Last week, the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights issued its draft report on the global status of human rights. The report, which resulted from a year of cerebral discussions with a carefully curated set of scholars and activists, brought the conversation back to where it started: an impassioned celebration of religious freedom as the most important human right. Anticipating criticisms of advancing a highly selective, conservative-Christian reading of human rights, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has defended the focus on religious freedom as a distinctively American birthright now applicable to all manner of “faith traditions.” In fact, he argues, the original American human-rights vision was inspired equally by another non-Christian religion, Judaism. The report, he has said, will “return America’s understanding of human rights … back to the fundamental moorings of the Judeo-Christian tradition on which this country was founded.” Except that tradition never existed.
The “Judeo-Christian tradition” was one of 20th-century America’s greatest political inventions. An ecumenical marketing meme for combatting godless communism, the catchphrase long did the work of animating American conservatives in the Cold War battle. For a brief time, canny liberals also embraced the phrase as a rhetorical pathway of inclusion into postwar American democracy for Jews, Catholics, and Black Americans. In a world divided by totalitarianism abroad and racial segregation at home, the notion of a shared American religious heritage promised racial healing and national unity.