On December 9, 2015, The Christian Century published an article, “One Abraham or three?”, by Ulrich Rosenhagen, a Lutheran theologian at the Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions of the University of Wisconsin. Rosenhagen places this relatively recent shift from “Judeo-Christian” to “Abrahamic” in the wider context of the expanding religious pluralism in American society. Even before independence the British colonies in North America were religiously diverse compared with Europe and most of them gave up on projects to set up state churches. The Puritans tried in Massachusetts, the Anglicans in Virginia, but these projects failed because of the ineradicable heterogeneity of the immigrant population. When factual pluralism coalesced with the ideal of religious freedom, the new nation adopted the latter as one of its core values, enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. George Washington eloquently expressed this ideal in his letter to the synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, and in his farewell address asserted that religion and morality provide “indispensable support for political prosperity.” At the time it was clear which religion he had mainly in mind: It was above all Protestantism which, in the words of Gilbert Keith Chesterton (a Roman Catholic), had created “a nation with the soul of a church.” These words were written in 1922; by then the massive arrival of Catholic and Jewish immigrants had made it much less clear which church had given its “soul” to the country.
World War II was an important turning point in the unfolding drama of American pluralism. Since hideously barbaric anti-Semitism was the core ideology of the Nazi enemy, the term “Judeo-Christian” served to describe the moral quality of the U.S. war effort; by the same token it deligitimated the genteel anti-Semitism which still persisted here and there in WASP America. Even the mildest expressions of anti-Jewish prejudice (say, in jokes told in upper-class country clubs) inevitably evoked associations with the horrors of the Holocaust. The “Four Chaplains” became a heroic icon of this postwar understanding of America’s “soul” and its relation to American Jews. [I imagine that this shift coincided with the triumphant ascendancy of Jewish humor in popular culture and presumably even in WASP country clubs.] The icon refers to a real event that occurred in 1943: A ship carrying American troops to Europe was torpedoed by a German submarine. Most of the passengers were still trapped below deck as the ship was rapidly sinking. Four army chaplains—two Protestants, one Catholic, and one Jew—were busy trying to help soldiers get onto the deck and then to get them into lifeboats. As the evacuation proceeded, the supply of vests gave out. The four chaplains, who had vests on, took them off and gave them to others. The chaplains were drowned. This act of heroism was celebrated in the press, in books, in a motion picture, and even in a postage stamp. A memorial chapel (originally located in the Brooklyn Naval Yard) was opened in a ceremony addressed by President Truman.
The position of Jews and of Judaism in America has changed dramatically since then—socially, politically and culturally. An institutional marker: The National Conference of Christians and Jews was founded in 1927, a pioneer interfaith organization combatting anti-Semitism (it persists under an even more inclusive name). An intellectual marker: In 1955 Will Herberg published a very influential book, Protestant—Catholic—Jew, in which he proposed the sociological thesis that this tripartite religious identification has been replacing previous ethnic identities (Swedish-American, Italian-American, and Jewish-American having become a still loose merger of religious and ethnic identity). A marker in academic usage (motivated by respect for Jewish sensitivities): The old division of history—B.C./A.D.—“before Christ”/”anno Domini”—replaced by “BCE”/”CE”—“before the common era”/”common era.”
“Judeo-Christian” gained further traction during the Cold War—“Judeo-Christian” America opposed godless Communism. This, logically enough, intensified during the Eisenhower Administration. The late President was (to my knowledge) not a strongly religious man, and certainly not a sophisticated theologian, but a much-quoted sentence of his nicely expresses the national mood at the time (it was in an address to the Freedom Foundation): “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” The last phrase (although I doubt that Eisenhower intended this) gives a hint on how the alleged “Judeo-Christian” affinity might be further enlarged.
