K. Healan Gaston, Harvard Divinity School Lecturer in American Religious History and Ethics, discusses her recent publication, Imagining Judeo-Christian America—Religion, Secularism, and the Redefinition of Democracy.
Welcome to the center. My name's Charles Stang. I'm the director here, and I should say that this is a series established by my predecessor Frank Clooney, these faculty book events. It's an opportunity for the HDS community to gather, not only to celebrate faculty book publications, but more importantly, to learn from them by engaging with them, both appreciatively and critically.
And to that end, we're grateful to our two faculty respondents, whose comments will kick off and I'm sure will be a very spirited conversation. Before we begin, may I remind you to please silence your cell phones, so we're not privy to your particular ringtone. It tells us a lot about people, what they choose as their ringtone.
Really, it does. We've got some really fantastic ones in the community. So before I introduce our two respondents, let me just briefly introduce our author. And I'm going to be very brief with these introductions, because I'm sure you really want to hear from them, not me. So K. Healan Gaston is lecturer on American religious history and ethics here at Harvard Divinity School. Her first book, Imagining Judeo Christian America Religion, Secularism, and the Redefinition of Democracy is the first comprehensive study of Judeo-Christian constructions of American democracy and national identity.
You can see copies of the book right over there along with a review of the book from the New Republic. Healan is currently writing a second book, part history and part ethics, that circles outward from a fascinating intellectual relationship between two leading mid 20th century thinkers, who also happened to be brothers. The Christian ethicist and public intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr and his younger brother, the theologian and ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr.
Her work on this project builds on a remarkable set of previously unknown letters between the Niebuhr brothers that Healan discovered in the HDS archive in 2008. We first acknowledge our Mark Silk. Mark, thank you so much for coming all the way up for this evening from Trinity.
Mark graduated from Harvard College in 1972 and earned his PhD in medieval history from this same institution in 1982. He taught at Harvard in the Department of History and Literature for three years, after which he became the editor of the Boston Review. In 1987, he joined the staff of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, where he worked variously as a reporter, editorial writer, and columnist. And in 1996, he became the first director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life at Trinity College. And in 1998, founding editor of Religion in the News, a magazine published by the Center that examines how the news media handle religious subject matter.
In June 2005, he was also named director of the Trinity College Program on Public Values, comprising both the Greenberg Center and a new institute for the study of secularism and society and culture. That's your thing.
Finally, someone who barely needs introduction here, EJ Dionne. There's EJ over in the corner. EJ is visiting professor in religion and political culture here at Harvard Divinity School. He's obviously a distinguished journalist and author, political commentator, and longtime op ed columnist for the Washington Post. He's also a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institute, a government professor at Georgetown University, and a frequent commentator on politics for NPR, ABC's This Week, and MSNBC.
So here's how these evenings play out. We will invite Healan to say a few words about her book. Then Mark and EJ will respond in turn. I believe all three of them will be speaking from this podium. Then we'll invite them to turn their chairs around. Healan will be given the floor first to respond in turn. And then basically, we open it up for discussion and questions from the audience. So without further ado, please join me in welcoming Healan Gaston.
Well, first of all, I want to say a big thank you to our hosts Charlie Stang and the staff of the Center for the Study of World Religions at HDS for facilitating this event. I also want to thank our commentators EJ Dionne and Mark Silk, two incredibly insightful analysts of American politics. I'm honored by your willingness to engage this book and also deeply appreciative of your scholarly generosity.
I want to also say thank you for so many of you coming out this evening on what is a cold winter night, it turns out. I've benefited so much over the years from colleagues and students here and the support and inspiration they've given my work. So Charlie asked me to say a few words at the beginning about the book, particularly the question of how it came about and what it aims to do.
As I say in the book's acknowledgments I've been interested in Judeo-Christian discourse almost since I came to political consciousness. It was growing up actually in Tennessee in the 1980s, and I was well aware of the gap in that period of time between the way that Ronald Reagan was using Judeo-Christian rhetoric and the meaning of the term Judeo-Christian and the liberal Protestant UCC church context that I was raised in.
I came to see during those years that the culture wars of the '70s and '80s actually involved a tug of war over the meaning and future of Judeo-Christian terminology. And interestingly, there was a moment in that time in my life when I actually came to Boston and had an experience in the Harvard bookstore, of all places. I went and was just sort of perusing the shelves and noticed huge numbers of books on questions related to the era of Bloom, so the closing of the American mind, but also this question about the gray wolf five. The turn to multiculturalism basically was very well in evidence in the Harvard book store.
And I remembered at the time, thinking that there was a really remarkable lag between the sort of state of the conversation in the town that I was growing up in and the kind of character of the conversation in an urban area like this. So that definitely was the moment when I just kind of made a mental note that what we were talking about and engaging with in Chattanooga was definitely really years behind the sort of state of the conversation here.
So this book speaks to both history and ethics by historicizing a concept that lies at the center of contemporary debates about the character of American democracy. It examines the range of meanings that have been attributed to the term Judeo-Christian in American public life from the 1930s to the present day. In other words, it's a conceptual history of those who have imagined a Judeo-Christian America, rather than a normative attempt on my part to do so.
That said, this book, like all primarily historical works, does take interpretive stands and makes certain predictions. So a good example-- and this is something that those of you who've been in my classes would be familiar with-- it's just the sort of sense on my part that there is a rather constant slippage in Judeo-Christian discourse between claims about political theory and claims about demographics. And for that reason, the prospect of a Judeo-Christian framework being revitalized on the left seems inconceivable in a moment of such diversity as the one we're in.
