School children say the pledge of allegiance. (Mark Kauffman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty)

Imagining Judeo-Christian America: Religion, Secularism, and the Redefinition of Democracy K. Healan Gaston
The University of Chicago Press, 2019

Unlike our current era, the 1940s and 1950s are often imagined as an age of consensus in the United States, when Americans agreed that their democracy flourished because it was rooted in shared ethical commitments common to the Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic religions. The vicious battles over Darwinism in public schools in the 1920s had disappeared from view. And it would not be until later decades that the “culture wars” would reignite over issues like abortion, sex ed, and prayer in public schools. Beginning in the 1970s the Christian Right mobilized politically to support conservative presidents from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump. The mid-twentieth century, on the other hand, was thought to be a time when the truce was called in America’s perennial culture wars because of a shared agreement that the United States was a “Judeo-Christian” nation.

But is this still-too-common story about the postwar peace the right one? K. Healan Gaston, who teaches American religious history and ethics at Harvard Divinity School, wants us to think differently about the period from the 1930s to the 1960s. In her engaging and nuanced book, Imagining Judeo-Christian America: Religion, Secularism, and the Redefinition of Democracy, she argues Americans at mid-century were as divided as ever. By exploring the concept of Judeo-Christianity and its history, including how it entered our vocabulary and what people meant by it, she uncovers the deep divisions over how Americans understood religion and citizenship.

Imagining Judeo-Christian America is not only about the history of the idea of “Judeo-Christianity.” It is a story of how “Americans have imagined their national project” and why so many concluded “that the United States is a Judeo-Christian country.” According to Gaston, in its modern usage “Judeo-Christianity” is essentially a theory of democracy, whose proponents argue that the United States is interconnected with religious values, beliefs, and practices. The term came into usage in the 1930s to anchor democratic society against the threat of “totalitarianism,” and it became popularized during WWII and made its way into presidential politics during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first term in office in the 1950s.

But imagining the United States as a Judeo-Christian country “did not put an end to tussles over religion and politics,” Gaston writes. Judeo-Christianity exhibited a “double-sidedness.” Although many Americans were using the same language, they meant drastically different things when they invoked the term. For some, Judeo-Christianity was used to “bring Jewish and Catholic Americans into the democratic fold” and to extend “an olive branch to groups previously marginalized by the Protestant establishment.” Gaston calls them “pluralists.” For others—the “exceptionalists”—evoking Judeo-Christianity “placed nonbelievers, and often theological liberals as well, beyond the democratic pale.”

The big debate, Gaston argues, was over the legitimacy of the secular public sphere and whether some Americans—Protestants, Catholics, and Jews—were better citizens than atheists, agnostics, and other nonbelievers. Whereas much of the historical scholarship has focused on conflicts among the three religions constituting “tri-faith” America, Gaston argues that “by the 1940s and 1950s the main ‘diversity problem’ … involved the status of nonbelievers, humanists, and advocates of strict separation, not the relationship between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.”

The question of which identity groups have legitimate claims on public life and on politics is at the heart of America’s cultural divide, Gaston argues. “In short, what we now call the ‘culture wars’ were already raging in the 1950s,” she writes. And “the basic contours of today’s conflicts over religion in American public life date back to the 1930s and continue largely unchanged.” This broad assertion may raise questions for historians. One could argue that many of the battles of the culture wars—say, over gender or evolution—have roots stretching back to at least the 1920s, if not earlier. And these issues were as fundamental to understanding religion in public life as the place of nonbelievers. Others may be skeptical that public religion, whose content was defined by the opposition of Judeo-Christianity to “totalitarianism” from the 1930s to 1989 but now, since the end of the Cold War, is defined by Judeo-Christianity’s opposition to Islam, remains largely unchanged. But to focus on these issues is to miss the central contribution of the book: It offers a penetrating look at why Judeo-Christianity came to be so central to how some Americans imagined themselves and their place in the world.

