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It’s common for people to think of Canada and the U.S. as being "Judeo-Christian" nations. By that, we mean the two countries were founded on Christian and Jewish principles.
I’ve never actually wondered where that idea came from. I just assumed it was always true. So I was surprised to learn it actually originated in the middle of the last century in the U.S.
I made that discovery after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used it in a conference call with conservative American pastors about a new human rights report.
During the call Pompeo talked about returning America "to the fundamental moorings of the Judeo-Christian tradition on which this country was founded."
That remark prompted James Loeffler, who teaches Jewish history at the University of Virginia, to say that wasn’t true —America was not founded on that tradition.
Writing in The Atlantic, he said the idea of America as Judeo-Christian nation first appeared during the Second World War, when Americans tried to make sense of their country’s role in repelling the Nazi assault on Western civilization.
But its heyday would really arrive after the war, morphing easily into the new vocabulary of Cold War politics.
It was "one of 20th-century America’s greatest political inventions, created as an ecumenical marketing meme for combating godless communism," he said.
Its purpose, he stated, was to animate American conservatives in the Cold War battle.
"In a world divided by totalitarianism abroad and racial segregation at home, the notion of a shared American religious heritage promised racial healing and national unity," he said.
What mattered most in the Cold War, he said, "was making a common commitment to faith, even as some Jews viewed the "Judeo" hyphen "as little more than a fig leaf masking an unabashedly Christianist agenda."
Beginning in the 1970s, the phrase was co-opted by the conservative Christian right in the U.S. as part of its family values, anti-abortion, anti-feminism and anti-LGBTTQ+ agenda.
Today, he observed, it has surfaced in the Trump administration. "Once again, the theological bond between Judaism and Christianity has been invoked to justify the inclusive potential in the ‘Judeo-Christian’ religious tradition supposedly underlying American politics," he said.
But America is a different country today, he argued.
"The incredible religious diversity that has blossomed in the United States since the 1960s has changed our country for good, and for the better," Loeffler said.
"We cannot turn back the clock to a mythical ‘Judeo-Christian America’ in order to chart a new course for America’s moral imagination."
Mark Silk, professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., has written extensively on the origins of the idea of America’s Judeo-Christian tradition. While not agreeing with everything Loeffler wrote, he supports the idea of the "Judeo-Christian tradition" in America being over.
"As a term of pluralist inclusion, ‘Judeo-Christian’ served its purpose in the period when America was conceived as a tri-faith country of Protestants, Catholics and Jews," he said in an article for Religion News Service.
"Nowadays it’s hopelessly inadequate, what with the recognition that a host of Americans are not Judeo-Christians at all but Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and, of course, Nones."
And yet, Silk isn’t ready to get rid of the idea.
It may have been misused over the decades, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a helpful guide for morality and justice today, he suggested, pointing to passages in the Hebrew Bible that speak of helping strangers, caring for the poor, looking out for the marginalized, and seeking economic justice, and to the New Testament, where Jesus echoed and amplified those same ideas.
What about Canada? Our religious make-up is similar to the U.S. With so many faiths, is still possible to speak of this country as being Judeo-Christian? If not, what could replace it?
For philosopher and author John Ralston Saul, the answer is incorporating Indigenous spirituality into other spiritual traditions.
In his book The Fair Country, he argued that could help Canadians develop a unique spiritual tradition to live together in this land and forge a unique identity.
He noted in the book how in the earliest days of settler-Indigenous contact non-Indigenous people were woefully unprepared to survive in the new land. They learned from Indigenous people how survive and thrive — something we can do again today, even while facing new challenges.
If Canada is to reach its full potential and discover its true identity, he writes, non-Indigenous Canadians must begin deep and earnest conversations with Indigenous people about living in the land today, just as those European settlers did so long ago.
Only then, he writes, will we learn "how much of what we are is them, how much of what we think of as our way, our values, our collective unconscious, is dependent on what we slowly absorbed living with them or near them over the centuries."
To put it another way, maybe it’s time to develop a new spiritual tradition for Canada: A "multi-faith-Indigenous tradition." Who’s ready to help get that conversation going?
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.
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