And that's an important thing, I think, to say, because otherwise, we might have some sort of sense that there are potentially realistic hopes pinned on that question, and for me, I don't really necessarily see that as being something that's very plausible. At the same time, there's no question that Judeo-Christian terminology has more momentum in American public culture, in American political life than possibly it's had in my lifetime. It's just momentum that tends to be much more centered on the right.
So I think that that is the context for thinking about that particular prediction, and we can talk about some of the other predictions that are part and parcel of this book. Without attempting to summarize the book, I want to say a few words about one of my most important findings.
It turns out that President Eisenhower who is often very closely associated with the idea of a Judeo-Christian America and the religious revival of the 1950s displayed really deep ambivalence about the term Judeo-Christian, and this stands in rather stark contrast to Ronald Reagan's enthusiastic embrace of the term in the 1980s. It turns out that Reagan was actually the president who has done the most using of Judeo-Christian terminology in any context, and that's something that might surprise people who are familiar with thinking of the term in the context, particularly the '40s and '50s. So that's a really striking finding.
The other thing that I guess I would say is just that the rise of the right-- like one of the things, the rise of a conservative Christian right in this period in the '70s and '80s would tend to suggest that the culture wars frame is emerging right at a moment when you're seeing the sort of shift from Carter to Reagan and really the rise of neoliberalism. So there's more to be said, I think, about that moment and the sorts of ways in which this particular discourse gets involved in really a paradigm shift of pretty epic proportions.
I want to close here by just saying a few words about an event that took place here in Boston about five days ago that I think really helps to dramatize my own purpose in writing this book. Ben Shapiro, who is very well known as a conservative commentator, and he was a podcaster that really has reached probably the largest number of young conservatives under the age of 30 and has increasingly made his way into the kind of center of the conservative camp, and he now does a column for the New Republic, whereas he used to be considered a Breitbarter and a kind of alt right character.
He has come to town and spoken at BU to a crowd of about 1,500 about this question of the Judeo-Christian values of the West, which is something that he's published a book about in the last year. In particular, the thing about Shapiro's recent performance is that he essentially said at this moment, your liberal professors are trying to convince you that democracy is really defined by slavery.
But then he defined-- he says, well, I'm here to tell you that it's defined by freedom, and that it's the Judeo-Christian values of the West that maintain that freedom. So he's really setting up an incredibly inflammatory kind of binary there. And one of the things that I want to point out about it is just that the logic of that juxtaposition fuels the culture wars in ways that are really antithetical to certain parts of the history of the culture wars.
So for instance, the idea that there is nothing in Judeo-Christian terminology that could be used to combat racial oppression, no sense that the left, that Judeo-Christian terminology could be used in an anti-slavery sense, right? It erases the uses of people like Martin Luther King who actually mobilized with Judeo-Christian terminology to essentially try to convince white Americans that they needed to live according to their stated claims. He shamed Americans with Judeo-Christian terminology into beginning to address, and of course, insufficiently we now see, but beginning to address these questions in more fundamental ways.
And so one of the questions that we have to deal with, I think, now is for anyone who is sympathetic with the claim-- and I think it's a very sympathetic one. The 1619 project is exciting on this score. We're asking questions about the extent to which slavery is part of democracy and every other aspect of American experience. But how is it possible then to respond to someone like a Shapiro without finding yourself in the position of linguistically redefining the term Judeo-Christian?
That's the thorny bit, because there are many people, I suspect, in this institution who stopped using Judeo-Christian terminology long ago, but have a sense of indebtedness to the way that Martin Luther King used Judeo-Christian terminology. And so in what ways is it possible to begin to like address that problem, or is it only-- do we just say that's old hat. We don't talk about that question anymore. That's just something that people on the right think, but it's not true.
That's, I think, one of the issues that is sort of front and center at this particular moment politically, and it's a very, very consequential question. So I frame it to you this way just because this is the sort of thing that I thought about in writing this book, and it's something that I continue to engage more deeply with, and I'm excited to hear some of your thoughts about the question of what can be done about this problem in our sort of political linguistic moment. Thank you.
Hi, everyone. It's sort of a cliche of these occasions to talk about what a pleasure it is to be here, but in my case it's really true for a special reason. And if you'll indulge me in a bit of autobiography, I'll tell you why.
In 1982, I came to the Harvard Divinity School at the invitation of Bill Hutchison because I had decided for reasons I won't bore you with and had a contract to write a book about religion and America since World War II. And having been, as Charlie mentioned, a medievalist, I started reading around and I found this odd term Judeo-Christian. And as philologically trained people tended to do, this seemed like an interesting concept.
And so one would start talking about religion in America by doing a bit of philology on that term or what the Germans call Begriffsgeschichte, the history of a concept. And it led me via John Roberts BU, who was teaching in history and literature at the time with me, to Bill's door and Bill said, well, why didn't you join my new world seminar, which deals with religion in America. Kid, you obviously need to learn something about religion in America if you're going to write about it.
And so I did. And so 37 years after the end of World War II, I was in the Sperry room talking about a paper that I had written which became this article, "Notes on the Judeo-Christian Tradition in America." Now 37 years later, I'm back here at the Divinity School to talk about this most gratifying piece of what one might call scholarly supercessionism.
And you know, it's a huge pleasure to think that something that was an odd idea that one started with has resulted in a book of this caliber. And so as a result, even though David Hollinger is Healan's Doktorvater, as the Germans say, her thesis director in this, I like to think of myself as her Doktorstiefvater, which is to say stepfather. Some German speakers in the room.
