K. Healan Gaston is Lecturer on American Religious History and Ethics at Harvard Divinity School for 2019–20. Gaston is a specialist in the history of religious thought, ethics, and theology, and she teaches courses on religion’s roles in the intellectual, cultural, and political history of the United States.
HDS student Emily Farnsworth spoke with Gaston about her new book Imagining Judeo-Christian America: Religion, Secularism, and the Redefinition of Democracy (University of Chicago Press), the first comprehensive study of “Judeo-Christian” constructions of American democracy and national identity.
HDS: How would you introduce this project of Imagining Judeo-Christian America?
HG: Well, I would start by making one thing clear: This book is not about the normative project of imagining a Judeo-Christian America. It's a largely descriptive book about the various ways in which a host of parties to Judeo-Christian discourse have imagined this nation. So with the title, I'm trying to highlight the idea that there's not a single, unified civil religion.
There are lots of different people and groups who, in specific contexts, have used this rhetoric to sketch out a vision of American democracy or national identity that does certain kinds of work for them in certain times and places. And so, in that sense, the book really complexifies what can sometimes seem like a very unitary story of American civil religion during and after the Second World War. There's often a singularity to the civil religion frame that this book seeks to escape or challenge. In so doing, it invites its readers to think in new ways about how American democracy and national identity have been constructed in the past and present and how they might be imagined in the future.
HDS: You write about how the term Judeo-Christian has its own genealogy. Could you expand on that?
HG: The term itself does appear throughout the nineteenth century—I mean, it's very old, and it's by no means an exclusively American term. It's been used in many other national contexts and languages, but not before 1930 for the religio-political purposes with which we now tend to associate it.
For my purposes, the decision to focus this book on the use of “Judeo-Christian” as a modifier for American identity or democracy means that the story gains traction starting in the early 1930s. And the context for that development is the rise of totalitarian regimes around the globe. It's in the context of talking about forms of government and nationalism that this term first gets used to describe American democracy and national identity, if initially with some hesitation and not very widely until the late 1930s.
One key context for the term’s early use is actually making the case for intervention in the Second World War. And it's the crisis unfolding in Europe that puts a figure like Reinhold Niebuhr at the center of the terminological project of constructing this discourse despite his own misgivings about the idolatry of self-description. At the same time, there are many Jewish Americans who began to use the term “Judeo-Christian,” hesitatingly but with a sense of urgency.
Interestingly, someone like the Jewish leader Stephen Wise, another very strong supporter of intervention, stopped using the term as soon as the U.S. entered the war. So that tells us, I think, something about how the term itself, for Jewish Americans, was a double-edged sword, just as it was for someone with Niebuhr’s deep concern about the pitfalls of religious nationalism.
For Jews, in particular, the term was challenging. Even as it brokered inclusion, it had roots in supersessionist ideas of Judaism as this dead root of the flourishing Christian branch, so there was danger associated with using the term and Jews took care to mobilize it selectively. But there was also danger associated with not using the term, as when trying to make the case for intervention to stop Hitler.
Writing this book taught me to be a collector and analyst of all of the term’s appearances without becoming desensitized to the absences that actually help to explain its logic. So it's not just a matter of recounting where the term appears, but also asking how frequently it appears, and when and where it stops appearing or remains absent. Over time, I started to realize that this book is actually about both the presences and the absences of Judeo-Christian discourse. You have to look at both of these dimensions in order to get a full sense of the term’s logics or develop a really sound hypothesis about what might be going on in any particular context.
HDS: The introduction of the book touches on the themes of inclusivity and universality in constructing national identity. You wrote, “One person's dream typically turns out to be another person's nightmare. To the extent that democratic visions take concrete form, they almost always produce winners and losers." Who are some of the winners and losers in the ways that the concept of Judeo-Christianity has been constructed?
HG: I do think that the overarching preoccupation of this book is the question of whether identity formation always, somehow, involves exclusion—whether the quest to say who we are is, in part, whether implicitly or explicitly, involves stating who we're not. The co-construction of selves in relation to others poses profound ethical questions, foremost among them, how we can have healthy identity formation in a pluralistic democracy, or in our private lives, while, at the same time, remaining truly open to the idea that others are not like us in ways that are possibly very good and valuable.
So in this book, I think the important thing to understand is that from the earliest point in America’s Judeo-Christian discourse, tensions emerge that actually mirror many of the dynamics we see in the culture wars today. As the book demonstrates, these dynamics revolve around deeply seated and longstanding questions about American democracy and national identity that are as alive for many Americans today as they were in the 1930s and 1940s.
Whether you endorse a tightly bounded, exceptionalist orientation toward the idea that America is a Judeo-Christian nation, or alternately, whether the term Judeo-Christian seems outdated or serves a placeholder for pluralism or secularism in your mind, these ways of thinking have conceptual histories of their own.
These days, I think what we see, and really have seen since the advent of multiculturalism in the 1970s and 1980s, is that for most people on the left who are liberal or progressive, the term is of very limited use, because it simply doesn't do justice to the range of America’s diversity, religious and otherwise, nor to the range of ways in which a person's traditions can bear on their understanding of democracy.
