Our Judeo-Pagan Heritage, Part 1

by David Oates

U.S. Capitol East Facade Washington, DC.

Once again, wilted evergreen trees are appearing on city streets on trash day, with remorseful hints of tinsel and that gritty feeling of morning-after. And we are reminded that the mightiest of all our mongrel holidays has once again had its way with us.

Though Christmas is of course the master-holiday of the (mostly) (or at least somewhat) Christian West, it has long showcased the curious persistence of non-Christian and pre-Christian ways. Christmas trees and mistletoe ­­­­are holdovers from the forest-worshipping northern Europeans. There’s literally nothing Christian about them. When we welcome “Yuletide” we’re unwittingly celebrating a pagan festival –Yule from the Anglo-Saxon iul or giul ( and behind that from the Old Norse jol)  having been the winter solstice celebration of Druids and Vikings which our Christmas has, um, replaced. Or continued.

So the way we celebrate Christmas offers a fine meditation on the empty fantasy of purity, which plays almost no role in history as actually lived. Heathen traditions and pagan symbols: we just can’t quit you! It’s been on my mind lately because, on some rather more serious fronts of the culture wars, the Judeo-Christian Tradition has once again been trotted out to do battle, like some creaky, rusty old Crusader not allowed to go to a decent rest.

Last fall the Republican Party had a tussle with itself over the possibility of granting a sliver of recognition to LGBTQ folks. The national Republican chairperson Ronna McDaniel had evidently done some fundraising outreach to the gays, and this upset the state party chairperson of Oklahoma, who feared that the foundations of America were thus being eroded.   He reasoned (not exactly originally) that religious freedom is “flat-out incompatible with the pillars of the LGBT movement” before going on to solicit donations to

 “clear the way of those who are either too incompetent or too selfish to actually defend liberty and our Judeo-Christian founding.”

And there’s the crux: that storied “Judeo-Christian” heritage. As I survey my country of origin, I see that indeed this phrase is too narrow by half to actually represent who America was at its founding or is at this very moment. For we – the West — have always been a glorious hybrid, a mashup of Islamic and Hindu and Jewish and ancient Greek and Roman contributions – pagans, heathens, or nonbelievers all – with an especially overlooked abundance from our indigenous forebears on this continent as well.

Ours is the Judeo-Pagan Tradition, from top to bottom.

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SYNONYMY: The language of righteous superiority can turn into a sort of puddle of promiscuous denunciation (have you ever wondered at the difference between a heathen and a pagan?). So to clarify:

Heathen derives, as you might guess, from the word “heath,” meaning brushlands such as one would encounter in places furthest from civilization. In Britain one thinks of the West Country heath, the Scottish heath. (Usually singular, I believe.) The Oxford English Dictionary points out that at some early historical stages, “Christianity became the religion of the towns, while the ancient deities were still retained in rural districts.” The word comes into English from Germanic sources. Heathen has come to mean unChristianized peoples in remote places.

Pagan originates in the same logic – paganus referring to “a villager, a rustic” – and was in earlier times used synonymously with heathen. But (because of its Latin origin?) pagan has drifted over time to refer “specifically to a follower of the Greek and Roman and similar polytheistic religions of ancient times before…Christianization” (according to my Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms). Pagan is used especially about nonChristians of the remote and Classical past. So pagan now usually carries a temporal emphasis, heathen a geographical one.

(However, there could be differences among the various religious dialects: I know from experience that Baptists pray to bring the gospel to the heathens, while Catholic Sisters, I have been told more than once, exhort children to pray for the pagan babies.)

I’m sticking with “Judeo-Pagan” for reasons of sound and conciseness. Though “Judeo-Heathen” runs a little wild in the imagination, too!

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Though the argument for renaming our Judeo-Pagan Tradition could apply to all of “western” or European culture, it’s most telling to focus it on America, my egregious, glorious homeland, where you’ll see gleaming white Roman domes and columns dominating our national Capitol, and many state capitols as well. (Thomas Jefferson is behind this national habit, reflecting his admiration of the Roman republic and its institutions of shared power.) And in viewing these monuments, you would hear Greek and Roman words and ideas of that have defined our very nation. Pagan words and ideas.