And so anyway, I flatter myself to think that's true, and who wouldn't want to be a stepfather to a book of this quality? I'll begin my serious remarks by saying that that a lot has happened in 37 years. And it also as is necessary in doing history writing, you look at the world differently as the generations pass. And in addition, it matters where you're coming from. Where I was coming from as a young Jewish man, looking at this stuff was very much in the mode of here is this term not very much liked in the Jewish community, and in fact, attacked by especially Arthur Cohen in The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition, which turns out to us politically started as a way for both Jews and Christians to kind of defend Jews against fascism and against anti-Semitism in the '30s.
That was a very interesting story to me. And so necessarily or because of that, the pluralist side of the story, the inclusive side of the Judeo-Christian story was most striking to me. For Healan, growing up in East Tennessee, amidst one might say fundamentalists-- where else did they come from but east Tennessee, right? And also in the context of the taking over of this term by religious conservatives, religious Protestants, conservative Protestants in particular, evangelical, really has seen this in a different way.
And I think that those two approaches really define the heart of the book's analysis, the exceptionalist view and the pluralist view of Judeo-Christian language. Now, if I can be permitted you know a slight bit of concern, I will say that I am a bit ambivalent about this dichotomy. As a way of categorizing civilizational reality, Judeo-Christian language has always been employed in an adversarial, or one might-- in a Hegelian mode, call it dialectical way, whether the antithesis is Helen or fascism or totalitarianism or communism or secularism or secular humanism.
It has that dialectical quality. But having said that, you know, it's certain from the book explicitly at the beginning and at the end that Healan is well aware of this. At the outset, she makes a point of saying that she's preparing a pair of ideal types, which in the real American world often appear in mixed and nuanced forms. And in the conclusion, she notes how Judeo-Christian language is at once about inclusion and exclusion. And I think that's absolutely the case.
And moreover, there's no question but in the incredible wealth of instantiations that she discusses in this very rich book, there are figures who are more pluralistic, and there are figures who are more exceptionalist in their approach. And so it works.
And the key virtue, I think, of this analytic approach is that it provides a way to connect mid 20th century usage conceived in the lead up to World War II and brought to for fruition during the Cold War with usage during the Cultural wars of the past few decades. In so doing, she succeeds in showing how the early discourse about religion in America feeds into the latter or is picked up-- pieces of it picked up in the latter.
It's a signal accomplishment of the book that it exposes the extent to which the earlier period is actually taken up with combating secularism and strong church state separationism. That's part of the story as she notes and absolutely correctly, tends to be overlooked in the literature, because we're swept away by consensus and images of everyone going to church and so on.
But even as the Supreme Court was ramping up its First Amendment jurisprudence, you had Reinhold Niebuhr himself expressing reservations about the degree of separation. And that's really an important element of the story of American thought in the post-war world, that needs lifting up and happens here.
Above all, Healan's able to show how the nascent religious right of the early 1980s glommed is on to a piece of Judeo-Christian rhetoric and turns it to its own exceptionalist purposes. It really is the best account of how that works that we have, and in this day and age when religious conservatives have all but taken sole possession of Judeo-Christian and public discourse, this is a story of critical historiographical importance.
The book is, in addition, rich in many and varied ways. I'll call attention to just a few of them. Three-- they do have to do with presidents. We tend to be thinking a lot about presidents these days, so why not? As she just mentioned, there is a subtle account of Dwight Eisenhower, who is not often regarded with great subtlety by commentators, and in this regard, specifically not. Will Herberg did a disservice by sort of truncating the very interesting remark that he makes before he becomes president just before.
And I don't care what it is, as if I didn't care what your religion is, but the point of the extended remark, as some of you will know, was that our system of government depends on a deep belief, a religious belief commitment to the equality of all people. If you don't have a sense of equality, you're going to have trouble with democracy. That's a strong proposition. It's debatable, but it's not idiotic. It's not stupid.
And indeed, Eisenhower had his own-- as Healan shows, his own ambivalence about Judeo-Christian at the very time when it sort of achieves a kind of control over discourse about what America is, along with the tried faith thing. So the Eisenhower section is terrific.
I think what Healan has to say about Jimmy Carter, moving as a Southern Baptist into the sort of world of recognizing pluralism, is very interesting and important as well. It is always important to signal George W. Bush's resistance for all for all of the things that one can say about George W. Bush, his resistance to having in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 this turn into a holy war against Islam. That's an important story which she tells.
Let me conclude then with something about the current state of affairs. I think even though-- well, the astonishing thing about Donald Trump is that here's somebody who's grown up in this very period, in New York, in Will Herberg's New York, in the midst of all of the language and rhetoric of post-war America and seems to have absorbed or internalized none of it. I mean, absolutely incapable on his own terms of delivering-- I mean, I'm not saying he can't read a text. And the couple of references to Judeo-Christian that he makes I'm sure was written by-- but in any kind of extemporaneous form, his ability to deliver the American pieties is zero.
I mean, how that happens to somebody who grows up-- it's as if he were-- so I think that's an interesting fact. Healan thinks that there is more to the Judeo-Christian story in the American public square, as distinct from academic circles. We might have a word about that afterwards. I'm not 100% sure, but I think that if it does, one place to look for it as an interesting sort of new way of using the language is in the expressions, the writings of Steve Bannon, Trump's sometimes chief strategist who spent his time since leaving the White House trying to gin up a war of civilizations on behalf of what he calls the Judeo-Christian West.
