Thou shalt not horse-trade the Judeo-Christian Tradition

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Israelites.jpgRep. Steve King (Eccentric R-Iowa), cast the lone vote against putting a plaque in the new Capitol Visitors Center noting the use of slave labor in Capitol’s construction. Why? Because, it seems, Democrats obtained otherwise unanimous Republican support for the plaque in exchange for agreeing to depict “In God We Trust” in the Visitors Center as well. As King put it:

Our Judeo-Christian heritage is an essential foundation stone of our
great nation and should not be held hostage to yet another effort to
place guilt on future Americans for the sins of some of their
ancestors. Christian abolitionists gave their lives by the hundreds of
thousands to end slavery. Great American leaders like Dr. Martin Luther
King, Jr. worshipped God just as our Founding Fathers did. We must
never forget this important aspect of our heritage or use it as a
political bargaining chip.

“Judeo-Christian” is the great religious shibboleth of post-World War II American religion. I (modestly) should know, because I wrote the book on it–well, the article anyway: “Notes on the Judeo-Christian Tradition in America,” American Quarterly, 1984. It came into use during the war as a way of including Jews in the American religious thing, and after the war was on the tongues of politicians from Dwight Eisenhower on down. In that sense, it is of a piece with “In God We Trust,” which became the national motto in the same era. More recently, it has come to be the special province of religious conservatives like Rep. King, while those more inclusively inclined reach for terms like Abrahamic (i.e. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim).

To the extent that “Judeo-Christian” signifies actual religious history, it surely includes the species of slave labor that went into building the pyramids, or whatever it was that the Egyptians put the resident Israelites to work building–and the great importance attached to remembering that hard labor prior to the Exodus.  Which stood as the model of liberation for African-American slaves, as in:

When Israel was in Egypt land,
Let My People Go!
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
Let My People Go!

In that sense, the plaque should be seen as keeping faith with our Judeo-Christian heritage, no Rep. King?