With the Geneva talks between Iran and the United States kicking off on Thursday, the common working assumption among Middle East experts and other members of the foreign policy establishment is that the outlines of a deal are already in the bag. Such a deal—which is expected to be framed as a “partial” or “interim” agreement that will be announced sometime before the end of the year—will leave Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a historically tough choice: either watch helplessly as the Iranians move toward a nuclear bomb, or risk Israel’s friendship with its longtime superpower ally with an attack on Iranian nuclear sites.
Bibi’s possible choice of a military option would be premised in part on the assumption that Israel enjoys a strong bedrock of support in the United States—not Jews, but Christian evangelicals. The problem with the assumption that Israel can rely on its Christian supporters—and the majority of Congress that is reliant on their votes—is that some younger evangelicals are now tilting against support for the Jewish state. Oddly, the issue that may decide whether Israel can count on the United States in the future is not President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, but the evangelical schism on the issue of gay marriage.
American evangelical support for Israel is based on a fundamentalist reading of the Bible, in particular this passage from the Book of Genesis, Chapter 12, Verse 3: “And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” The political expression of the mainstream evangelical exegesis of this passage is John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel, which is the country’s largest pro-Israel organization—a fact that is hardly surprising, given that, according to the recent Pew study, more evangelicals believe that God gave Israel to the Jews than American Jews do, 82 percent to 40 percent.
“It’s partly a matter of self-interest,” says Peter Pettit, a professor of religion studies specializing in early Bible and Jewish-Christian relations at Muhlenberg University. “Evangelicals translate this to mean that Christians who bless Israel will be blessed by God. If we want our nation to be strong, blessed by God, then our foreign relations with Israel have to be a blessing.” The problem, says Pettit, is that they never explain their hermeneutic principles. “They read God’s message to Abraham as a message to modern-day Christians in America. They never explain why that’s the case but just take it as self-evident. Can you apply this kind of reading to the rest of the Bible? If so, you might run into problems.”
One obvious problem is that, for Christians, a literal interpretation of the Bible is keyed to the New Testament, which announces God’s covenant with man through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The people that evangelicals are supposed to bless, the Jews, don’t believe in Jesus as the messiah. At a certain point, evangelical support for Israel based on a literal reading of scripture has to confront the thorny question: Why support a state that by definition rejects Christ?
“That’s precisely the question some pro-Palestinian evangelicals are asking,” says Dexter Van Zile, Christian media analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. “Evangelical support for Israel and the fact that Jews don’t believe in the risen Christ is always going to be in tension,” says Van Zile.
Another reason pro-Palestinian evangelicals are gaining some ground, as Robert W. Nicholson explained in a long, thoughtful essay last month in Mosaic, is “the growing influence of Middle Eastern voices within evangelical Christianity,” including Christian Palestinian clerics and activists. In a June 2011 Pew survey of evangelical Protestant leaders, 30 percent of evangelical leaders sided with Israel and 13 percent with the Palestinians, with almost half expressing equal sympathy for both. The effort to erase Jesus’ Jewish identity and turn him into a Palestinian, one who suffered at the hands of the Romans and the Jews, just as Palestinians currently must endure the depredations of the Israeli occupation, is the motive force behind the Christ at the Checkpoint conferences, the last held in Bethlehem in March 2012, with another scheduled for spring 2014.
However, the real issue that might be changing the complexion of the evangelical movement and its support or Israel isn’t eschatology—that is, how the world ends—or even Middle Eastern politics. Rather, it’s a strictly American affair—one that has moved the dial on historic changes in American history before: Protestant sectarianism. Contrary to what many liberals believe, and many conservatives like to pretend, the fundamentalist movement, like Judaism, is not a unitary political or theological force. Evangelicals lack a single guiding leader, as Catholics have in the pope, and as a result schisms in their movement have played a large if often understated role in American history. One such historic schism may be opening up beneath the feet of the pro-Israel community right now.
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The evangelical movement was divided most significantly with the Scopes Monkey Trial when Darwinism split fundamentalists who believed in the literal interpretation from modernists who while they were committed to a life of faith didn’t want to isolate themselves from the modern world. The issue that divides younger evangelicals from the older generation today—the contemporary version of the Scopes Monkey Trial—is gay marriage. “The younger evangelicals are embarrassed by the faith of their fathers,” says Van Zile. “They don’t have a problem with gay marriage, but the teachings are so clearly laid out in the Bible that you can’t really come out in favor of gay marriage without excommunicating yourself from the evangelical movement. So, what message can you send to show that you’re not one of these retrograde, conservative, gay-hating evangelicals? One way they’ve found to go against the conservative tide is to embrace anti-Zionism.”
This is hardly the first time that Christian Zionism has sat on the fault line dividing American Protestants. In the early part of the 20th century, Darwinism was the main issue, but Zionism was also part of the debate—because of how the idea reflected differing concepts of America and its place in the world. Many progressive Protestants believed the Great War had shown that nationalism was the scourge of modern history, a lesson further underscored by WWII when ideologies based on blood and land slaughtered millions in Europe. Any form of nationalism—even a nationalism advocated by those who suffered most dearly in Europe—was a retrograde force to be resisted at all costs. Evangelical support for a Jewish homeland was also founded on a fundamentalist reading of scripture—which, from the perspective of the modernists, was the same sort of ill-conceived hermeneutic that had led evangelicals to back the wrong side in the Scopes decision.
The upshot of the American Protestant civil war was that the fundamentalists, who sided with William Jennings Bryan, came off as the big losers. Not only did the Scopes trial show them to be ill-educated boobs who were ridiculed by H.L. Mencken, their support of Zionism also showed them to be bad Christians. From this perspective, God calls his servants to transcend nations and national interests and embrace all mankind in a grand ecumenism. Zionism, on the other hand, was a particularist doctrine, about one nation, the Jews. Today we’re seeing the same sort of debate hashed out among Evangelicals around the issue of gay marriage.
The apparent irony of course is that Israel is one of the most gay-friendly countries in all the world. Indeed, just last week one Israeli faction introduced a law legalizing civil marriage that would extend to same-sex couples. However, just like every other aspect of Israel’s free society—from its free-market economy, free press, equal rights for women and minorities—that might be expected to win admiration from Western progressives, Israel’s actual record on gay rights and gay marriage is unlikely to affect the debate between American evangelicals. That’s because the argument has nothing to do with Israel, but rather with Israel as a symbol within the context of inter-American debates about what this country should look like—as is the case with almost every other American debate concerning the Jewish state, from the very beginning of American debates about the ingathering of the Jews.
If there’s one upside to the recent rift between evangelicals it’s that American support for Israel has less to do with what Christians, evangelical or otherwise, think about Israel than what Americans do. The men and women who founded this country drew their inspiration from the examples of the determined men and women who populate the Old Testament. In turn, Israel came to model itself in part after America’s adventurous and pioneering ethos. The kinship between the two countries transcends governments and even God; it is an inextricable part of the cultural DNA, individually and together, of both nations.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).