Just say Christian

The National Review‘s David French thought it was kind of silly that I and others took issue with Heidi Cruz embracing theocracy on behalf of her husband this week. In his telling, it isn’t at all problematic for Cruz to have said that her husband will govern  with a “combination of the law and religion” because, well, that’s the way it’s supposed to be:

The Christian flag flying over the American flag, via WBTV

The Christian flag flying over the American flag, via WBTV

In reality, Heidi Cruz’s comment represents a standard (and accurate) expression not just of Evangelical beliefs, but also of American history…As for Cruz’s statement that our nation was built on “Judeo-Christian values,” only sheer ahistorical revisionism would downplay the role of the Christian faith and Judeo-Christian values not just with the Founders, but in the founding generation, and the generations that followed. Though there have been (and are) many notable and patriotic atheists who’ve made immense contributions to American life, atheism did not build the United States of America.

Moreover, it’s critical to remind Americans — especially when the media exalts and celebrates secularism — that, yes, our commitment to individual liberty is derived in large part because our earliest Christian settlers fled religious persecution and — ultimately — envisioned a nation uniquely dedicated to limited government and individual liberty — including religious liberty. The Establishment Clause, in fact, was envisioned as a guarantor of religious freedom — and not as it is used today, as a mighty hammer of state religious discrimination.

I agree with Heidi. A President Cruz would safeguard individual liberty because he’s a Christian, not in spite of his faith.

There’s a lot going on here, starting with the rather puzzling assertion that a President Cruz would protect individual (religious) freedoms after preaching a particularly intrusive and privileged brand of Christianity on the campaign trail. But perhaps even stranger is the way that French and Heidi Cruz both seamlessly transitioned between insisting that America was founded on “Judeo-Christian values” and reminding us that America has a particularly Christian (as in, not Jewish) character.

I’ve touched on this in a few other posts, but it’s time to give the term “Judeo-Christian values” a full hearing. The phrase lends the pretense of pluralism to an argument for the privilege of one particular faith. It is as deceptive as it is offensive.

I should start by acknowledging that both French and Heidi Cruz gave a fairly standard recitation of the conservative Christian defense of Christian privilege in the public sphere. It’s an argument that we’ve all heard before. It makes use of the term “Judeo-Christian values” to give a necessary nod to the religious pluralism enshrined in the Constitution before reminding us that we wouldn’t be here without Christianity in particular, since the Europeans who came to North America and founded what would eventually become the United States were Christians (fleeing persecution from other Christians, I might add).

As Heidi Cruz said, “this Christian God that we serve is the foundation of our country, our country was built on Judeo-Christian values.” When the nod to pluralism comes second, not first, its emptiness is made slightly more plain. Either way, the argument is the same: Despite the fact that the Constitution explicitly says that the government shall remain neutral in religious matters, Christians get to be slightly more equal than everyone else. In Cruz’s and French’s tellings, they earned it because they were here first.

I think this is a bad argument, but at least it’s coherent. However, if you really want to make the case that Christians deserve special privileges — such as the right to federally-funded discrimination in the name of their faith — then you’ll have to leave the Jews out of it. There’s a reason why you never hear Jews talking up the role that “Judeo-Christian” values played in forming our country: we know that, until relatively recently, we were carefully and systematically marginalized in American society by the same Christians who now use us as a crutch to hold up their own privilege.

To take just one example, you can trace the historical roots of our selective college admissions process to the exclusion of Jews. As Jerome Karabel documents in The Chosen: A Hidden History of Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, American colleges’ admissions processes were originally quite simple. Applicants would take an entrance exam — usually consisting of math, English and Greek and/or Latin — and if they passed, they were in. Then, in the early 1900s, elite universities were faced with a dilemma: the children of recent Jewish immigrants had started taking (and passing) these entrance exams, but the universities wanted to keep them out. Because they were Jewish. The solution that Harvard, Yale and Princeton came up with was to start considering things other than the entrance exam when admitting students — attributes like character, legacy, physical fitness and personal appearance. These were metrics on which Jews just so happened to be rated poorly. Columbia was one of the few elite institutions to resist this change, and to this day it is considered the Jewish Ivy.

The effects of Harvard, Yale and Princeton’s decision to start applying additional filters to screen the Jews out are still being felt today. Athletic scholarships associated with big-money college sports and legacy admissions are elements of our higher education system that are particular and integral to the United States, and they both draw their roots from anti-Jewish animus. And again, that’s just one example.

All this is to say that when one says that America was built on “Judeo-Christian values,” it would be more accurate to say that America was built on “anti-Judeo, Christian” values, which don’t sound quite as necessary to maintain privilege for. This being the case, it is particularly self-serving and offensive for conservative Christians to invite Jews to America’s founding party after decades of marginalization.

David French may be right to say that “atheism did not build the United States of America,” but neither did Judaism, and that’s because Christians intentionally and systematically made it difficult for non-Christians to openly and fully participate in American society. I happen to think this is a tradition we should be moving away from, not celebrating. Apologies to French if that offends.

So again, if you want to make the case that America is a fundamentally Christian nation, and that the government’s neutrality on religious matters doesn’t apply to Christianity the same way it applies to other religions, then go ahead make that case. If you’re going to argue that the Establishment Clause doesn’t mean what it says — if you’re going to argue that Jefferson’s wall of separation is just for show — then let your argument stand on its own merits. Don’t co-opt the United States’ ethic of religious pluralism to imply that one religious tradition should be placed above others, and don’t co-opt another religious tradition to do so without its members’ consent.

Just say Christian. We all know that’s what you mean.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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