Can Cut Flowers Take Root Again?: The Forsaken Roots of our American Republic

The battle between the right and the left, conservatives and liberals, the holders of Judeo-Christian values and the progressives seems to be escalating by the day. The skirmishes of the culture wars seem to break out anew especially over political issues and with changes in administration. The Obama to Trump transition has brought the divide in values and worldviews in our nation into stark relief.

But just what are Judeo-Christian values? It’s easy to throw around the term. But what does it mean and why do we even use it? I can still remember being challenged some years ago by a Rabbi who asked, “Have you ever seen a Judeo-Christian?” He thought he had me in a “got you” moment. But I responded to his surprise by saying, “Yes, I’ve known many. Messianic Christians especially identify themselves as Jewish and Christian and thus ‘Judeo-Christian’.”

But the issue here is not what makes a Messianic Christian. The question is how did we begin to use the phrase “Judeo-Christian” and what does it really mean? While my answer here is not scientific or historically established, it does represent a potential answer to an important question.

First, the phrase Judo-Christian developed in part because of the recognition of the growing pluralism in American religious culture. The earliest colonies were established by those in the general Protestant tradition. This gave birth to what was once known as the WASP’s—White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. But with the growing immigration of Europeans from the Catholic tradition, America needed a broader term to identify itself. It was no longer Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. The term that seemed to work was Christian America. This term conveniently bridged the gap between Protestants and Catholics as both could in good conscience call themselves American Christians. This reality led some to speak of America as “a nation with the soul of a church.”

But as America began to experience the immigration of many from the various Jewish traditions along with the development of strong Jewish scholars, leaders and philanthropists, the term Christian America, seemed prejudicial. Around the same time, the term “white” also seemed to become inappropriate with the challenges of addressing racial inequality for the growing American Black and Hispanic populations. America was no longer distinctively white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant and then not even clearly Christian.

Around the time of the Reagan era, the term Judeo-Christian values became fashionable. It was recognized as a useful cultural term because in the midst of the pluralizing changes in America, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, blacks, whites and Hispanics all had something in common. They were bound in a social fabric in spite of their differences. The nation had a working pluralism by the expression of Judeo-Christian values—the Ten Commandments.

This was recognized by Will Herberg in his 1955 classic Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology. By appealing to America’s shared value structure in the midst of growing diversity, he highlighted the common social contract that could keep an increasingly diverse America together. Herberg argued that America’s various ethnic cultures created by its steady stream of immigration were especially manifested in religious movements and institutions. Herberg’s background is significant for understanding his work. He was a son of a secular Jewish family, an early member of the Communist Party in the USA, who later rejected Marxism to become a religious conservative. His writings were recognized by leading conservatives such as Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley, Jr.

The phrase “cut flower culture” is attributed to Herberg. This metaphor reminds that cut flowers are both attractive and destined to perish quickly. This is because cut flowers are separated from their roots. Without roots, the lovely cut flowers will perish. So by analogy, a culture cut from its roots is destined to perish regardless of how attractive the cultural values are that are being celebrated. This, then, describes where America is today with its secular culture that has uprooted our lives and institutions from the previous spiritual roots that caused us to “flourish”. With the abandonment of the Ten Comandments in America by both secular and atheistic groups, and aided as well by Muslim immigration that insists that it owns no more than seven of the Ten Commandments, America is facing a time of cultural spiritual rootlessness.

Can America long survive without being re-grounded upon our historic Judeo-Christian roots defined by the Ten Commandments? Herberg wrote in Judaism and Modern Man,

The attempt made in recent decades by secularist thinkers to disengage the moral principles of western civilization from their scripturally based religious context, in the assurance that they could live a life of their own as “humanistic” ethics, has resulted in our “cut flower culture.” Cut flowers retain their original beauty and fragrance, but only so long as they retain the vitality that they have drawn from their now-severed roots; after that is exhausted, they wither and die. So with freedom, brotherhood, justice, and personal dignity — the values that form the moral foundation of our civilization. Without the life-giving power of the faith out of which they have sprung, they possess neither meaning nor vitality.

So what are the historic spiritual roots that need to be rediscovered in America for our Spiritual survival? What is the essence of Judeo-Christian values? They begin with God. Our national motto still points the way: In God We Trust. Is this still true? The first four commandments tell us our duty to worship and honor God. For our Founders, God existed. He is referred to four times in the Declaration of Independence.

Those Judeo-Christian values go on in the last six of the Ten Commandments to tell us of what we affirm when we conclude the American Pledge of Allegiance—“with liberty and justice for all”. The last six commandments remind us of the principles that foster liberty and preserve justice: the duty to honor legitimate authority, the right to property, the preciousness of the family, the right to life, the necessity of truth in the courts and beyond and the resistance of a spirit of jealousy that seeks to harm our neighbor in his success.

Without these great Judeo-Christian values, it is unlikely that America as a republic can long endure. As has been attributed to Karl Marx, “Take away a nation’s roots, and like a tree, it can easily be moved. Perhaps the most patriotic thing all of us can do to preserve what Washington called “America’s experiment in the republican form of government” is to read the Ten Commandments, consider them well, and seek to live them for the glory of God and for the good of our neighbors. This is what it really means to have Judeo-Christian values.

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