So it's a term that's become more and more closely associated with the right and with the kinds of claims that we see most clearly represented by someone like a William Barr, Steve Bannon, or Ben Shapiro, who seek to defend a Judeo-Christian West they see as under assault. But it's certainly a term that has a long history and has shaped foreign policy and has had—and continues to have—a real impact on the way that American prerogatives and values and policies have been translated and enacted around the globe. For this reason, I think the book has the ability to inform a lot of different kinds of work in many different fields.
HDS: What do you hope readers of this book will gain in terms of their understanding of contemporary political discourse?
HG: It seems to me that, whenever you have culture wars ongoing, people often talk past one another. And part of the hope of giving us the tools to understand the different resonances of Judeo-Christian discourse and its long history in American politics is to suggest that the stakes are now too high for us to continue in a state of political deadlock.
Part of the reason that we don't think more creatively about our current impasse is that we haven't actually recognized how much we’re caught up in rote language habits that often conceal deeper issues that necessitate new words. But culture war discourses tend to be so hot and fiery that it's hard to understand what's really going on.
So my hope, in part, is that this book will create more light and less heat, insofar as it'll give us the tools to either find a way to talk through these issues, or around them in more meaningful ways, or to actively resolve them and chart new paths forward.
Although some equate historicizing a term with deconstructing it and others with reifying it, I didn't write this book in an effort to either eradicate or defend Judeo-Christian discourse. I wrote this book primarily to unpack the term and thereby free it from the artificial unity often implied by the civil religion and culture wars lenses through which we tend to view it.
This is a book where any person who has ever heard Judeo-Christian terminology used by a presidential candidate and wondered what that meant, if they're willing to sit down and give it some time, can come away with a much richer understanding of a pivotal part of America’s political vocabulary.
When I look at the current situation in American politics, I see, in part, a welter of competing conservatives who seek to use Judeo-Christian terminology for the purpose of arguing that there's a crisis and a need to defend the Judeo-Christian West. There's not really any foreseeable future that I can imagine where this term isn't going to be part of the conversation that we're having at the national level over the next year as the 2020 elections approach. There’s a sense, particularly on the right, of a global crisis, a widespread anxiety around cultural crisis that could be linked to one of a million issues, but where the defense of the Judeo-Christian West is posited as the answer.
HDS: This past fall semester you taught a course entitled “‘Judeo-Christian’ Culture Wars, Then and Now.” What was it like to engage with students on this topic after so much research and writing?
HG: It was fascinating, to be honest. One of my former students actually suggested that I teach this course. I was off to the races with other things and wanted to move on and she said, “No, it would really be interesting to sit down with HDS students and look at some of the scholarship that you're building on, and think it through now that the book is done.” That instinct turned out to be spot on, despite the fact that I initially resisted it.
The course was surprising to me in so many ways. I feel like I understand my own book so much better. It's been exciting to talk with students about how they can develop research papers in relation to this work and the questions that it raises, especially some of the things it only hints at or leaves unanswered.
I do think that the greatest strength of the course was that it drew a very diverse group of students coming from a lot of different perspectives who really thought outside the box about Judeo-Christian terminology.
We had a fellow from the Harvard Kennedy School, two auditors with fascinating life experiences, an undergraduate thesis writer, and a lively and generationally diverse group of HDS students. It was just an incredibly thoughtful group and a very straight-shooting group.
So there was a lot of deep reflection about what's going on with all of this history and how it relates to what’s happening in the present. It was a deep dive, in that sense, one from which I learned a great deal.
HDS: How did your dissertation work in history at Berkeley orient you towards questions about religion and political culture?
HG: I originally went to graduate school thinking I would study nineteenth-century Congregationalist missionaries to the Cherokee. But when I got to Berkeley, I found myself fascinated by the books I was reading about the Cold War—in particular, a book by Elaine Tyler May called Homeward Bound. There was just something so evocative about the 1950s. It was a puzzle that I simply couldn't look away from.
So I ended up shifting my focus to contemporary religion in the era of the Second World War and postwar years, which turns out to be the high point of the construction of American civil religion. The 1950s religious revival remains the apex of American religiosity in terms of polling data, and it's a fascinating moment for thinking about the world we live in now and where things are going from here.
HDS: In 2012, you published an article on the topic. At what point did you realize this would become a book-length project?
HG: Well, I had an interest in these intersecting characters, Will Herberg, the Jewish theologian and sociologist, John Courtney Murray, the Catholic theologian, and then Reinhold Niebuhr and his brother, H. Richard Niebuhr. So, originally, I was interested in these characters and their conversations with one another.
Then over time, I realized that what was at stake for each of these figures centered around a wider conversation about the meaning of the term Judeo-Christian. They were all moving in the direction of constructing a sense of what faith for democracy would look like in the aftermath of the Second World War. At that point, Americans were thinking about democracy in relation to totalitarian enemies. So fascism and communism were on their minds as they were imagining what democracy entailed. But they were also coming to a period of the nation's history when they were making sense of the demographic changes that had happened between the 1880s and the 1920s in terms of reconfiguring a very highly Protestant population into a truly tri-faith population of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.
So gradually, I realized that their attempts to talk to one another created certain kinds of new linguistic opportunities and dissonances. That's when I started to see that it was actually the language of Judeo-Christianity that I was most interested in. This turns out to be one of the more innovative things about this book—namely, that it takes, as its object, a religio-political discourse. I find this a fascinating vantage point from which to survey the history of religion and politics in the modern United States.
—by Emily Farnsworth, HDS correspondent