And I would say, while that's partly anti-Muslim, what really activates Bannon's conception is a sort of European American effort to deal with China and the rest of East Asia. That's how his clash of civilization works. This is a bit of a new twist to Judeo-Christian language, and I think that one way to explore some of this kind of locution can be found actually outside of America in Europe, in France, in Italy, beyond the scope of this book. I wouldn't-- it is not a criticism.
Let me say finally, just if we are going to answer Ben Shapiro in the context of slavery and freedom, it seems to me that one approach, which will probably satisfy no one exactly, but core to the idea-- to the most sophisticated, I would say, ideas about the meaning of the Judeo-Christian tradition beyond as a mere political shibboleth or even mere inclusion does come out of Niebuhrian neo orthodoxy and which lifts up, valorizes the tradition of the prophetic elocution.
And I think anyone looking at Martin Luther King Junior, anyone looking at that period of the Civil Rights, of the sort of trying to lay the ghost of slavery, not that we've succeeded, should or is well advised to consider that prophetic tradition as the join between those two pieces of the American past. So I'll leave it at that and turn it over to EJ.
So before I begin, I want to say that it was very cool to see Healan historicize my old friend Mark Silk in her book. I want to just show you why he is so deeply qualified to be a responded on this book.
Right at the beginning, in the years since Mark Silk published his groundbreaking 1984 article, "Notes on the Judeo-Christian Tradition in America," which outlined some of the tensions explored in greater depth here, several other historians have emphasized liberal anti-fascist and anti-Semitic-- anti anti-Semitic uses of Judeo-Christian discourse. And then she goes on to say, on all these levels, the meanings and uses of Judeo-Christian were contested from the discourse's very inception, an insight of Silk's that no subsequent interpreter has systematically developed.
So we had to wait 35 years for someone to do a serious job of explicating Mark Silk. So Healan is a Silkian, and I am Gastonian myself. I want to also, just because Mark mentioned Steve Bannon, I had him in my notes, and I think it is really important to understand the roots of Bannonism in the Crusades-- and I'm not making that up. Bannon is very committed to that, and it's a really good illustration of the difficulties that this term Judeo-Christian-- the difficulties it faced.
He gave a speech to a Catholic traditionalist group in Rome in 2014, where he said the Judeo-Christian West is in crisis. He called for a return of the quote church militant who will fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity, which threatens to completely eradicate everything that-- we've been bequeathed over the last 2,000-- then he quickly adds 2,500 years. Bannon to the long history of Judeo-Christian struggle against Islam, and he reached back to praise forefathers who defeated Islam on the battlefield and quotes kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna or tour or other places.
So he was reaching back to the 8th century to talk about contemporary politics. That is a very useful optic on what has happened to this term. I want to say, I'm here because Healan is awesome, and was one of my very first friends when I first started teaching here, and I'll explain where we bonded. But I want to say first that this is really a great book, and its title, which is totally appropriate, under sells it.
My wife once said to me, you are great at writing books-- you're good at writing books, but what you're great at is shameless self-promotion. And so what I want to do is-- Healan is not a self-promoter, so I want to do some of that for her. First, this book, I think, should not simply be read as a history of the Judeo-Christian idea. It really is a history of the interaction between religion and politics in our country since the 1930s.
And I think it's really useful that way because we have a tendency-- you know, every generation sort of sees its own time as most important and kind of forgets the past. We have a tendency to see all of our conflicts over religion, either dating back to the rise of the Christian right in the 1970s and 1980s, or more recently, the decision of the vast majority of the white evangelical community to unite behind Donald Trump.
This book is spectacular in showing how these culture wars have very, very deep roots in many of the conflicts she describes. To quote Healan, to understand our own culture wars, we must turn back to earlier rounds of conflict, above all, those of the supposedly homogeneous consensus oriented 1950s. When we survey that terrain through the lens of Judeo-Christian terminology, a new vision of postwar America, riven by deep conflicts, comes into view. Pitched battles over the relationship between religion and democracy raged within the apparent consensus, fostered by the widespread use of Judeo-Christian language during World War II and the early Cold War years.
So I think this book is wonderful to read to understand our time and to look back to the past. Even if you think you know that period, you learn a lot of things. Anybody in this room ever hear of FRASCO? Sounds like a soft drink. Healan tells the story of FRASCO, which is the Foundation for Religious Action in the Social and Civil Order. FRASCO was in a way in competition with, some times in conflict with the better known organization, the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
And one of the things Healan points out is first how deeply Catholic that name is and how important the Judeo-Christian idea was for the inclusion of Catholics, but it's a particularly conservative brand of Catholicism that often expressed itself. The other thing I think she shows is kind of the ambiguity of liberal Catholicism in that period, which had some very, very progressive sides connected to social justice, but also some very conservative sides in the backlash against secularism, which is something that just jumps out at this.
She talks a lot about our hero Reinhold Niebuhr, whom I'm going to get to in a moment, and some of the battles he had in this period in his own evolution on the Judeo-Christian idea, he became more and more skeptical of it over time. He became worried about its use to battle secularism. This is not a new fight. This goes back-- and Healan describes it so well-- this goes back to the '40s and '50s.
Niebuhr had some real second thoughts about this and really did not want over time to accept the idea that democracy could only be rooted in a Judeo-Christian tradition. He thought it also had secular roots as well. And he wanted to honor those. One of the questions I have for Healan is if she could develop the evolution and Niebuhr's own thought about this, because he moves in a new direction.
