The European myth of Judeo-Christian Values

, by Rebecca Wenmoth

The European myth of Judeo-Christian Values
John Althouse Cohen, flickr. The Virgin Mary, framed by a star of David in the French Père-Lachaise Cemetery.

After millenials of systemic antisemitism, why is Europe suddenly and firmly upholding its Judeo - as much as - Christian inheritance? Rebecca Wenmoth untangles this contradicting rationale, which seems to be revealing more exclusive than inclusive tendencies for the old, thus not ultimately wiser, continent...

In the European Union, only Denmark and Greece have Christianity as the official state religion, all the others being officially or unofficially secular. Yet many of these countries, as well as the European Union itself, make references to Judeo-Christian values in constitutions, laws, politicians’ comments and debates. Even more confusingly, some countries use these Judeo-Christian values as a basis for the definition of their secularism.

The history of Jews in Europe, of course, has not been tranquil, leading to criticism about the term ‘Judeo-christian’ and how it is used. It appears it has resurfaced in recent times (the last 20 years) to exclude Muslims from the European community, rather than simply celebrating these ‘roots’ or values. Where once politicians (especially right-wing politicians) were openly antisemitic, now they have co-opted their interpretations of Judaism as part of European identity, and demonising Muslims has become the order of the day.

What is the history of the term ‘Judeo-Christian’?

The term ‘Judeo-Christian’ was first used early in the 19th century, in a theological sense, and during the rise of fascism in the 1930’s and 40’s, it was used to combat fascists’ co-opting of ‘Christian values’, and to unite Christians and Jews that opposed fascism. However, at some point since the 1980s, it has beencome to be used to refer to Europe’s Judeo-Christian ‘values’, ‘tradition’ or ‘heritage’. Chancellor Helmut Kohl, for example, used the term in 1990 to denote Europe’s universal values, in the context of being only a few months away from German reunification. One could draw the conclusion that it was employed on that occasion in an effort to be inclusive, and to “build bridges” between Germans and, more broadly, Europeans. However, there are a worrying amount of examples where it appears to be used more for exclusion than inclusion.

European values that exclude

The majority of European states, as well as the European Union itself, are secular. Yet many of these countries make reference to Judeo-Christian values when referring to their secularism. How can secularism be Judeo-Christian? France, for example, passed a notorious law banning religious symbols (hijabs, kippahs, crosses, Sikh turbans, stars of David, etc) in government buildings (including public schools) which was based on a report madecommissioned by the government in 2003 [1]. This report stressed the importance of secularism, but linked it to a Judeo-Christian ‘legacy’, saying secularism allowed itthis legacy to ‘find its place’. In 2010, Maria Böhmer the Minister of State in Germany, another secular state, stated in parliament that Judeo-Christian tradition was and still is the foundation of German values and its Constitution. In the context of the European Union, it was suggested in 2003 that ‘Judeo-Christian’ should be included in the Constitution of the European Parliament, and again in 2007 in the Treaty of Lisbon. Neither of these attempts were successful, but among those in favour were Spanish and Italian politicians, and Angela Merkel, who promised the Pope himself to use her influence to ensure a reference to God and Christianity in the treaty. Evidently, there is a significant fixation on basing Europe and its member states’ secular identity on Judeo-Christianity. Some theorists, such as Talal Asad, use this idea to argue that many nations’ identities are built on exclusion. In order to feel ‘French’, or ‘German’, or ‘European’, we must be united by shared values. And if those values are defined by Judeo-Christianity, anyone who is not from those religions cannot belong.

The concept unravels…

Using Judeo-Christianity as a basis for European secular identity begins to fall apart under closer inspection. For one thing, many of those who claim Europe’s heritage is ‘Judeo-Christian’ explain that the European value system is based on humanist Enlightenment teachings of tolerance, secularism, democracy and reason, and that the Enlightenment was born out of Christian society and its thinkers. Since Christianity itself was born of Judaism, the ‘logic’ supposedly follows that Judaism led to Christianity which led to the Enlightenment which in its turn led to modern European values. However, as sociologist Amanda Kluveld points out, Christianity is antithetical to Enlightenment philosophy since the latter rejected political repression, intolerance and persecution of scientific practices (such as medical dissection), and many saw Christianity as one of the principle causes of these evils. Furthermore, if Europe genuinely was to base its values on Enlightenment thought, we would not imply that anyone or any society whose heritage is based on another religion or philosophy is antidemocratic, intolerant or inhumane. Yet this is often what proponents of ‘Judeo-Christian values’ often hint at. Critically, the ‘Judeo-Christian’ tradition that claims to include Jews is deafeningly silent on Europe’s continuing hostility towards Jews. While some see the inclusion of ‘Judeo-‘ as an apology for the Shoah, there is little mention of modern-day anti-semitism. France’s Jews, for example, are seeing an exodus to Israel after a rise in antisemitism (ranging from terrorism to harassment or discrimination), many saying they have given up hope that the French government will protect them. It is almost as though some politicians believe that the tokenism in the ‘Judeo-Christian’ signifier definitively excuses Europe’s role in the Holocaust and closes the case on antisemitism. “Job done”. Some of Europe’s Jews resent their lumping in with Christianity without being consulted, feeling ignored and patronised. English rabbi Jill Jacobs tweeted: “Much of “Judeo-Christian” tradition involves centuries of Christians trying to kill us. If you mean "not Muslim”, say it”.

The new Religious Enemy No.1

Finally, there is an insidious trend in the use of ‘Judeo-Christian’ to co-opt Judaism in hostility towards the growing number of Muslims in Europe (whether immigrants or citizens). A good example of this shift is in the far-right French political Le Pen family. Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the nationalist party le Front National, which enjoyed its greatest success in the 1980’s. During that time, Jean-Marie Le Pen was very openly anti-semitic, even denying the Holocaust several times, which is illegal in France, leading to a criminal conviction and a fine of 1.2 million francs (€183,200). Le Pen was fined again in 2005 and 2008, but this time for comments made about Muslims. His daughter, Marine Le Pen, who took over as head of the Front National (now called National Rally), echoed this move towards islamophobia when she claimed the National Front “is not the Jews’ enemy”. This is not to say, of course, that anti-semitism has decreased and that Jews are no longer maligned by the European political establishment. However, Europe’s politicians seem to have gotten hold offound a new Religious Enemy No.1, and seemappear to be prepared to use their bafflingly contradictory ‘Judeo-Christian secularism’ to exclude them. Examples of this hypocritical deployment of ‘secularism’ against Muslims (and, in some cases, against Jews as well) include laws targetting halal and kosher slaughter (the European Court upheld a law tightening regulation in Belgium, and it is completely banned in Slovenia), various panics over building mosques (Italy) and minarets (Switzerland and Austria), and niqab and burqa bans (France, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Bulgaria and Latvia).

In conclusion, while many European countries, as well as the European Union itself, have made various attempts to base a secular identity on the so-called “Judeo-Christian tradition” or “value-system”, it is apparent that this rationale is nothing more than a contradictory myth. Its use is hypocritical, disrespectful and dismissive of Jews, counter to the very Enlightenment philosophy it supposedly espouses and is frequently used to exclude and demonise Muslims as part of a broader shift from overt anti-semitism to overt islamophobia. How can we do better? Roberto Esposito suggests returning to the root of the Latin etymology for ‘community’ (communitas), which originally meant “the totality of persons united not by a ‘property’ but precisely by an obligation or a debt”. Instead of a heavily biased secular value system based on a past which excludes those who do not conform to such a heritage, the European Union and European countries could acknowledge their past intolerance and cruelty (not only the Holocaust but also colonial atrocities, slavery, religious persecution of all kinds, and so on) and be united by the obligation to include all those living in Europe and acknowledge the work still to be done.


Talal Asad, “Trying to Understand French Secularism”. Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World, 2011

Roberto Esposito. “Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community”, 2009. Perspectives on Jewish Texts and Contexts, Volume 4. ‘Is there a Judeo-Christian Tradition? A European Perspective’, 2016

Anya Topolski, ‘A Genealogy of the ‘Judeo-Christian’ Signifier: A Tale of Europe’s Identity Crisis’

Amanda Kluveld, ‘Secular, Superior and, Desperately Searching for Its Soul: The Confusing Political-Cultural References to a Judeo-Christian Europe in the Twenty- First Century’


[1Stasi, Bernard et al. “Commission de reflexion sur l’application du principe de laïcité dans la République”, 2003

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