(April 17, 2019 / JNS) You didn’t have to be French or Catholic to see the devastating fire at Notre-Dame de Paris as a tragedy for all humanity. The horrifying video of the flames engulfing the 13th-century structure and the iconic spire falling prompted heartfelt laments from a broad cross-section of persons, regardless of background or faith, who saw the great cathedral as a symbol of the best of Western civilization, or as many of them put it, “Judeo-Christian heritage.”
Those words used to be considered an anodyne phrase that invoked the shared traditions of the West. But as conservative commentator Ben Shapiro learned, it’s now clear that they can only be used at one’s peril. Shapiro wrote on Twitter about Notre Dame, saying the event was “Absolutely heartbreaking. A magnificent monument to Western civilization collapsing.” That prompted a reply from Briahna Joy Gray, Sen. Bernie Sanders’s press secretary, who wrote back: “Pretty sure it’s a monument to God but go off Ben.” Shapiro replied: “It is. And that is why it is a central monument to Western civilization, which was built on the Judeo-Christian heritage.”
That set off a flood of replies, both on Twitter and in some liberal publications like The Washington Post, excoriating Shapiro and anyone else caught using the phrase “Judeo-Christian” as racists and white supremacists.
Are they right? And even if they aren’t, in this age of political correctness, is it worth it to try and defend an expression that is so clearly out of fashion?
The answer is yes. It is worth defending precisely because the notion of “Judeo-Christian” values, heritage and civilization has become treated with such disdain by so many in the chattering classes.
It’s entirely true that the notion of a Judeo-Christian tradition is relatively modern; indeed, its first use dates back only to the 19th century. For most of the first two millennia of the history of Christianity, Christians saw their religion as essentially replacing Judaism and Jews as stubborn and threatening outliers.
It was only in the 20th century, when faced with the nihilism of fascism and Nazism, as well as the aggressive atheism of communism, that unleashed violence aimed at destroying the modern world when many Jews and Christians began to think that defending the West was linked to a joint heritage created by both faiths.
The idea was a product of Enlightenment thinking that rejected strictly religious worldviews in favor of a common legacy of monotheism, ethics, literature and art. It was a liberal idea in the best sense of the word in that it sought to overcome historic differences and to remind people of good faith that for all of their disagreements over doctrine and eschatology, what they had in common was far greater than that which divided them.
Indeed, nothing embodied it more than the story of the four U.S. Army chaplains—a rabbi, a Catholic priest and two Protestant ministers—who gave up their life vests to soldiers who might otherwise have drowned on a troopship sunk in the Northern Atlantic by a German submarine, and who were last seen, arms linked and praying together as they went down.
Even in its heyday, when books such as scholar Will Herberg’s classic Protestant Catholic Jew expounded on the common religious culture that had been created in this country, there were those who pushed back against it. Some Christians were not comfortable with the idea of different faiths being treated as equally valid. Jewish scholar Arthur A. Cohen also wrote of the concept as something that had been created to essentially replace religion in his collection of essays published under the title, The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition.
But the contemporary pushback against the idea of Judeo-Christian heritage is different.
Part of this is politically motivated and an effort to smear conservatives who wish to preserve this tradition as alt-right white supremacists. But it’s also a broader effort to diminish the idea that there is something exceptional about the specific culture produced by Europe. This is not so much an effort to expand the idea of civilization beyond two faiths, but an effort to denigrate the value of what the West achieved.
France was a deeply anti-Semitic country in the 13th century, when Notre Dame was built, and Jew-hatred remains an integral feature of the history of Europe to this day. But the same civilization that created that magnificent cathedral is the foundation of so much else that is great in our art, literature and public life. It is bound up with Judeo-Christian thought, which springs from the Hebrew Bible and all that followed from it. To deny the validity of that tradition is to tear down the very foundation of the West.
To extol the Western civilization made possible by that tradition is not to deny that other cultures produced great things. Nor does it deny adherents of other faiths the same rights as Christians and Jews, or cover up a troubled past. But to reject the importance and the unique nature of what the West created is a not-so-subtle attack on a heritage of belief in individual rights not found elsewhere.
There is no higher mission for those who care about the future of free people everywhere than to defend the ideas and traditions of the West. The history of the 20th century also teaches us that the defense of that tradition is inextricably tied to the survival of the Jews, who remain besieged by anti-Semitic and anti-Western ideologies that sought to exterminate us in the recent past, and who now rise again under the banner of radical Islam, as well as that of traditional left- and right-wing hatred.
If in the name of inclusion, revisionist history and leftist ideology, we lose sight of all that is great and worthy in the Judeo-Christian traditions, then we will be sealing the fate of both the West and the Jews.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor and chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.