So Healan and I bonded over Niebuhr. Healan has a side job. She's president of the Reinhold-- or a former president of the Reinhold Niebuhr Society. And I was thinking about Niebuhr and you, and I was thinking you are Niebuhrian in at least three ways. In one way, you know a couple of my favorite Niebuhr aphorisms, Niebuhr was a great aphorist. Niebuhr said, "We must see the error in our own truth and the truth in our opponent's error," which is actually good advice to us all.
And I think that's reflected in this book in Healan's capacity to explain and elaborate on points of view that I'm quite sure she disagrees with rather passionately. And there's a passage in the book that I think reflects this-- it's not a flaccid or flabby balance. It's like a rigorous kind of balance. She writes, "The culture war's narrative teaches media consumers and scholars of religion, for that matter, a host of false lessons. Among the most damaging are its implications that all theologically conservative Christians are socially conservative and that all cosmopolitan urbanites are militant secularizers, avowed atheists who have no religious identities, lack robust ethical commitments and want to stamp out all forms of religion." I just really loved that warning passage to us.
A second Niebuhr aphorism that I've always loved that many of you know, "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible. Man's capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary." Healan is a small d democrat, and that runs through this whole account. But like Niebuhr, she understands democracy's ambiguities and complexities, and that gets us back to the kind of origin story of the Judeo-Christian idea. She is really good at explaining that you can't understand this idea, without understanding Nazis, Communists, and Protestants. And my apologies for putting Protestants in the same box, because I don't mean it in that way in any way.
But the first is that there is, if you will, the positive and broadly liberal side of Judeo-Christian, which is it really was, as the traditional commentators suggest, in part, an honest and honorable reaction to Nazism and a real effort to mark the inclusion of Jews as part of American life. And it was an extremely useful concept in that way.
You know, it advanced tolerance in many respects, but not all respects. At the same time, you can't understand the term without understanding the Cold War. And one of the great things about this book is that it really puts this story in the context of Cold War politics, and there really was a very strong sense at the time that the Judeo-Christian tradition undergirded democracy and was facing up to godless communism.
I always like to tell people about when I was in grade school, Catholic grade school, there was a comic book series called Treasure Chest. And they had a series in the comic about what would happen to the United States if the communists took over, and they showed a classroom, and the American flag had the stars and stripes replaced-- I mean, had the stripes, but the stars were replaced by a hammer and sickle.
And the teacher was pointing to a blackboard, and the only words on the blackboard were, "There is no God." And I told the students that my other class that a friend of mine and I talked about this very recently. He was in a different Catholic school, read the same comic book, and to this day, he is frightened to death about that picture that he too saw in Treasure Chest comics. And there was a lot of that going on in the sort of Judeo-Christian idea.
But the third reason-- the reason I mention Protestants-- and, again, Healan is very, very good on this-- is I think you have to understand this idea in the context of the cultural disestablishment of Protestantism in the United States. And we can talk about when you date that. I think it began falling apart when Al Smith ran for president, especially when Roosevelt was elected on the basis of a coalition that depended very much on urban Catholics and Jews. It was a very broad coalition, so it included white Southern Baptists, but also urban Protestants and Jews.
And I think it was, you know, definitively disestablished in the 1960s and 1970s. I think the court decision on proscribed prayer in public schools was particularly important, because the prescribed prayer, even when it was completely neutral, was Protestant in spirit. And that by the way, is how I at least understand the rise of the religious right, at least in part which, is I think it's a backlash against the disestablishment of Protestantism.
I want to close by talking-- one other thing, I want to promote Healan's book. These days, every book has to say something about Donald Trump. And so I do want to share your very insightful take on our president. Healan writes, "Abroad as at home, Trump sees the world in terms of winners and losers. Despite his affinity for clash of civilization's thinkers, such as his former advisor, Steve Bannon, and economic and political nationalist, Trump seems to view countries largely according to their desirability as resort locations and to trace their conditions to the personal qualities of either their citizens or their leaders. Meanwhile, he treats Islam as a violent, anarchic force, not as an implicitly totalitarian faith, and likewise, views immigrant groups through the lenses of criminality and economic productivity. In short, Trump fixates mainly on social differences, not religious ones."
I'd like you to talk about and even defend that proposition given that Trump-- while I broadly think you're right Trump is the guy who put in the Muslim ban, which was explicitly religious, and that it can fit within that term. But I think it's something worth discussing.
So I just want to close with a couple of observations about the end of the book, and I want to just throw back at Healan two questions she asks in her text that I think is very good. At first, I appreciate what you write about the new effort to create the next generation of Judeo-Christian, that term. The new term is Abrahamic. It's an effort to include Muslims, so then it becomes Catholic, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims.
And you write a number of factors, which seem to militate against the hope that some interfaith activists and scholars-- of some interfaith activists and scholars that the term Abrahamic will come to perform the same integrative function that Judeo-Christian did in postwar America. And you go on to talk about not only the fraught nature of Western relations with Islam at this moment, but also the fact that that term is not inclusive of Sikhs, it's not inclusive of Buddhists, it's not inclusive of Hindus. It's a problematic term in a lot of ways. And yet people, I think of good faith, are trying to grab it as to embody what is best in the original Judeo-Christian idea.
Secondly, you really focus on how the Judeo-Christian idea would really have been impossible in some ways absent the Cold War, that the Cold War is what really gave it life. And so you ask these two questions. You ask, "Can people know who they are as members of national communities or even as human beings for that matter without delineating who they are not?" That is a really interesting philosophical question, but it's also a very interesting practical question for our moment.