Among the achievements of Imagining Judeo-Christian America is the way Gaston gets at the nuance of the views she is describing. Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and Jewish sociologist Will Herberg were both “exceptionalists”—meaning they believed American democracy could not survive unless it was closely tied to Christian and Jewish traditions —but disagreed on just how far to take their anti-secularism, she shows us. Other figures, Gaston explains, are deeply misunderstood. In one of the most remarkable passages, she shows just how different President Dwight Eisenhower was from his “exceptionalist” Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles. Whereas Dulles lamented that “the societies of Christendom have lost the faith and conviction that gave them supremacy for so many years,” Eisenhower quickly soured on Judeo-Christianity and stopped using the term altogether in 1954. Eisenhower wrote to his brother urging him to talk about “religious heritage” instead of “Judeo-Christian heritage” in order to “find some way of including the vast numbers of people who hold to the Islamic and Buddhist religions.” Eisenhower, who vaulted Judeo-Christianity into presidential politics in his speeches on the campaign trail in 1952, was far more reticent about the term and more thoughtful about its deployment than scholars had previously thought.

Indeed, it appears that thinking about the broader world, as Eisenhower did, accelerated the disillusion with the idea of Judeo-Christianity. As early as 1946, Jewish philosopher Horace M. Kallen found it strange to talk about Judeo-Christianity when the United Nations included “Communists and Confucians and Buddhists and Parsees and Sikhs and Bahais and agnostics and atheists and many other faiths and cultures.”

Imagining Judeo-Christian America is a refreshing look at religion and politics in the United States partly because of its focus on anti-secularism. More and more work in U.S. history, following the methodology of anthropologist Talal Asad, has contended that “secularism” unfairly privileges the ideas and practices of some groups (especially white Protestant Americans) over others. What makes Gaston’s work compelling is its demonstration of just how central anti-secularism has been to the American project. In the 1930s, for example, Columbia historian Carlton J.H. Hayes became one of the leading spokespersons for a Protestant-Catholic-Jewish alliance against nonbelievers. Secularists, Hayes argued, “sought to impose their outlook on others and create a totalitarian unity.” Fifty years later, President Ronald Reagan carried on the “exceptionalist” tradition when he attacked secularists for twisting the First Amendment “to the point that freedom of religion is in danger of becoming freedom from religion.” Defending the nation against what exceptionalists perceived as the lurking threat of totalitarianism implicit in secularism is a key theme of U.S. history—one that Gaston brings to life.

What is most interesting—and deeply troubling—about recent developments is the way transnational discourses of Judeo-Christianity are becoming unmoored from what Gaston sees as the rhetoric’s central focal point: democracy. Among the many manifestations of the anti-democratic politics of Judeo-Christianity is the admiration some members of the Christian Right and the political right have shown for authoritarian regimes abroad, and their continued support for a president who has done the same. One recent—and ongoing—example is the fascination and outright admiration of some evangelical Christians for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government’s cultural and gender policies. Praising Russia’s “pro-family” policies, Allan Carlson, founder of the conservative World Council on Families, applauded the country for “defending Judeo-Christian values” while “other super-powers march to a pagan world-view.” Longtime conservative Christian activist Pat Buchanan, who popularized the term “culture wars” in his address at the 1992 Republican National Convention, has praised Putin’s role in fighting “a cultural, social, and moral war” against the West.

I take away from this book that one of the functions of Judeo-Christianity in the 1940s was to invite intellectuals to debate the nature of democracy—intellectuals who may have otherwise (and in a different era) been drawn to forms of authoritarianism. And so, today’s small but troubling fascination with authoritarianism among Judeo-Christianity’s advocates raises important questions. To what extent did intellectuals not especially invested in democratic thought shape the country’s understanding of Judeo-Christianity, along with related ideas about citizenship and religion? To what extent and under what conditions could the discourses of Judeo-Christianity and democracy become uncoupled? Through its engaging historical inquiry and its ethical and moral seriousness, Imagining Judeo-Christian America adds depth to our understanding of the perennial debates over Judeo-Christianity and the anti-secular tradition in the United States. And, as recent developments make clear, neither is going away anytime soon.

Gene Zubovich is an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. He writes about religion, U.S. foreign relations, and human rights. Follow him on Twitter: @genezubovich.