So now we have “Abrahamic,” increasingly relevant as both American government and the American people are forced by events to think about Islam. Clearly there are other potential candidates for admission to the grand alliance—in addition to Muslims, a sizable number of Buddhists and Hindus (most of whom are naturalized citizens and thus legally entitled and, as good Americans, culturally inclined to sue for their First Amendment rights). Leaving aside numerous smaller religious groups, there are lots of so-called “nones” (who say in surveys that they have no religious affiliation) who will also protest their exclusion in federal court. The mind boggles as one imagines all future religious representatives crowding presidential inaugurations. [They have already been pretty crowded since the beginning of the “Judeo-Christian “ dispensation. By the way, Herberg not only omitted Muslims. He also omitted Eastern Orthodox Christians. Somebody must have noticed (the Greek lobby?). They are now always present when American pluralism is celebrated, and they are always noticed: The tall black hats of their clergy dwarf all other religious headgear.] As Rosenhagen points out in his article, the term “Abrahamic” was coined by Louis Massignon (1853–1962), a distinguished French scholar of Islam, who wrote the influential paper “Three Prayers of Abraham” in 1949. In the United States, the term was rapidly picked up in the wake of 9/11. Right after the attack on the World Trade Center, George W. Bush declared that we were not at war with Islam (a morally and politically desirable declaration), adding that “Islam means peace” (which is not good Arabic—Islam means submission, not peace—but, I guess, President Bush’s credentials as a scholar of religion are as good as were President Eisenhower’s). The recent eruption of Islamist violence makes the distinction made by Bush all the more important politically: the present war against the terrorist threat will finally be decided by somebody’s “boots on the ground,” but it cannot be won without the support of powerful Muslim allies. (The Bush presidency will not be judged by his scholarly knowledge of Islam; neither will Obama’s, who has been singing from the same hymn book with more ardent wooing of Muslims, ever since his famous Cairo speech.)
The sociological context of these develoments is religious pluralism—an empirical reality, whether one likes it or not. The political responses and the philosophical or theological assessments must be clearly distinguished from the empirical analysis. The latter, of course, is to understand what is actually happening in the world today, especially if one is to understand the phenomenon of radical Islamism. I have tried to do this in my recent work on pluralism as a sociologist of religion. Part of such a project must be an understanding of the place of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in the dynamics of global pluralism. I cannot do this here. But I must, at least briefly, address two questions to which sociology cannot give answers. One: Are assertions of Abrahamic commonality useful in the development of American domestic and foreign policy? Does that commonality stand up in the philosophical or theological assessment of these three traditions?
The concept of “Judeo-Christian” has been immensely useful in the integration of Jews as an ethnic group and of Judaism as a religion in America. I think it is fair to say that in no other country in modern history have Jews become as much part of the taken-for-granted landscape of the society as in America. Jews are not only accepted; they are esteemed. In a recent survey respondents were asked to name the religion other than their own they liked best, and the one they liked least. Muslims and Mormons competed for the least liked place; Jews were the most liked. Given the enormous capacity of America to integrate the most diverse religious and ethnic groups, there is no intrinsic reason (intrinsic, that is, to Islam) why the growing number of American Muslims should not go through the same process of indigenization. Of course the future course of radical Islamism will help or hinder this process. Thus far the concept of “Abrahamic” religion has been useful in countering the anti-Muslim sentiments stoked by the likes of Donald Trump. Could this change? Of course it could: It is not difficult to imagine any number of scenarios in which new horrendous attacks by radical Islamists could lead to an explosion of hatred against Islam in general and American Muslims in particular. But this is not an unavoidable future. In the meantime, both the actions of the federal government, under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and those of the institutions of civil society have made impressive moves to protect American Muslim from being identified with the ideology and the atrocities of al-Qaeda and ISIS. Individual Jews, synagogues and Jewish organizations have been prominent in their support of these efforts.
This post has been concerned with the expansion of the concept of Judeo-Christian religion to that of Abrahamic religion. I have circled around various questions raised about the key proposition, which is that the three religious traditions have distinctive commonalities. Let me now summarize three questions about the proposition.