You go on to ask, "Does identity formation always require a foreign outsider, an enemy within, a threatening other?" I was haunted by those questions at the end, because on the one hand, they're the right questions for you to ask about the Judeo-Christian idea and what would come after. But we are now haunted as a country by a very strong tendency to talk a lot about the other. It is a strong tendency that doesn't even have the leavening of the lighter side, if you will, of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
And so despite your brilliantly critical and almost, if I could say, deconstruction of the Judeo-Christian idea, I am reminded of the folk singer Joni Mitchell's line, which comes to me a lot these days. Joni Mitchell famously saying, "You don't know what you got till it's gone." And in some ways for all its flaws, the spirit of the Judeo-Christian tradition may be better than many of the lines of thinking and reacting that we face today. But bless you for writing this book. Thank you so much.
Well, so let me just say a few words in response to your comments. I appreciate so much your thoughts about this book and the time that you took to engage it. You know, it's interesting. I think that speaking directly to this question about the sort of deconstructive dimension of this book, one of the things that I was-- so for me, yes, I mean there's no question that I'm offering a challenge to this discourse, but that challenge has been offered, I mean, again and again and again by countless commentators since the '70s and '80s and anyone that is concerned about questions of inclusively regarding the term is left with a sense of the limits of the term on that score.
And so I really have just sort of felt that it's something needed wider engagement. And I guess that's one of the reasons why it concerns me, the prospect that people will say, oh, you know, we outgrew that long ago. That's not worth talking about, thinking about, asking questions about at a moment when we have Ben Shapiro coming to Boston and trying to give us a very kind of stark account of the state of play in American political discourse presently.
So my hope is that the book will encourage people to get in there and look at the range of different kinds of engagements that they can have with the story that I'm telling.
Could I ask a question? Which is one of the things that puzzled-- not puzzled, but that I sort of turn around in my mind is there are ways in which they were deeply, if you will, liberal uses of this term, and that there were both the motivations of many of the people who used it were broadly liberal and inclusive, and it was in some sense theoretically a liberal, because it was trying to say, we are broader and accept that we are a broader country than people used to think. It was an anti-nativist term really because of Catholic and Jewish immigration.
Yet there are other ways when I read in parts of the book, where in particular its use to battle secularism, and the fact that it excluded Islam, and it was really interesting, as Mark said, that Ike Eisenhower was uncomfortable with it, partly because of that, which is something I would never have imagined, that Ike really when he heard Judeo-Christian, he resisted it, because it didn't include Muslims. And he was right about our policy in the Middle East and so on.
And so you could make a wholly different argument that the roots of the religious right were far more in this idea than we might think. How can this concept hold these two ideas and tensions? How does this tension work out? I mean, in a way, that's the drama the whole book.
Definitely. And the sense that it's really a tension that's with us. I mean, that's the thing that is so shocking to me is just how consistent these dynamics are. So I think it's the kind of book where once someone reads it, they have a different kind of walking around sense inside of American political discourse, and that's my hope. I mean, this is something that I-- I don't think we're going to find solutions to this moment in our politics without starting to look more closely at the ways in which people are talking past one another and the ways in which they're playing tug of war with concepts, filling concepts with different content, moving on.
I mean this is so much a part of what it is to be, you know, in political discourse in this country. It's to the point where you have to get a voter guide to figure out why the language of a particular law that someone's trying to pass, how it is the exact opposite of what it says it is. That's the sort of terrain we're in. And so if that's the case, then attention to language is absolutely critical part of coming to terms with what a democracy can even be.
Does the established scholar much revered in this volume want to jump in?
Well, you know, I think there's a point in the book where you talk about what we call the rise of the nuns, that is the people of no religion, not the Catholic sisters. And I do think that the current moment is one very much of religion and irreligion. In that sense Judeo-Christian or Abrahamic have been sort of superseded by a kind of discourse of-- certainly on the right of religious liberty as construed in a maximalist or almost spiritual libertarian way.
And I'm not sure-- I mean, it raises some complicated questions for any religious descriptor that claims to be inclusive, and the book sort of gestures in that direction. But I think there's still-- I need to think about things some more.
Can I ask one more question before I want to-- I think we should get the audience in. But I was fascinated by your treatment of John Courtney Murray. And I want you to talk about for those of you who don't know Murray's work, Murray was an extremely important Catholic thinker, who really, in many ways laid the groundwork for the Catholic churches, in a way, switching sides on issues like democracy and religious liberty at Vatican II.
And his ideas were condemned earlier on by more certain kind of traditionalist conservative Catholic. Vatican was uneasy with them, and they kind of became the dominant thread in the church. What's fascinating about Murray-- and this one I'd love you to talk about-- is he was as in practical terms, he opened the way for a kind of liberalism and was a liberal Catholic.
Yet, there was something still very deeply traditionally conservative about his conceptions and his roots of natural law. And now all these years later, 50 years later, many conservatives use Murray's natural law ideas for their own purposes. Could you just talk a little about Murray? Because he's, I think, rightly really important, or maybe he just loomed large for me, because I'm a liberal Catholic.
Murray is quite fascinating. One thing that I noticed actually as a fairly young graduate student working on these questions is that there were you know frequently papers about civil religion or about Murray or about Niebuhr or Blanchard or various characters that were part of this sort of welter of debates around democracy in the '40s and '50s. it? Was almost like it was the Bermuda Triangle.
You would see someone pop up at a conference, they'd give a paper, and you'd be like OK, I'm ready for the dissertation, and they disappear. And so it was like there was pretty much a paper at every conference that you'd go to, but it was like hard to like crack through to something that seemed deeper or that seemed new because of the way in which these discourses reproduced themselves so powerfully that you can't find a place of purchase.
And so I'm really proud of the fact, actually, that Murray is one of these characters who I think appears in very new ways in this book. There are aspects of Murray's career that are really highlighted in part by his relationship with the journalist Emmet Hughes and the role that Emmet Hughes played in editing the speeches of Eisenhower.
So let me just say that the key with Murray, I think, is that on the one hand, he's essentially like remaking in a very brilliant way questioning the sort of standing position of the Catholic church on the church state question and the sort of compatibility of Catholicism and liberalism. He does this very convincingly and in ways that ultimately become part of the Second Vatican Council's documents on religious liberty.
But the really important thing about Murray in the same period is that his defense of the natural law causes him to really sort of push outward for a natural law vision that he sees as a real competitor to a kind of tri faith or Judeo-Christian image. And so like many Catholics of his day, he was very reticent to use Judeo-Christian terminology and felt that it might really sort of signal a kind of prophetic alliance between liberal Protestants and Jews that had much earlier roots and that might actually be somewhat anti-Catholic.
And so he's trying to negotiate all of this, and his we hold these truths is in many respects a sort of alternative to the vision that the NCCJ is putting forward. And so I think the story that gets told here, though, is one of Emmet Hughes, who is this young friend of Murray's. They're hanging out together all the time with like the Luces. They're in close proximity to Eisenhower because of Hughes's job as a speechwriter.
And they are both traditionalists in a sense. Hughes is the person that goes to find the cab driver who is driving the cab the day that Murray died of a heart attack in the back of that New York City cab. He was a very, very close friend of Mary's. And so just looking closely at that relationship and the sorts of ambivalences that were part of their engagement with Emmet Hughes's role, and it really gives us a different portrait of this period. It does not give us a-- I mean, Emmet Hughes is in there slashing out every mention of kind of Protestant individualism that he finds in the Eisenhower speeches and moving things in a sort of more kind of liberal Catholic direction.
And that's a real counterweight narrative to some-- to the brilliant book of Kevin Cruz that tries to make the case for the idea that there are lots of forces pushing Eisenhower in the direction of a kind of conservative Protestant view of the world. So it's a fascinating--
Yeah, just to add one quick point. I think one of the difficulties of sort of dealing with Murray now is that he is absolutely from a sort of progressive or Vatican II Catholic standpoint, the hero. He's rightly celebrated. His suppression by the Vatican is rightly lamented. And so he's on the side of the angels and particularly the larger project of trying to make religious liberty as defined in the US sort of system palatable for Catholics.
On the other hand, the story of natural law that he has to tell about the framers being in effect, you know, Thomists, natural law philosophers, just doesn't hold up, so that from the standpoint of the history of ideas, it's a big problem. So--
Isn't it fair to argue-- I'm not sure it's my view, but I mean, what the heck, I'm going to to defend Murray's view. Isn't it fair to argue that there were certain natural rights, natural law ideas inherent in the framers? I mean, he wasn't making it all up.
He wasn't turning them into Thomists exactly. Right?
Right. But I think it's a problem if you try to go from the Jesuit thinkers, Bellarmine and so on, to Thomas Jefferson and Locke and say, oh, well, they're all doing the same thing. So it's OK for us. I mean, one has to be careful about that. And I think that means that as a pure sort of conveyor of the history of ideas, there's a lot of eyebrows to be raised, and so he's important as a cultural figure and as somebody working hard to move his religious tradition into the position that they're going to adopt at Vatican II.
And it mentioned John Newhouse and some of the first things folks have actually used Murray in, you know, over the last decade.
It tells you something.
Yeah. For conservative purposes.
I'm taking both sides of the argument here. Please.
So this is a question first of all, forgive me if this is in your book or, Mark, in your seminal article. I'm wondering to what degree this is sort of waxing and waning of the Judeo-Christian category can be told, not in terms of the sort of American history, but sort of international history so. And I guess the invitation there is thinking about Eisenhower and Reagan. And I thought, oh, well, right, Eisenhower had the Suez Crisis. Reagan has Israel's invasion of Lebanon. Is that some way of thinking about how they're thinking through the possibility of the Judeo-Christian?
And it lead me also to think of because we're constantly in the Judeo-Christian and the Abrahamic together, I thought with Reagan, you have this moment with the Iranian revolution, where you could very easily demonize Islam, and then you could see a kind of retrenchment of a sort of Judeo-Christian rhetoric. At the same time-- now, here I am-- I confess I was a child of a Republican household in the Midwest, which was a Reagan worshipping household during which in the '80s, there was a kind of cult of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan.
And so that was a moment where there was a strange, nascent, Abrahamic rhetoric in the '80s, too, which goes to I think EJ's point about this being actually about a kind of godliness versus godlessness rhetoric. And we could go on and talk about George W. Bush and his decision not to embrace the full clash of civilizations model that was ready to hand. To what degree is this a discourse that's driving the bus, or is it simply responding to certain geopolitical events? I mean, it's obviously not an either/or there. But I'm just wondering if you can reflect, Healan, all of you, the international frame for thinking about this storyline.
