of England are any indication, adultery may have been frowned on but was apparently all too common fare in the everyday life of the English male.

Disparity reigned supreme until the 1600s. The Parliament of England astoundingly executed Charles I in 1649, a clear mark in the movement toward democracy and the shift of power from kings to people. Americans would not include the divine right of kings in what is meant by Judeo-Christian values although the idea of kings is clearly biblical.

The point here is that we are unaware of the influence of American culture on us if we think of democracy (or a Republic) as obviously biblical. For most of Christian history, monarchies were the name of the game, with at least a more straightforward claim to being biblical.

3. It seems that the phrase "Judeo-Christian" itself wasn't really used in the way we use it today until the twentieth century, especially in the 1940s. President Dwight Eisenhower invoked the phrase in reference to the concept that "all men are created equal" in 1952. It was under his presidency, in response to the rise of communism, that the phrase, "one nation under God" was added to the pledge of allegiance in 1954.

I would of course agree that the equal value of all humanity is a biblical principle, but we also have to reckon that this notion was not used to advocate for democracy until the Enlightenment in the 1700s. It must therefore be a valid "translation" of the Bible into the modern era.

But the expression has been used extensively since the 1950s. It played a significant role in the anti-communist rhetoric of the 1980s, for example. "Judeo-Christian" could thus imply capitalism, an economic system that really didn't develop again until the late 1700s and the Enlightenment. It is, again, a translation of certain biblical themes into the Enlightenment era.

Again, the fact that capitalism did not really exist until two hundred years ago suggests that it has less a claim to be straightforwardly biblical or Judeo-Christian than an agrarian or bartering society. For me this fact does not undermine capitalism as an economic form. It just reminds us that we are wearing cultural glasses if we think it is somehow straightforwardly biblical.

In recent times, the phrase Judeo-Christian has been linked to the Ten Commandments. Don't kill. Don't steal. But these are of course well nigh universal human values. Keeping the sabbath in American history has a decidedly cultural dimension (since the biblical sabbath was on Saturday). Not swearing is a cultural version of a commandment that was originally about keeping vows. Not lying is a cultural version of a commandment that was originally about bearing false witness in a legal context.

4. So we have to refocus the question again. Christian religion did seem to play a fairly unique and distinctive role in the founding matrix of American identity. However, the probes of this conversation, just getting to this point, already hint that the religious matrix was a "translation" of the Bible into the cultural world of Europe and Britian in particular in the 1600s and 1700s.

I think it was a brilliant translation. But it is important to say that the Christian values, the Judeo-Christian values, the biblical values on which America was founded were values heavily filtered by the Enlightenment and by the English culture of the 1600s and 1700s. To suggest a more direct basis in the Bible we would have to say that everyone up until that point and elsewhere was biblically illiterate.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

". . . we are unaware of the influence of American culture on us if we think of democracy (or a Republic) as obviously biblical."

Indeed. Thanks.