Slouching Toward Jerusalem

Evangelicals love Israel. Why?

Slouching Toward Jerusalem
Death on a Pale Horse by William Blake, ca. 1800. Public Domain.

Edited by Spencer Ackerman

Spencer here. Sam and I had spoken about the value to FOREVER WARS readers—here I include myself—of someone from his evangelical background explaining Christian Zionism. That became this essay Sam put his back into below, and which I'm proud to publish. But before we get to it, I want to address a weird coincidence. 

As it happens, I have another good friend named Sam who's written thoughtfully on Christian Zionism. That's Sam Goldman, the author of God's Country: Christian Zionism in America. God's Country doesn't dismiss the dispensationalist tradition that Sam Thielman writes about below, but Goldman (it's weird to call him that because we've been friends since we were 15) locates Christian Zionism much earlier in American history and much deeper in American self-conception than the piece you'll read below. I don't read Sam Thielman's piece as contesting that, particularly as Thielman's focus is on the dominant contemporary manifestation of Christian Zionism, which has been lived in American communities like the one he grew up in. Read God's Country alongside Sam Thielman's essay and I think you'll come away with a robust understanding of Christian Zionism. 

THERE IS A POPULAR THEOLOGY currently in the news called premillennial dispensationalism. This reading of the Christian bible sort of Frankensteins together a bunch of chapters from its various books—a couple from Daniel, a couple from Luke, some but not as much as you think of Revelation—to form a big sci-fi narrative about the end of the world and the return of Jesus. Israel is really important to it. 

In this reading, endorsed by no significant body of Christian teachers but from which a lot of Christian book publishers have made a tidy sum, for Jesus to come back, the Dome of the Rock inside the Al-Aqsa mosque has to be destroyed and the Third Temple rebuilt on its ruins. Then the forces of good and evil can fight on the plain of Megiddo outside Haifa, from which we get the word Armageddon. Good wins and God remakes the world, except perfect this time. All the Christians will be there. Jewish people who had not converted to Christianity will not be there, sadly. “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in,” as the Jewish convert Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans. “Rather, through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.” 

Death will beget life. Destruction is merely the prologue to creation.

It’s perfectly fair to say that most Christians don’t understand the grim details of this theological position. Most of us don’t understand the conservative doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, which holds that the Bible is literally true in every particular, either—even the Christians who believe in that doctrine. Folks will tell you that "every word of the Bible is true" but they probably won’t tell you they believe that there’s a set of perfect divinely inspired texts of the Bible that no longer exist but can be extrapolated "with great accuracy" from current translations, because that’s too far down the rabbit hole to interest most people. Also it sounds like crazy talk. But it is the official position of an influential theological school of thought that has infested major denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention and the Presbyterian Church of America. Dispensationalism and its weirdo hyperspecific Israel-obsessed eschatology is less reputable, but more influential, which is to say pernicious.

People who actually study the Bible and its historical and literary context—and who see its texts as interrelated—understand the Biblical depiction of evil not as darkness that is pitted against the armies of light, but as corruption and temptation. But the caretaking that kind of faith requires is boring and quotidian. Much better to wage war against evil, and never mind the details. It’s a kind of thinking that suborns provable, boring, small-t truths to capital-T Truth, and it loses everything in that trade.

PEOPLE CONFUSE EVANGELICALISM, FUNDAMENTALISM, AND EVANGELISM, but evangelicals are not mere evangelists. While they do proselytize enthusiastically, they are primarily concerned with a personal, direct relationship with God through Jesus, distinct from and complementary to relationships mediated by the Church and scripture. 

Fundamentalism is a more discrete movement, founded in 1910 by Lyman Stewart, head of Union Oil. Stewart published lengthy tracts inveighing against liberals and evolutionists and proclaiming dispensationalism. Evangelicals may or may not profess dispensationalism, but for the original fundamentalists it was codified in a set of theological texts, called The Fundamentals, stating their beliefs about the Bible.

The ur-evangelical preacher, Southern Baptist minister Billy Graham, was fascinated with power his entire life. He pitched his Christian practice to political leaders the same way he pitched it to the throngs who attended his revival meetings, which he called Crusades. They, too, could have a direct relationship with ultimate power, so long as they sought one with humility and sincerity. This relationship is, generally, based on prayer and vibes, and so the theology of it is fuzzier than the hard rules of Catholicism or even Episcopalianism. But perhaps you can see how attractive it is. 

Graham was an evangelical; the dispensationalists were fundamentalists. The terms are now more or less synonymous in the popular press, but in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, their champions were viciously at war for the minds of believers in a way only people who agree on nearly everything can be. One not-insignificant point of disagreement was on the general brotherhood of Christians—Black Christians and white Christians, Protestants and Catholics. Graham was for it and the fundamentalists were against it. They denounced him savagely. Graham was "doing more harm to the cause of Jesus Christ than any living man," declared Bob Jones, Jr., head of his father’s fervently segregationist Bob Jones University, which Graham had left at the age of 18 after a single semester of sadistic discipline there.

The contemporary influence that Protestant Christian leaders have with American politicians probably started with Graham. Preachers have always been masters of powerful voting blocs and leaders have always had religious advisors, but Graham went further than mere realpolitik and befriended kings and presidents. Graham’s moral priorities were simply to spread the Gospel to as many people as possible, and at all costs, and he had found that he could ingratiate himself to elected leaders easily. He was genuinely interested in the disposition of their souls, and he sought their good opinions by speaking their language. He endeared himself to Harry Truman by condemning Communism; to John F. Kennedy by offering friendship and photo-ops after Protestant leaders, including Graham’s father-in-law, L. Nelson Bell, had condemned JFK’s Catholicism as suspicious and probably Communist; and to Richard Nixon by amen-ing Nixon’s poisonous remarks about Jewish influence.

Graham was less interested in eschatology—the theology of the end times—than fundamentalists were. He was utterly agnostic politically, which needled them, and he was popular, which enraged them. He visited Martin Luther King in prison, preached against apartheid in South Africa and condemned its government, and went to the USSR during the Cold War to plead for peace in 1982 during the height of Reaganaut scaremongering. The Graham remembered by Christians—an internecine peacemaker—bears little resemblance to the Graham remembered by the secular world, which primarily took note of his bigoted remarks about Jews and his anticommunism. But his religious beliefs were much closer to Jimmy Carter’s than Jerry Falwell’s, and among his fellow Christians he was less changeable. He opposed his fellow evangelicals’ Key 73 campaign of coercive proselytizing, which had included fake Hanukkah services with surprise altar calls. But Graham was not necessarily pro-Israel. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, his magazine, Christianity Today, ran an unbylined editorial criticizing Israel for its refusal to cede any of its territorial gains in the Six-Day War to the Palestinians: 

The Israelis had no need to go to war with anybody. They got all the land they wanted and needed in the Six-Day War. But they also left behind them the seeds of another conflict. Israel’s unwillingness to let go of any substantial part of its Six-Day acquisitions left Egypt and the rest of the Arab world smarting under the sting of defeat. It would be unrealistic to suppose that the Arab countries would not seek to recover the lands they lost.

After Nixon’s ouster and the subsequent damage to Graham’s public image when the tapes of their conversations emerged, Graham eschewed politics almost completely, with the exception of some frankly horrific photo ops near the end of his life brokered by his embittered culture warrior son Franklin. Ultimately, that didn’t matter to history. By the 1980’s his overtures to Nixon and Truman had inspired imitators. Some politics are stickier than others. 

In 1979 Falwell and Heritage Foundation president Paul Weyrich hatched a plan to wrest Christianity away from liberals in defense of the segregated institutions they believed were essential to their faith. Bob Jones University had lost its tax-exempt status because it refused to admit unmarried Black students for fear of miscegenation. It was not exactly a cause celebre, and Weyrich and his coalition of fringe figures needed one that would help attract more mainstream conservatives. The spike in legal abortions in the wake of Roe v. Wade had galvanized Roman Catholics; Weyrich and Falwell proposed letting those particular bygones be bygones and adopted abortion as the flagship issue of the 1980’s for their new front, the Moral Majority. Theologian Francis Schaeffer and pediatric surgeon C. Everett Koop toured the country with an anti-abortion propaganda film called Whatever Happened to the Human Race? made by Schaeffer’s son, Frank, who spent the rest of his life repudiating it. The film featured such metaphors as baby dolls strewn across the northern bank of the Dead Sea “here in Israel” (actually the West Bank).

In 1980, another potential interfaith alliance presented itself: The National Council of Churches (NCC), had given Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and his Egyptian counterpart, Anwar Sadat, its Prize of the Family of Man. The award was one of many laurels, including the Nobel Peace Prize, the men had shared in 1978 for striking a peace deal after waging four wars in 30 years. But now Begin wanted to expand Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank, an insurance policy against divestment of coveted Palestinian lands, and the NCC opposed the move, as did President Carter. Fundamentalists in general and dispensationalists in particular hated the NCC—Hal Lindsay had singled the organization out for particular opprobrium in his book of dispensationalist “prophecy,” The Late Great Planet Earth. So the tension between Begin on the one hand and Carter and the NCC on the other presented an opening for Jerry Falwell and James Kennedy, two influential fundamentalist pastors and aspiring Republican political operatives, and they arranged a meeting with Begin at Blair House, the subtle White House guest house where closed-door diplomacy and backroom deals often happened. Adrian Rogers, head of the Southern Baptist Convention (of which Jimmy Carter was a member), was also pointedly present.

Falwell, Kennedy, and Rogers did not have Graham’s stature among believers.  Nor did they share his singleminded focus on conversion. Begin was not the President of the United States. And no one was there for a personal relationship with Jesus. "The vast majority of quote-unquote Christians in America are evangelical," Falwell told Begin. "Our members far exceed the more liberal National Council of Churches which is moving toward an anti-Israel position." And, Rogers told him, Baptists had no such compunctions about Begin’s expansionist ambitions. “[W]e believe that Israel has the right not only biblically but historically and legally to the land of Israel and the nations of the world have the responsibility to secure your borders," Rogers said.

"I will report (to the president) of this meeting with you, dear friends,” Begin said, “[…] to prove to him that not only the Jewish population supports our stand." When Carter lost the election, it was with the help of fully two thirds of white evangelical Christians. The more liberal leaders who viewed “pro-life” groups with some skepticism and favored generally peaceful foreign policy—and, seemingly incidentally but in fact crucially, preferred racially integrated schools and culture to segregation and Jim Crow—were on the outs alongside him. Falwell and his ilk, with Ronald Reagan, were in. Reagan made Koop his Surgeon General. Suddenly Falwell and the Moral Majority, not Graham, were the leaders of a newly fundamentalist American evangelicalism.

Begin invaded Lebanon in 1982, the beginning of a cruel 20-year occupation. Its brutalities were myriad but an important one was the massacre of Palestinian refugees in camps at Sabra and Shatila, which was carried out by Maronite Christians with the permission of Israeli officers, specifically future Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Even Reagan blanched at the inhumanity of the campaign, but he gave greater leeway to Begin than Carter would have. It was a crucial turn of the historical ratchet in the U.S-Israel relationship in the direction of today's near-carte blanche.

MORE THAN HALF OF REPUBLICANS are Protestant Christians; 38 percent are happy describing themselves as evangelical, with all the baggage that term carries. It is the party’s most important voting bloc in a leisurely walk, and has been for some time.

So when Steve Scalise, who once called himself, in a moment of laudable honesty, “David Duke without the baggage,” says that “the first order of business under Speaker Steve Scalise [a prophecy that didn’t turn out to be worth much] is going to be bringing a strong resolution expressing support for Israel,” it is not because he loves the Jewish people or the Jewish religion or anything else. It is because he wants to demonstrate his commitments to his base, the same people who sent Duke, a KKK Grand Wizard, to the Louisiana statehouse in 1989. When Donald Trump, who kept a beloved copy of Hitler’s collected speeches in a cabinet by his bed, scolds Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for being insufficiently devoted to the defense of Israel, that is who Trump is addressing, too. When Reagan launched his 1980 campaign for president, he did so with a speech about “states’ rights” at the site of the murders of desegregation activists Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were Jewish, and their comrade James Chaney, who was Black. Jewish lives were worth as much to any of these men as Black lives.

In the current “conflict” between a nuclear state and a zone of oppressed people so poor and dispossessed that it has been described as “an open-air prison,” Netanyahu is a uniquely influential force. He reinforced Hamas' rule in Gaza, as keeping the Palestinians divided prevents negotiations for their freedom, and during his second and now third premierships, the IDF has been primarily concerned with the West Bank, where it bullies civilians. Whether Netanyahu wanted one or not, those two decisions gave him the perfect catastrophe, and now he is making the most of it. 

Netanyahu is nothing if not a political survivor. In 1998 Netanyahu forged his own friendship with evangelicals, triangulating with them against Bill Clinton, who had criticized the West Bank settlements, though he did not stop them (this was a major sticking point between Carter and Begin, too). Like Begin before him, Netanyahu met with Falwell. 

Falwell had kept the louder dispensationalists at a strategic remove. Baptists exercise less denominational authority over individual pastors than most other denominations, but they don’t like to be publicly embarrassed. Falwell, who had at one time or another espoused a rainbow variety of bigotries including antisemitism, accordingly made his message less loathsome as he became more popular, and other people were doing his work for him. Instead, he pivoted to explicit politicking, flogging a video of conspiracy theories about Bill Clinton (whose pro-choice, LGBT-friendly image made him fair game as far as the Southern Baptist Convention was concerned), and helping to establish the right-wing media ecosystem. When Falwell met with the Israeli PM, he brought along John Hagee, in whom Netanyahu found an even more devoted ally. It was the next turn of the ratchet.

Hagee acted like he was meeting Elvis. “Israel is the only nation ever created by a sovereign act of God,” he enthused. Hagee did not have Falwell's political connections yet, but he was a pastor who oversaw a huge and hugely wealthy consortium of pro-Israel evangelical organizations. Better still, Hagee was nondenominational, so his enthusiasms weren’t tempered by those broader governing bodies that repudiated his action-movie eschatology. But Falwell was a conservative majordomo, a familiar presence in the halls of power by the late 1990’s, and Hagee was not yet.

Netanyahu, who had spent four of his teenage years in Philadelphia, had a solid grasp of American politics and he knew how to execute an especially brutal snub: He met with Falwell before he met the president himself. Falwell recognized a kindred spirit. “Netanyahu understands America better than other [Israeli] prime ministers have,” he told the LA Times. “His meeting with me the night before his meeting with the president was not accidental. I knew what he was up to. This prime minister had enough American in him to know how to rub it in.”

SINCE REAGAN, EVANGELICAL MEGAPASTORS had wielded outsize influence in Republican circles. But during Clinton, the influence was expressed purely by opposition to every item on the president’s agenda, and of course Falwell wasn’t invited to consult on policy, as he had been by Bush and Reagan. With the Prime Minister of Israel available to them, they were suddenly a powerful force in international statecraft and had to be acknowledged. Clinton ignored Falwell, but he reached out to more moderate evangelicals. But that played into Falwell’s hands. Falwell had a media presence to maintain and an audience that loved to hear him lambast anyone to the left of Dwight Eisenhower. Falwell immediately manufactured a “debate” over whether Clinton could “really” be a Christian. Centrist Christian outlets including Graham’s own focused on the imagined controversy. (The depth of Falwell’s Christian faith, of course, was never in question.) 

As the movement ossified under Clinton, Christian Zionism was a means to an end, rather than a primary theological concern, for its fundamentalist advocates among conservative Christian lobbying groups. But because of them, it became part of a much broader evangelical catechism that now deplored liberalism and the left. Christian Zionism was not as important to the movement as its negative positions on feminism (especially abortion) and gay rights, and its support of “religious freedom,” which often harmonized with the broader conservative preoccupation with “states’ rights” and tended to mean the privilege to discriminate racially without consequence. But Christian Zionism was undeniably part of that informal collection of political positions that now characterized public evangelicalism.

The Overton Window moved a significant distance between that Democratic administration and the next, in large measure because of George W. Bush, who embraced evangelicals with tremendous enthusiasm and helped them to become not merely a formidable voting bloc but intimately involved in writing policy. Bush’s father had been a mild-mannered Episcopalian who dealt with the Christian right because he believed in realpolitik. The younger Bush was a truer believer. 

Among Bush’s most significant supporters was Tim LaHaye, a Baptist minister and co-author of the sixteen-volume Left Behind series of fantasy novels, which turned dispensationalist prophecy into thousands of pages of wildly popular philosemitic potboilers. LaHaye held no official position within the leadership of his denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, but he was also no mere entertainer: During the Reagan administration he had co-founded the Council for National Policy, an organization of archconservative policymakers whose ranks grew to include Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas’s wife Ginny, mercenary kingpin Erik Prince, Oliver North, Leonard Leo, and Steve Bannon. