Curriculum review: where did ‘Judeo-Christian’ come from?

Christopher Pyne says students need to be taught ‘the significance of Judeo-Christian values’ to Australia, but where in the discourse did ‘Judeo-Christian’ come from? AAP/Dave Hunt

Education minister Christopher Pyne has copped it from the Left with both barrels for demanding that the Australian education curriculum teach students “the significance of Judeo-Christian values to our institutions and way of life”. He did this in announcing his review into the national curriculum late last week.

Tasmanian education minister Nick McKim went so far as to accuse Pyne of launching a “brainwashing and propaganda mission”.

While admittedly I don’t teach high school students, if I did, I would get them to have a look at how Australia’s national commitment to Judeo-Christian values has evolved over the years, shaping our institutions and way of life. The best place to start would surely be the Australian parliamentary library website.

By simply typing “Judeo-Christian” into its wonderfully simple search tool, Australia’s youngsters will be no doubt regaled with stirring accounts of Australians founding a modern democracy on a shared commitment to a Judeo-Christian heritage, or valiantly fighting to defend Judeo-Christian values on the battlefield at Gallipoli.

The only problem is that they won’t. The term doesn’t even appear until 1974. Throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s it is used in only a handful of contexts without any apparent consistency in its meaning. In fact, the vast majority of the 855 results the search generates are dated from late 2001 onwards. Until September 11, it appears Australians didn’t give a fig about Judeo-Christian values.

The notion of a Judeo-Christian tradition is, in fact, borrowed from American public discourse. But even in the US, it is still a relatively recent idea. According to US researchers, the term only began to regularly appear during and after World War Two, when progressives sought an inclusive term that naturalised the incorporation of Jews into mainstream US society.

The political intent driving its use changed from one of inclusion to one of exclusion in the post-September 11 era, however, when it most often signified the perceived challenges of Islam and Muslims.

Even now, the term Judeo-Christian is used far more commonly in the US. As Monash academic Sue Collins has found, the term appeared 6418 times in North American newspapers between 2006 and 2013. By contrast, it was used only 765 times in all European newspapers, including the British print media, and 304 times in major Australian newspapers.

On close analysis of Australian use of the term, Collins finds that the “Judeo” element is merely tacked on for political expedience:

The term has become a kind of shield for undeclared conservative interests which really want to privilege, and actually mean, the Christian tradition, but are conscious this would be politically counter-productive.

Kevin Donnelly, the conservative commentator and researcher appointed to review the national education curriculum, is a man partial to the term Judeo-Christian. He is a vocal critic of educational strategies designed to help students appreciate that there are multiple valid worldviews and perspectives.

Donnelly makes no bones about which perspectives he deems invalid. In 2011, he argued that Christians and Muslims do not accept the same values and beliefs, and expressed concerns about a booklet written by academics to help Australian teachers include Muslim perspectives in the classroom. He was upset that the book did not convey:

…what some see as the inherently violent nature of the Koran, where devout Muslims are called on to carry out Jihad and to convert non-believers, and the destructive nature of what is termed dhimmis – where non-believers are forced to accept punitive taxation laws.

Christopher Pyne can dress it up in any way he likes, but the only historical significance Judeo-Christian values have in Australian public discourse is in post-9/11 conservative rhetoric.