In January of 2018, Vice President Mike Pence delivered an address at the Knesset to announce the Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The speech was notable not only for its occasion, but also for its symbolism. As a conservative evangelical, Pence represented the community of American Christians that forms the bedrock of American support for Israel and is arguably more enthusiastic about the Jewish state than many American Jews.  

It is the figure of Pence and the millions of Americans he represents that was noticeably missing last week when Rep. Ilhan Omar suggested that spending by Jewish lobbyists was the source of America‘s “special relationship” with Israel. The new Democratic congresswoman may have chosen her words carelessly in a glib tweet laced with anti-Semitic overtones, but the view she expressed is fairly common among critics of Israel. In short, it holds that the American-Israeli alliance is somehow unnatural and must be coerced through payouts and imposed by force on a reluctant populace. Thus, if lobbyist money dried up so would American support for Israel. But this belief is not only mistaken, it actually inverts the truth. In fact, it is the broad American electorate, rather than any narrow interest group, that drives support for Israel. This attitude is not principally motivated by money but, rather, by a sympathetic kinship that predates the creation of AIPAC by centuries.

Addressing the Knesset, Pence’s remarks were animated by the deep rooted American Christian Zionist tradition. His speech went beyond a narrow political justification for the embassy move to draw a parallel between the American nation and the people of Israel. “My country’s very first settlers also saw themselves as pilgrims, sent by Providence, to build a new Promised Land,” Pence explained. “The songs and stories of the people of Israel were their anthems, and they faithfully taught them to their children, and do to this day. And our founders, as others have said, turned to the wisdom of the Hebrew Bible for direction, guidance and inspiration.”

Pence then moved from history to prophecy. “It was the faith of the Jewish people that gathered the scattered fragments of a people and made them whole again,” he asserted “that took the language of the Bible and the landscape of the Psalms and made them live again.” The reference, as the vice president’s audience certainly knew, was to Ezekiel’s so-called vision of the dry bones. In the prophet’s vision, dessicated human remains are reconstituted as living bodies, a transformation that God reveals to be a foreshadowing of the reconstitution of the people of Israel.

The speech was an impressive effort by the vice president, who is not known as an eloquent speaker. So it was not surprising when it transpired that Pence enjoyed the assistance of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. As a collaboration between an evangelical American politician and a British rabbi delivered before Israel’s parliament, delivered on behalf of the United States government, Pence’s Knesset speech seemed to embody the “special relationship” the text affirmed.

Yet there remains something mysterious about the speech. As critics did not fail to note, Pence’s remarks glossed over serious disagreements between Christians and Jews. Particularly in his repeated use of the word “faith,” Pence even appeared to subordinate Jewish views of covenant to Protestant understandings of the conditions for salvation. Was Pence’s defense of the U.S.-Israeli alliance merely a cover for hopes of eventual conversion, then? Was his whole argument about a shared biblical heritage intended to distract attention from the familiar end-times scenario, in which Israel provides a landing pad for the second coming of Christ after most Jews die in grotesque tribulations?

It has become popular to dismiss evangelical support for Israel as a cynical alliance in which Jews in the holy land are mere props in a drama of Christian rapture and salvation but this is only part of the story. Indeed, it is impossible to say what Pence himself believes, as he has not stated his views on these matters. And it is not much easier when it comes to millions of American Christians, mostly white evangelicals, who express approval for the State of Israel. In the 1970s, evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell popularized a rather lurid eschatological narrative that revolves around Israel. But it remains unclear which aspects ordinary believers accept or how central they are to their views on international affairs. Public polling is better at tracking generalities—like the belief that God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people—than the specifics of prophetic interpretation or their political salience.

“Christian Zionism” is considerably older than the evangelical revival with which Pence is associated. Contrary to accounts that revolve around fire and brimstone preachers like Falwell, John Hagee, or the pop-apocalyptic writer Hal Lindsey, the idea that English-speaking Christians have a special responsibility to promote, support, and protect a Jewish state in some portion of the biblical holy land goes back at least to the beginnings of the 17th century. In a 1611 work titled Revelation of the Revelation, the English scholar Thomas Brightman asked, “What shall they [the Jews] returne to Ierusalem againe? There is nothing more certaine, the Prophets doe euery where directly confirme it and beate vppon it.” Ten years later, the prominent lawyer Henry Finch insisted that “[W]ee need not be afraid to averre and mainteyne, that one day they shall come to Jerusalem againe, be Kings and chiefe Monarches of the earth, sway and govern all, for the glory of Christ that shall shine among them.”

These arguments were products of the emphases on the plain meaning of Scripture and the theological significance of covenants that characterized Calvinism. Before the Reformation, most Christians read prophecies like Ezekiel’s as allegories for the transformation of the “carnal” Israel descended from the patriarchs into the “spiritual Israel” represented by the Church. Calvin and his followers, by contrast, insisted that allegorical interpretations were permitted only when literal ones made no sense. But why was it nonsensical to believe that the Jews might be reconstituted as a nation and return to their own land?

