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Love Thy Neighbor

What’s behind evangelical support for Israel?

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In the middle of the 17th century, long before Theodore Herzl was born, a movement that saw Palestine as the property of the Jews flourished in England. The Restorationists challenged the mainstream Protestant notion that Christians had replaced Jews as God’s chosen people and declared that, in the end, the Jews would be restored to the Holy Land, where their conversion would precede the second coming of Christ. Two hundred years later, the Anglo-Irish biblical literalist John Darby added another element: the rapture, a frightening event in which believing Christians would float up into heaven and Jews, among others, would be left behind to suffer at the hands of the antichrist. Darby’s system came to be known as premillennial dispensationalism. It was well received among American Protestants.

stained glass at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem
Stained glass at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem

Much has changed since Darby died in 1882. Theodore Herzl wrote The Jewish State, the Balfour Declaration was signed, and, in what seemed to Darby’s followers a validation of his ideas, Israel was created. Today, there are as many as 75 million evangelicals in America. Most of them support Israel. And yet, only about five million of them are premillennial dispensationalists—most Christian Zionists don’t actually base their support for Israel on a catastrophic end-times scenario. In his book Evangelicals and Israel: The Story of American Christian Zionism, Stephen Spector, a freewheeling professor of English at Stony Brook University and author of Operation Solomon: the Daring Rescue of the Ethiopian Jews, makes the case for a more nuanced understanding of Christian Zionists. Based on a range of evangelical and academic literature as well as dozens of interviews with evangelical leaders and American and Israeli officials, Spector argues that we’ve misunderstood a large, rich, and diverse religious group—at both their expense and our own.

Jews tend to see evangelical support for Israel as self-serving, and worry that evangelicals champion Jews’ return to the Holy Land only so they’ll die or convert to Christianity at the end of days. But you say that’s not the whole story.

The reason that’s most often cited is Genesis 12:3—God will bless those who bless the Jews and curse those who don’t. Generally, the Jews are God’s people. God is on the Jews’ side, so evangelicals want to be on the Jews’ side as well. There’s also a commandment to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and it’s said that those who do will prosper. Among evangelicals, I’ve noticed a genuine fear of what would happen if the United States stopped supporting Israel. Christian Zionists believe that the only reason we are a blessed nation is because we’ve blessed Israel.

If evangelicals care about Jews—not just Israel—then why didn’t Genesis 12:3 receive as much attention before Israel was created?

Critics of Christian Zionism say that the emphasis on Genesis 12:3 is a recent development, perhaps with the suggestion that it is a cover for real—eschatological—motives. In fact, the 1909 Scofield Study Bible—which helped popularize John Darby’s ideas in America—cites this verse. I can’t look into people’s hearts, but I can say that this biblical promise and threat seem to be genuinely central factors for every evangelical I spoke with. Ted Haggard told me that he doesn’t regard Israel as the fulfillment of prophecy. He supports it because it is the home of millions of Jews, triggering the blessing in Genesis 12:3.

You write that it was actually the Israelis who first reached out to Christian Zionists.

Back in the ’50s, Israel was encouraging evangelical pastors to start tourism in Israel. By 1967, the country had a well-developed Christian Affairs Department. Yona Malachy, an advisor there, wrote an important book sorting out which American Protestant denominations were supportive of Israel. But it was Menachem Begin who developed the relationship. He was quite friendly with people like Jerry Falwell.

If they are not so extreme theologically, are Christian Zionists also less politically extreme when it comes to issues like a two-state solution?

Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem
Exterior of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church

Evangelicals do hold extreme political positions, and many oppose a two-state solution, but the press has portrayed them as much more rigid then they are. If you read the leaders’ writings and talk to them—Pat Robertson, John Hagee, Jerry Falwell while he was alive—they all say it’s national suicide for Israel to give back an inch of land. But 52 percent of evangelical leaders support a two-state solution, which some justify by saying the Jews will not control all of the land as long as they are secular. Evangelicals have not used their political power to intimidate Bush on the issue of land. Even the most fervent Christian Zionists have a streak of pragmatism.

Even on social issues?

Christian Zionists are highly individual in their beliefs. Abortion is the most unifying domestic issue among American evangelicals, and many Christian Zionists compare it to the Holocaust. Pat Robertson opposes abortion, of course, but he implicitly accepted it when he spoke in favor of China’s policy of one child per family. He also endorsed Giuliani during the Republican primaries, despite the fact that he is pro-choice. These were pragmatic decisions, and evangelicals are often more pragmatic than we expect.

John Hagee has become the face of the Christian right, and he’s been subject to a lot of criticism.

Hagee believes that Israel should be uncompromising on the land, and has a lobbying organization [Christians United for Israel, or CUFI] that deploys four or five thousand people to Congress every summer. He sees Iran as a terrible threat and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the new Hitler. But at the CUFI conference in Washington this past summer, the official position was not to promote an attack on Iran; it was to promote negotiations. He’s not cheering for the end. Like Pat Robertson and the others, he’s trying to alert people to a danger, much as Churchill tried to alert the world to a danger in the 1930s.

Bush, too, has been made out as a religious extremist. But you say he’s not a Christian Zionist at all.

He’s even been accused of being a premillennialist and of wanting to bring us to Armageddon. Bush wanted to create the impression that he was a born-again Christian, but the Christian Zionists have been writing for the last five years that Bush is not one of them. Some are showing deep contempt for him. Some Christian Zionists say Bush believes in replacement theology; those who know him say he doesn’t know replacement theology at all. I wasn’t given access to Bush, so I couldn’t ask him what he really believes.

Some of the harshest criticism of Christian Zionism comes from other evangelicals. How can people who read the Bible literally disagree so strongly about textual issues?

Like mainline Protestants, liberal evangelicals tend to read the Bible more figuratively. They note that in the New Testament, God focuses on caring for the poor and the oppressed. One of the most interesting things I learned from writing this book is that empathy seems to work in only one direction. The empathy the liberal evangelicals feel for suffering Palestinians short-circuits any empathy they might feel for Israelis.

You quote an African-American pastor named Glenn Plummer saying that evangelicals love Israel like a man loves his wife—the love is inexplicable. Are black evangelicals as supportive of Israel as whites?

There’s been tension between blacks and Jews for years, so Glenn’s project is to bring blacks to support Israel. Glenn grew up in Brooklyn, had no particular interest in Jews, was listening to religious radio, decided that there was something to it, and gradually came to love Israel. He said to me—he said it when he spoke before the Knesset, as well—”Get in the faces of black people, tell them: we were there for you in the civil rights movement, we died for you, we marched for you, now you owe us.”

Do you expect Christian Zionist attitudes to change?

Ted Haggard pointed out that dispensational thinking is declining among evangelicals, and wondered whether they would love and support Israel less as a result. Some evangelicals might feel put off if their love for Israel and the Jews seems unrequited. My best guess, though, is that people who read the Bible literally will always take very seriously God’s promises of blessing those who bless Israel, and cursing those who curse the Jews.

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Love Thy Neighbor

What’s behind evangelical support for Israel?

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