Definitely. Well, it's definitely both and, I think. And it's interesting, like one of the things over the years that has been really striking to me is just that some of the most engaged interest in this work has come from scholars of international relations. And particularly, I think the work partially of someone like an Andrew Preston with his massive history of sword of the spirit, the shield of faith, which looks at religious dynamics in American foreign policy and US foreign relations over a vast swath of time.
I think there's been tremendous interest in the question of what does it mean to say that the term Judeo-Christian is becoming animated in the context of the Cold War? What does it mean that someone like Reagan is essentially engaged in that same Cold War discourse, but as sort of the tail end of this period instead of at the origin point. How does that dovetail with the history of neoliberalism globally? Like all these questions are a lot more scrutiny.
And I think the thing that you see again and again-- and this is true internationally as much as it is nationally-- is just that there are sort of moments where you see in a discourse kind of what is really just sort of the realm of the politically possible. So a good example we were talking about earlier today is the fact that Carter himself is interested in the figure of Abraham. He writes this book, The Blood of Abraham. Like it's thinking about the Abrahamic in relation to the situation in the Middle East in the context of the late '70s, and that's an abiding interest that he carries forward.
But it's one that sort of blips on the radar screen at this moment. It looks like there's going to be a cultural moment for that terminology, and then it happens again in the context of sort of post 9/11 years, that there's a moment right even before 9/11. Like, one of the things that the book does is it shows that there are certain moments where there seems to be momentum developing behind the concept of the Abrahamic, and then something kind of turns that momentum or seems to structurally impede it, right?
And so I think the international events have a profound impact. I mean, there's no question that they're weaving in and out of the story at various different points, and the realm of the politically possible is sort of being conditioned by them, but they're also in the process of creating worlds beyond the borders of this country.
That's, to me, the most exciting thing for my students about engaging this book and thinking about their own future work. I've got so many papers going currently you know on questions about how this discourse works in other contexts, how it works in terms of perception from various different kinds of perspectives. What is going on in terms of its sort of ability to reach out and do work in the world?
And I think it's a story that's been a global story. I mean, if you think about Eisenhower, think about just basics of things like the Bandung Conference in the mid '50s, the sort of recognition that decolonization is a referendum on democracy and the way that like Mary Dudziak writes about Cold War civil rights. Are decolonizing nations going to choose democracy or communism? Are they going to look at the civil rights situation in this country and say, oh, this is a system that works for us? Or are they going to say, this is not good?
And so that the sort of spotlight of the world on that question, I mean that's one of the biggest reasons why Eisenhower is saying, you know, I don't know. His brother meanwhile keeps using Judeo-Christian formulations because he's inside of academic circles that are not as international as the ones that Dwight Eisenhower is having to move in. So it's just fascinating to see that.
I was just going to say I think one has to try to separate people who are using this language in a kind of distanced, this is good rhetoric way, from people who are touched by it. And I would say that the people with the closest connection to kind of evangelicalism, Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, feel the force of these connections in the way evangelicals tend to feel the immediacy of the world, you know, it is alive here. The Bible is alive in this place in a way that I think Catholics and really most mainline Protestants and probably most Jews, you know, it's sort of that was a long time ago, we're dealing with this now.
But I think you know, when Carter feels very strongly, rightly or wrongly, whatever one makes of The Blood of Abraham, and the immediacy of this, and I think one has to get at the personal, spiritual biographies of the people to get a fix on the question.
I also think with Islam and in America, the whole long story of other groups is telescoped over a very short period of time and that the meaning of Islam in our politics has changed over time. It's worth remembering that in 2000 George W. Bush probably got it's hard to estimate the Islamic vote because they don't loom big enough in polls.
But I think most analysts accept that Bush probably got about 3/4 of the Muslim vote in the United States. Some of that was seen as a backlash against Joe Lieberman being on the Democratic ticket, but some of it was that Bush went out of his way to appeal to Muslims in Michigan and in the other states they were in. Famously, in one of the debates, he said he opposed the use of secret evidence, and in trials, which was something that any non-Muslim heard and said, yeah, well, why wouldn't you be against secret evidence? It was actually a term of art. It was something that meant a lot to the Muslim community, because it was being used against them, and then you jump four years and with the Iraq war, it was--
So in that period, Muslims who were seen as social conservatives with a lot of sympathy for broadly conservative ideas, like Bush's, jump four years, the Iraq war happens, the Muslim vote shifts overwhelmingly the other way and has been on the other side ever since. So that's A. B, you have the backlash produced by 9/11 among some Americans, but also the backlash against immigration, so that Muslims, like Catholics, about 100 years ago have to deal simultaneously with just a general anti-immigrant backlash of which they are a part and the specifics of 9/11.
And then the other complicating factor, as your question suggested, is that I think on the conservative side of politics, there was a real split, even though they may have supported the same policies, such as the invasion of Iraq. There is one branch of conservatism that is a real clash of civilizations and is highly critical of Islam and sees Islam as totalitarian.
The other side wanted a new Cold War against terrorism, but wanted to be very careful about separating the terrorist Muslims, if you will, you know, these are in quotation marks from the other Muslims, who are peace minded. And Bush constantly went out of his way knowing we needed Muslim allies as a nation, and because I think he was opposed to bigotry.
I mean, I always say I disagree with George Bush on lots of things. The singularly most honorable thing he did was to go visit the Islamic Center in DC after 9/11 and give this really strong speech against anti-Muslim prejudice. So Bush was on the other side of that.
So I think the trying to sort of understand over a very short period of time sort of all the contradictions in reactions to Muslims in the US is really hard and interesting enterprise.