Republican Senator Ted Cruz recently made a splash by agreeing to appear at a glitzy retreat for observant Jews. There, he will likely promote his hawkish foreign policy, but would be wise to avoid another of his favorite topics, the “Judeo-Christian" values which he says make up America's moral foundation. These values belie a dangerous, exclusionary worldview, deeply at odds with the universal American dream Cruz claims they represent.
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Politico, which described Cruz as “a likely Republican presidential candidate and vocal Pro-Israel hawk,” speculated that this was likely an early effort on Cruz’s part to woo Jewish elites and powerbrokers.
This past September, during a well-received address at the Values Voter Summit, Cruz described the United States as a “center-right country, built on a foundation of Judeo-Christian values.” These include the belief that religion should be the center of public life, and a set of specific values, which include “standing for life,” “standing for marriage” and “standing for Israel.” Cruz insisted “our values” (the values of the religious right-wing at the summit) are “fundamentally American.” While many American Jews may “stand with Israel” (though probably not in the sense Cruz means it), they overwhelmingly support gay marriage and a woman’s right to an abortion. So where does the “Judeo” half of Cruz’s equation come from?
Writing in Religion Dispatches, Shalom Goldman – a professor of religious studies at Duke University – describes the history of the term. Goldman notes, interestingly, that it was first popularized in the 1930s by Jewish and Christian liberals who sought to combat growing American xenophobia by fostering "a more open and inclusive sense of American religious identity." Orthodox Jews and conservative Christians both rejected the term.
Conservatives like Senator (and presidential candidate) Barry Goldwasser re-popularized the term in the '50s as a foil against atheistic Communism. In the '70s, Evangelist Preacher Jerry Falwell called for a “return to Judeo-Christian values,” or conservative streams of public religion, which in his view, the left had worked to erode. Goldman argues that post-9/11, Judeo Christian values have become an exclusionary term, used to keep Muslims out of the American social contract.
The exclusionary nature of the Judeo-Christian values theory is the heart of its problem. In that same speech at the Values Voter Summit, Cruz praised the American dream and tied the defense of Judeo-Christian values to its realization. Oddly, a central tenant of the American dream is that in theory, it applies to everyone, regardless of race, religion, socioeconomic status or gender; anyone who works hard can succeed. Whether or not the American dream actually exists, insisting that America’s promise is universal and declaring in the same breath that its fundamental values are tied to conservative streams of Christian and Jewish thought doesn’t make sense.
If Judeo-Christian values are fundamentally American, how can you truly be at home – never mind succeed – in the United States without extolling them? Under this theory, if you are a Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist or secularist (or Christian or Jew at odds with Cruz’s politics), you are by definition outside the tent of acceptable American values.
Judeo-Christian values, in a broader context, evoke a “clash of civilizations” between predominantly white Christians and Jews of the West and the rest of the world. They posit that Islamic values, for example, are fundamentally incompatible with the white Western world. Some argue that in Europe and the United States, the Judeo-Christian narrative has permeated extreme right-wing parties, and serves as a basis for racist ideologies.
Dennis Prager, a conservative pundit and avid defender of Judeo-Christian values, objects to the argument that they are racist or exclusionary. He replies that “the charge is meaningless, since people of all races affirm Judeo-Christian values.”
Cruz inadvertently addresses the racial issue in his speech, citing the Civil War as an example of God repairing deep divides in American society. For people and communities of color who suffer racial profiling, police brutality and poverty – the product of past and present American racism – the suggestion that the end of the Civil War “healed” tensions in America is nonsensical. Cruz’s analysis betrays a deeply white privileged and racist view of history, which is rooted in his Judeo-Christian values.
When it comes to gay rights and abortion, Cruz supports his values with policies that exclude and demean on the basis of sexual and gender identity. He was one of only eight senators to vote against reauthorizing the Violence against Women Act, which extends special protections to LGBTQ and Native American victims of abuse. He introduced a bill that would permit states to prohibit gay marriage without fearing challenges from the courts. He believes that health providers should be exempt from providing women with IUDs and emergency contraception.
So while Judeo-Christian values carry the Jewish name, we should continue rejecting them out of hand. They carry racist, misogynistic and homophobic connotations, and as such should not be conflated with American values. We should be especially skeptical when they are cloaked in the universalist message of the American dream. As Cruz and other cultural conservatives invoke Judeo-Christian values, we should make it clear that despite their misleading name, they in no way represent the Jewish people.
Benjy Cannon is the National Student Board President of J Street U. He studies politics and philosophy at the University of Maryland, where he sits on the Hillel Board. Follow him on Twitter @benjycannon, or send him an email at email@example.com