This article appears in the Witness section of the Summer 2019 issue of the New Humanist. Subscribe today.

In April, the world watched as flames consumed Notre Dame, the 850-year-old cathedral in Paris. The fire broke out under the roof; the cathedral was undergoing structural work to repair years of damage from weather and pollution. In the hours it took to put out the blaze, the iconic spire fell and the roof was destroyed. The upper walls of the building were severely damaged, along with some works of art and religious relics, although many others were moved to safety early in the fire. The disaster was met with an outpouring of grief from people in France and around the world. Within a few days, over €1 billion had been raised to renovate Notre Dame – a reconstruction which is expected to take decades.

This expression of grief transcended the religiosity of the cathedral, which is an architectural wonder and cultural monument as well as a site of worship. Notre Dame is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site that spans the banks of the Seine in Paris.

It did not take long for the disaster to be politicised. As the fire blazed, the right-wing British commentator Katie Hopkins said it was “a terrifying manifestation of the truth of Judeo-Christian cultures [in] Western Europe. We are aflame. And powerless to quell the fire.” Polish president Andrzej Duda, who has been endorsed by far-right groups, called for a rebuilding of the cathedral as a symbolic reconstruction of Europe on its “real, historical, Judeo-Christian foundation”.

The term “Judeo-Christian” has long historic roots, and is said by some to form the basis of Western civilisation, invoking the shared values and connected fates of these two faiths. It references the fact that Christianity was derived from Judaism, and that both religions use the Torah. In the US in the mid-20th century, it became a shorthand for ethics such as the dignity of human life, common decency and support for traditional family values. Yet today it is most often used to draw a line between imagined Christian values and a perceived threat of Muslim immigration.

Several prominent Jewish commentators have pointed out that the term elides the fact that Jews have often experienced persecution in Christian-majority European countries. After Donald Trump used the term in 2017, Rabbi Jill Jacobs wrote on Twitter that “much of ‘Judeo-Christian’ tradition involves centuries of Christians trying to kill us,” adding, “if you mean ‘not Muslim’ say it.”

The description of the Notre Dame fire as an assault on the “Judeo-Christian” heritage of Europe, used by far-right figures, demonstrates this charged political use of the term, rather than any serious historical commentary.