1) Is the proposition empirically understandable? Definitely yes. The underlying reality is the globalization of pluralism. Increasingly different religions, worldviews and moral systems co-exist in the same society. Everyone talks with everyone else, about religion and everything else. Where pluralism coincides with religious freedom, as it has in America at least since independence, all sorts of interactions become possible—including those between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Thus synthetic notions like “Judeao-Christian” and “Abrahamic” become plausible, and indeed describe the empirical reality of different faith communities. Fundamentalism can be sociologically analyzed as a program to arrest or reverse the pluralist dynamic. Today Islamic fundamentalism is the most important but not the only case of such a program.
2) It the proposition politically useful? If one’s list of political desiderata includes civic peace and individual freedom, the idea of Judeo-Christian religion has been very useful in the successful entry of Jews and Judaism into American culture. Since the Second Vatican Council, it has been official Roman Catholic doctrine that the relationship of the Church with Judaism is different from that with any other faith community. It has just now been restated in the official decision to terminate all missionary activity specifically intended to convert Jews. That idea is most strongly held by Evangelical Protestants, who tend to have a very literal reading of what they believe is an “inerrant” Scrpture. Supposedly the covenant God made with Abraham and all who descend from him is still valid today, including the promise for possession of the Holy Land. This of course explains the strong pro-Zionist and pro-Israel sympathies of many American Evangelicals. [A recent survey found that a higher percentage of American Evangelicals than of American Jews believe that the entire Holy Land, even today, is promised by God to the modern State of Israel. I wonder how many have actually looked at the borders of the promised land, defined as including all the territory “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates” (Genesis 15:18). This territory would include not only historic Palestine, but Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, as well as chunks of Egypt and Iraq. I imagine that this prospect would worry even the most ardent advocates of Greater Israel.] In any case, the proposition that the three monotheistic faiths of western Asia have much in common, is useful for U.S. policies favoring peace between these religions both at home and in the Middle East.
3) Finally, is the proposition true? I don’t mean “true” in the sense that the God proclaimed in the Quran, the Hebrew Bible, and the New Testament actually exists as the creator and ruler of the universe. I mean “true” in a phenomenological sense—that an objective analysis of these three religions will disclose many more common features than between any of them and, say, the religions originating on the Indian subcontinent. I have in the past proposed that if one looks beyond primal (once impolitely called primitive) religions, a fundamental cleavage is between the holy cities of Jerusalem and Benares—the city in which stood the Temple of Solomon, in which Jesus died and rose from the dead, in which Muhammad started his miraculous journey to heaven—and that other city in whose river one can immerse oneself in closeness to the gods, and where just outside it, in the Deer Park of Sarnath, the Buddha first preached the dharma to his earliest disciples. Of course I’m not suggesting that each of these traditions has an unchanging essence that has persisted over the ages. But if one looks out from a standpoint of one tradition to other traditions, one will see very sharply how they differ from one’s own. In a recent book directly relevant to the topic of this post, Jon Levenson (Harvard Divinity School) in Inheriting Abraham (2013) very ably shows that the notion of “Abrahamic religion” overlooks the important ways in which many of those who advocate the notion have torn Abraham out of his Biblical context and used him for their own Christian or Muslim agendas. Levenson is a highly competent Biblical scholar. From a standpoint firmly grounded in Judaism, he clearly sees how the Biblical Abraham has been subtly Christianized or Islamized to fit into the Abrahamic concept. Not for a moment would I want to, or be competent to, criticize his argument. One’s perception is influenced by where one stands. Levenson, so to speak, stands at the Western Wall and looks at Golgotha and the al-Aqsa Mosque. When you look at any concept in this or that perspective, it tends to fall apart. I would assume that Levenson uses the concept of “Christianity”, being very distinct from “Judaism.” Yet how can one subsume the Patriarch of Moscow with a Pentecostal preacher under the category of “Christian”—or a Hasidic rebbe in Brooklyn with the rabbi of a Reform temple in Manhattan, under the category of “Jewish.” A methodological generalization: The human mind has a very broad capacity to aggregate or disaggregate just about anything, depending on which aspect of reality it wishes to understand.