I’ve been exploring a wonderful book (stupendous is the word I really have in mind) which details the ways that knowledge of the classical ancients shaped the thinking of the American founders – “Founders” we are apt to say, enshrining them in immobility. But in fact they were lithe and energetic thinkers, eager to learn how one creates and sustains a government that is not of kings and priests and aristocrats, but of the people (Greek: demos), a government that might be a public possession (Latin: res publica), not a private holding of armed wealth and inherited privilege.

I am referring to Thomas E. Ricks’ 2020 book First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country. It’s a detailed exploration, dense with quotations from private letters, military communiques, student reading lists at the little colonial colleges the founders attended, and public declarations made from office. Ricks shows that knowledge of the Classical past was not the peripheral habit of a few scholars, but rather was central to the thinking of the entire generation of the Founders:

“the thoughts and stories of the ancient Greeks and Romans stood front and center in American political and intellectual life as the founders grappled with the questions of how to gain independence and then how to form a new nation.”

The book could be summed up as noting, broadly, two ways that study of the ancient classics defined the Founders’ generation.

First is the way the example of the Romans created a widely accepted value system for men (sorry, males only) who wished to be thought worthy of leadership, or indeed to be thought of as proper men at all. Roman exemplars of stoic selflessness like Cato and Cincinnatus were not just known by antiquarians and scholars – they were part of everyday conversation. Because “classicism was the cultural context of upper-crust colonial America, acting in a Roman manner was the clearest way to rise.”

Statue of George Washington in the Capitol Rotunda

And of all the Founders, George Washington most vividly portrays this value system, which amounted to a lifelong training in achieving a certain marble-like dispassion and dutifulness.

“Washington’s work of a lifetime. . . was to discipline his turbulent emotions, build an image of lofty distance, and most of all, establish a reputation for valiant leadership, unselfish virtue, and unyielding honor. . . . Washington would spend decades in erecting and polishing that statue of himself.”

“Unselfish” here means public-spirited, not motivated by what the founders were likely to call “interest,” meaning self-interest.

Later, it is true, the idea of balancing self-interests and playing them off against one another – the famous “checks and balances” system – would come to prominence. But according to Ricks, far deeper and older habits of thought venerated principled public service built upon a moral foundation of unselfishness. In our age of undisguised greed and naked careerism, this feels so antique that it’s worth pausing over. In the year 1776, just months before the crucial break with Britain would be made, John Adams wrote:

“[P]ublic Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics. There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honour, Power, and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real Liberty.”

The contempt which present-day conservatives habitually show for those who serve in government is a repudiation of this core value of the Founders. Ronald Reagan’s famous (and oft repeated) campaign quip captured the dismissiveness:

You know what the most dreaded words in the English language are? I’m from the government, and I’m here to help! (Pause for laughter.)

From reading Hannah Arendt I learned to see how pernicious has been the bourgeois habit of valuing only the private life – as if only the seeking of personal comfort and wealth really counted, while all the realm of broader service remains strangely unseen – perhaps unseeable to those unaccustomed to thinking beyond the self. Arendt offers the contrast of ancient Greeks who valued the public life as, in fact, the arena of a wider, more noble self. Those who knew only hearth and home and purse were felt to be meagre indeed. Yet this private focus is unquestionably the predominant value system of conservative America today – usually sanctified under the name of “individualism.” Arendt sums it up (in The Human Condition):

“Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard [in the public sphere], even the greatest forces of intimate life. . . lead an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence unless and until they are transformed, deprivatized and deindividualized, as it were, into a shape to fit them for public appearance.”

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If the example of the Romans shaped this value system, it was the Greeks whose extensive record of small city-state democracies (repeatedly overturned by temporary tyrants) and confederations (prone to squabbling and break-up), whose example shaped the actual framing of our Constitution – the second main point of contact between colonial Americans and classical antiquity.

