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.
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.