Paul Ryan is making headlines in the campaign’s closing hours by saying that President Obama’s policies pose a threat to Judeo-Christian civilization. Ned Resnikoff reports:
Two days before the election, Paul Ryan made an urgent appeal to evangelical supporters, claiming that President Obama’s policies lead down a “dangerous path” which is contrary to “Judeo-Christian values.”
“It’s a dangerous path,” said the Republican nominee for vice president during a public “tele-town hall” hosted by the evangelical Faith and Freedom Coalition. “It’s a path that grows government, restricts freedom and liberty, and compromises those values, those Judeo-Christian, Western civilization values that made us such a great and exceptional nation in the first place.”
Matt Yglesias comments, “To me ‘Judeo-Christian values’ means ‘we don’t care about religious minorities but we’d like Sheldon Adelson’s money.’”
What does it means to speak of “Judeo-Christian civilization”? Congressman Ryan is right to note recent assaults on the specific religious bodies whose stories and rites stand at the heart of our culture. Some, like Yoram Hazony in his “Biblical Case for Limited Government,” have even offered sophisticated (if in the end limited) arguments for why a restricted role for government is itself a Judeo-Christian value. Yet the phrase “Judeo-Christian” is not primarily political but rather theological in meaning. It is a way of insisting on the indispensability of God’s chosen people in a properly balanced and fully flowering Christian civilization.
Perhaps the most provocative recent challenge to the idea of Judeo-Christian civilization came from Columbia University’s Richard W. Bulliet in his book “The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization.” Bulliet points out that the relationship between Jews and Christians was typified by conflict as much as by cooperation. The civilization we’ve been calling Judeo-Christian is really Islamo-Christian, he says:
To the best of my knowlege, no one uses or has ever used the term ‘Islamo-Christian Civilization.’ Moreover, I would hazard the guess that many Muslims and Christians will bristle at the very idea it seems to embody, and other readers will look suspiciously at the omission of “Judeo-” from the phrase. I can only hope that they will withold judgment until they have considered my “case” for introducing the term. [ . . . ]
The term ‘Islamo-Christian civilization’ denotes a prolonged and fateful intertwining of sibling societies enjoying sovereignty in neighboring geographical regions and following parallel historical trajectories. Neither the Muslim nor the Christian historical path can be fully understood without relation to the other.
Central to Bulliet’s briefly sketched thesis is the idea of “parallel historical trajectories.” Of course liberals think all societies are headed toward secular modernity (and Bulliet shares some of those hopes) but he is also clear-eyed about the way that modernity can be disaggregated and reconstituted, for example by a religious terrorist group that very astutely exploits mass media.
Yet this modernizing hope isn’t enough to support the idea of a specifically Islamo-Christian civilization because it sees all civilizations as following parallel historical tracks. How, then, might we refine Bulliet’s claim that there is a particular historical trajectory Islam and Christianity share?
One possibility is to acknowledge the particularity of liberalism and modernity: Both are very specific cultural products of Latin Christendom. They are not a generic human birthright that any man or woman could extrapolate from a state of nature or original position. We should not expect each civilization to react in the same way when it encounters modernity: Some might be more allergic, others more sympathetic. One will end up shedding much of its traditional past, another may be able to hold on to a great deal of its inheritance while absorbing new technologies and ideas.
If Bulliet is right (and on this he surely is) that there is a deep kinship between Islam and Christianity characterized by exchange of ideas as much as by clash of arms, Islam should be particularly well situated to absorb Western, Christian modernity on specifically Muslim terms. Islamic civilization has borrowed so heavily from Christian civilization (and vice versa) that it should be much better situated than, say, Hinduism and Buddhism to enter modernity without breaking ties to its own past. The longstanding intertwining of Muslim and Christian DNA is Islam’s bridge to a future that, we might be forgiven for acknowledging, was born in Christian Europe.
For all of Islam’s much publicized agonies in absorbing modernity, it remains a much more potent force on the global stage than any faith other than Christianity. We cannot finally predict if and how Islam will adjust to, say, historical-critical scholarship or political liberalism. But it is much more likely to follow Christianity’s path of adjustment and growth than one of withdrawal and decline. Even if we cannot follow Bulliet in speaking of an “Islamo-Christian civilization,” we can and should acknowledge Islam as a sister civilization deserving of more sympathy and respect than usually is accorded it.
Yet Christianity depends on Judaism in a way it never has or will on Islam. Christian civilization withers and dies without the Jewish people, that living sign of God’s promise to bless all men. It becomes either an abstract, universal liberalism or post-Christian nationalism, both with anti-Semitic tendencies. And so we might say that the only true Christianity is Judeo-Christianity. As much as I might want to sharpen and qualify Ryan’s use of the phrase, I hope it doesn’t drop out of our political vocabulary altogether.