Ricks recounts the remarkable “multiyear” historical researches of James Madison towards this end, his “methodical study of ancient political systems, especially the histories of Greek republics.”

“In 1784, believing that the Articles of Confederation system was doomed, Madison began to contemplate the problems of ancient Greek confederacies. He had several questions on his mind. . . . What had brought down ancient republics? What made them so fragile?. . . Could American government be structured in a different way that would make it more sustainable?”

At that moment Thomas Jefferson was preparing to sail to Europe as a trade negotiator, so Madison appealed to his great friend to “ship to him books on the history of ancient systems of government, especially confederations,” as Ricks puts it. Meanwhile Madison set himself up in the library of his father’s house, a little thought factory where he labored for “months and months” reading the ancient records, collating what he saw, analyzing the problems of democracy. And Jefferson commenced sending him books by the trunk load, in the end around two hundred volumes.

When Madison emerges three years later to draft the constitution of the new nation, he is the man for the job. His biographer calls him “ the best-informed man in America on the principles of government.” The new constitution would be built upon a deep familiarity with the pagan democracies of Greece.

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Those who repeat the sacred phrase “our Judeo-Christian heritage” are often keen to attribute a unique Christian-ness to the founding of the United States. This is of course a brazen misreading of the facts.

For, alongside study of the pagan republics, the sure foundation of the American Revolution was the revolution in thought we call the Enlightenment. Which was undertaken explicitly against the claimed authority of “revealed religion.”

It is common for Americans to rather blur the various founding stories, the pious Pilgrims somehow imparting a solemn holiness to worldly men of a hundred and fifty years later, who in fact shared little indeed with their fundamentalist forebears. The Enlightenment which illuminated the Founders’ generation was explicitly a matter of reason and science as the source of knowledge, to replace dependence the words of scripture or the preachments of those who claimed to speak for god.

Ricks remarks that “Christianity simply did not loom as large in colonial America as it would a century later, or indeed does now in much of the United States.” Quoting historian Darren Staloff, he adds that “part of understanding the Enlightenment is seeing that to its thinkers, there was a ‘fundamental irrelevance of religious revelation to the great issues of public life.”

It is true that some of the celebrated figures of the history of science were Christian believers – Newton himself the famous example. (And others, like Laplace…not so much.) But in the natural-science tradition of their times, many were believers that the Christian and Jewish God was the Creator of this world; and that to study the Creation was to come closer to the Creator – “to think God’s thoughts after Him” as the famous saying went. They went boldly into the natural world, not fearing to cross some verse or some angry theologian. The world itself spoke, and they listened. That was, you could say, their piety.

It is telling to recall that the Enlightenment was founded upon the prestige of the great history of astronomy, its long climb towards factual, mathematically supported truth – Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and finally the towering example of Newton. They had figured out the cosmos! These achievements empowered Enlightenment thinkers with confidence to assert that observation and reason, not the words of ancient scriptures, must be the basis for modern society.

And yet upon what was this centuries-long examination of the nature of the cosmos built? Classical Greek mathematics and astronomy. Islamic scholars. Hindu mathematicians. Without the pagans as foundational partners, there could have been no Enlightenment.

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In the next installment of this two-part essay, the researches and discoveries of ancient pagans and others from outside the pale of “the Judeo-Christian tradition” will be counted and celebrated for their role in the millennia-long quest to understand nature on its own terms – that is, on the basis of observable fact. And in a contemporary sidebar, we’ll see how the very word “nature” is weaponized against cultural targets in a mind-scrambling yet often hidden semantic abuse.

In the enlightening west, the contributions of heathens and pagans combine with those of  the faithful and the unfaithful, scientists and philosophers. It is this zesty, cosmopolitan, worldly inclusiveness which creates the American Revolution and the Constitution of the United States.

And, as promised, the crucial contribution of some notable New World “heathens” will also make its appearance in Part II of this essay. And the result – both the America we live in and the appeal of democracy that has reached right around the world – will be understood at last as our Judeo-Pagan Heritage.