The phrase “Judeo-Christian” – as in, “America is based on Judeo-Christian values” – is a strange beast. Given the not insignificant and often fatal tension between Jews and Christians over 2,000 years over matters of doctrine and belief, what does it mean to meld Judaism and Christianity into a common concept? When and why would one do this?

According to Adam Kirsch in his recent review in Tablet Magazine, this is precisely the question that Kevin M. Schultz tries to answer in his book, Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held America to Its Protestant Promise (Oxford). The answer Schultz supplies, according to Kirsch (I have not yet seen the book), is quite simple: “The change came about in the 1930s and 1940s, thanks primarily to the concerted effort of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, a lobbying and educational group founded in 1927.” Schultz tells the story of the NCCJ and its (largely successful) mission to forge a common language in America between Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. The argument is certainly plausible, particularly during World War II and the post-war period. It fits neatly into the narrative of the development of the multi-cultural melting pot that was America in the post-war period.

A very quick look at the quantitative data for the use of the term “Judeo-Christian” in all English books contained by Google from 1890-1900, though, at least suggests a more complex story. Take a look at the plot produced by the Google Ngram Viewer, available here (the picture above is a thumbnail). The first use of the term appears around 1900 and lasts about five years. This would accord with the coining of the term and a brief period of popularity. The second bump, of about the same scale, occurs from about 1945-1960 (with a weird dip in the middle) – this is the story that Schultz tells. To my mind, though, the real story occurs post-1960, when the slope of the curve increases dramatically. The NCCJ’s work may have been reflected in all kinds of ways, but not really in published discourse.

The dramatic increase in the use of “Judeo-Christian” seems to buck against the replacement in America of the image of the “melting pot” with that of “multiculturalism” or the “mosaic” as the governing metaphor in America of cultural relationships. (This is dramatically illustrated here.) Jews and Christians – all of them – are now lumped into one category, perhaps in recent years, as Kirsch might suggest (I am stretching his words here) to contrast America with Islamic civilization or the like – and this is before 9/11.

Kirsch, and Schultz in his telling, seem to like the concept of “Judeo-Christian”, which shows a nice, benevolent ecumenicalism. Others, such as David Novak and Jon Levenson, have emphasized its negative side: it waters down Jewish and Christian distinctiveness into a pool of anodyne platitudes. Personally, the term makes me uneasy for similar reasons. Be that as it may, though, there is a rich and complex cultural history to be told through the lens of the phrase “Judeo-Christian.”