The United States of America is the only country in history to have defined itself as Judeo-Christian. While the Western world has consisted of many Christian countries and consists today of many secular countries, only America has called itself Judeo-Christian. America is also unique in that it has always combined secular government with a society based on religious values.
But what does "Judeo-Christian" mean? We need to know. Along with the belief in liberty -- as opposed to, for example, the European belief in equality, the Muslim belief in theocracy, and the Eastern belief in social conformity -- Judeo-Christian values are what distinguish America from all other countries. That is why American coins feature these two messages: "In God we trust" and "Liberty."
Yet, for all its importance and its repeated mention, the term is not widely understood. It urgently needs to be because it is under ferocious assault, and if we do not understand it, we will be unable to defend it. And if we cannot defend it, America will become as amoral as France, Germany, Russia, et al.
First, Judeo-Christian America has differed from Christian countries in Europe in at least two important ways. One is that the Christians who founded America saw themselves as heirs to the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, as much as to the New. And even more importantly, they strongly identified with the Jews.
For example, Thomas Jefferson wanted the design of the seal of the United States to depict the Jews leaving Egypt. Just as the Hebrews left Egypt and its values, Americans left Europe and its values (if only those who admire Jefferson would continue to take his advice).
Founders and other early Americans probably studied Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, at least as much as Greek, the language of the New. Yale, founded in 1701, adopted a Hebrew insignia, and Hebrew was compulsory at Harvard until 1787. The words on the Liberty Bell, "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land . . . ," are from the Torah. Vast numbers of Americans took Hebrew names -- like Benjamin Franklin and Cotton Mather (kattan in Hebrew means "little one" or "younger").
The consequences included a strong Old Testament view of the world -- meaning, in part, a strong sense of fighting for earthly justice, an emphasis on laws, a belief in a judging, as well as a loving and forgiving, God, and a belief in the chosenness of the Jews which America identified with.
The significance of this belief in American chosenness cannot be overstated.
It accounts for the mission that Americans have uniquely felt called to -- to spread liberty in the world.
Dennis Prager is a SRN radio show host, contributing columnist for Townhall.com and author of his newest book, “The Ten Commandments: Still the Best Moral Code.”