K. Healan Gaston
The terms “Judeo-Christian” and “Abrahamic” are collective religious descriptors that identify points of theological, historical, and ethical commonality between the world’s largest monotheistic religious traditions. “Judeo-Christian” refers to the ground shared by Judaism and Christianity; “Abrahamic” designates elements common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These terms have most often appeared in three contexts. First, scholars of religion have used them for technical, descriptive purposes, to denote the aforementioned religious traditions and the commitments they share. Second, interfaith advocates have employed the terms to identify the particular ecumenical task of cultivating harmonious relations between these three traditions. Finally, in wider public discourses, they have served as descriptors of the religious character of American culture, democracy, and/or national identity. Over time, the terms “Judeo-Christian” and “Abrahamic” have each become important ways of talking about the contributions of the world’s largest monotheistic religions to politics and culture in the United States.
However, in American public discourse, “Judeo-Christian” formulations have thus far demonstrated greater reach than “Abrahamic” ones. Between roughly World War II and the mid-1970s, when the United States rose to superpower status and assumed the helm of the Western civilizational project, the idea of America as, in various senses, a Judeo-Christian nation became commonplace. But unlike “Judeo-Christian,” which maps onto a discrete geographical region and a long-standing cultural project, “Abrahamic” tends to be used more narrowly to indicate a set of historically meaningful but geographically diffuse relationships that have become the subject of scholarly and ecumenical concern. Moreover, “Judeo-Christian” emerged in the wake of a massive influx of Jewish and Catholic immigrants between 1880 and 1920 that reshaped the American religious landscape. “Abrahamic” has likewise become more widespread since the immigration reforms of the mid-1960s, which began to bring greater numbers of Muslim immigrants to America’s shores. But the growing embrace of multiculturalism has largely militated against the widespread use of “Abrahamic” as a descriptor of American identity. Proponents and opponents of these terms have vigorously debated their strengths and weaknesses, their uses and abuses. Yet, despite the controversies over their meaning and relevance, “Judeo-Christian” and “Abrahamic” remain important ways of describing aspects of the American landscape in a multireligious age.
Historians most often use the term primitivism to refer to the attempt to reconstruct a religious tradition’s original theology, structure, or beliefs. Primitivists believe that the earliest expressions of the faith are the most efficacious, powerful, and valid, and hence they attempt to recapture them in as complete a form as it is possible for them to imagine. Thus, they frequently dissent from established religious traditions, believing that those constructed under the primitive impulse achieve superior purity. Of course, these attempts are normally incomplete or inaccurate, reflecting the desires or needs of the group doing the restoring more than the original version of whatever faith is involved.
Primitivism has taken on a number of forms throughout American history. This essay follows a chronological approach, but uses Richard Hughes’s designations of “ethical,” “ecclesiastical,” and “experiential” primitivism to distinguish among various movements and provide some order to the narrative. These are common impulses in American religion, particularly in the years immediately following the American Revolution commonly called the Second Great Awakening. The language of primitivism has provided Americans with the weight of historical authority, often invoked to overturn established hierarchies and replace them with forms of religious practice deemed, alternately, more democratic, more biblical, more conducive to religious experience, or more ethically demanding. Whatever the case, primitivism has spoken to the American impulse toward reform, resistance to institution, and individual capacity.