The editors of the so-called Geneva Bible published in the late 16th century were early contributors to the development of Christian Zionism. By adding explanatory notes to the margins, they codified Calvinist interpretations and disseminated them to the reading public. Especially in their notes on the prophets, they promote the idea of a geographic and political “restoration” of Israel. The notes on Isaiah state that the Abrahamic covenant is “perpetual” and Israel “shuld buylde again the ruines of Jerusalem and Judea.” The note on Ezekiel 26:20 foretells the glory of “Judea, when it shall be restored.”

The Geneva editors and writers like Brightman, Finch, or the Oxford University scholar Joseph Mede were not Zionists in the modern sense. They expected Jewish restoration to take place by miraculous means and to be closely related to Jewish conversion (although they disagree about the precise sequence of events). Their rediscovery of the authority of Scripture, however, led to a rediscovery of the possibility of a Jewish state centuries before the emergence or consolidation of a comparable movement among Jews. In this sense, “Christian Zionism” can be seen as an ancestor of the real thing.

As Pence hinted, Christian Zionism also played a role in the intellectual development of New England—and through its disproportionate influence, of the United States. The Puritans of New England added to the hermeneutic arguments of their Calvinist predecessors an intense identification of their own plight with the biblical Hebrews and a corresponding interpretation of their “errand into the wilderness” with the exodus from Egypt. Puritan divines including John Cotton, Peter Bulkeley, and Increase Mather not only used the fulfillment of promises to Moses to remind their own followers of the rewards that awaited peoples who kept their covenants and obeyed God’s law, but also held out hope that the Jews would once again return home. Within a few generations, Cotton expected the emergence of a “willing people among the gentiles, to convey the Jewes into their owne Countrie, with Charets, and horses, and Dromedaries.”

Statements like Cotton’s challenge an influential interpretation of American culture. According to this view, popularized by midcentury historians including Perry Miller and Ernest Tuveson, the Puritans were the source of the belief that America Christians took over the Jews’ role as God’s chosen people and North America as a second Zion or new promised land.  This imaginative replacement is said to lead to the conception of the United States as the “redeemer nation” that holds the future of the human race in its hands. You can attribute everything from the Civil War to the struggle against Communism to this vision.

But there’s also another version of the argument that’s a bit more complicated. In this story, Americans and the United States do not replace the people and land of Israel. Rather, they are selected by God to help realize biblical promises like the vision of the dry bones. As early as 1801, the Federalist politician Elias Boudinot wondered whether “God has raised up these United States in these latter days, for the very purpose of accomplishing his will in bringing his beloved people to their own land.”

In 1844, the New York University professor of Hebrew George Bush, an ancestor of the presidents, published a commentary on Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones. Rejecting arguments that the restoration of Israel had to wait for a miracle, he argued:

When the Most High accordingly declares that he will bring the house of Israel into their own land, it does not follow that this will be effected by any miraculous interposition which will be recognized as such. … It does not appear, therefore, that any special duty of Christians is involved in this predicted lot of Israel, except so far as governmental action may be requisite in removing the political obstacles that stand in the way of the event.

Dates are important here, because they show that Christian Zionism precedes the influence of John Nelson Darby, the Anglo-Irish cleric whose theological system, known as “premillennial dispensationalism,” is often described as the source of American Christians’ special interest in Israel and the Jewish people. Darby’s ideas were certainly influential, especially in the simplified form promoted by the Scofield Reference Bible first published in 1909. But they found a receptive audience because many Americans already accepted their major claims.

In any case, enthusiasm for the establishment of a Jewish state under American patronage did not require specific theological commitments. In 1891, the evangelist William E. Blackstone composed a petition calling on President Benjamin Harrison to help the Jews establish a state in Palestine just as European nations like the Serbs or Bulgarians had done in former Ottoman territory.

Blackstone was a follower of Darby. But most of the signatories to his petition, which included leading politicians, industrialists, and journalists, were not. And the text of the document appealed to humanitarian and strategic considerations far more than to eschatological ones. Almost 20 years later, in the midst of the First World War, Blackstone composed a second version of the petition for presentation to President Wilson. Endorsed by prominent theological and political liberals, it may have played some role in Wilson’s decision to affirm the Balfour Declaration.

Mainline Protestants were the American Christians most closely associated with Zionism and the State of Israel from the 1930s until the Six-Day War. Although he was by no means the only figure associated with this nearly forgotten strand of liberal Christian Zionism, Reinhold Niebuhr was certainly the most prominent. A critic of the literal interpretations of Scripture that helped generate Christian Zionism in the 16th century, Niebuhr professed to be “embarrassed when Messianic claims are used to substantiate the right of the Jews to the particular homeland in Palestine; or when it is assumed that this can be done without injury to the Arabs.” Nevertheless, he insisted that America had providential responsibility to defend the “peculiar historical miracle” in the Middle East.

One cannot know what is in the hearts of Christian enthusiasts for Israel. Their “faith-based” vocabulary and enthusiasm for a kind of Jewish kitsch can be offensive. And the action of certain figures and organizations, such as those who have supported, planned, or participated in disturbances at the Temple Mount, give ample reason for concern. But recognizing today’s Christian Zionists as heirs to a significant theological tradition with deep roots in American political and religious culture is a step toward the emergence and consolidation of a more mature relationship between Jews and Christians, Israelis and Americans. In that respect, Pence’s speech—and the conversations it continues to provoke—was a step in the right direction.

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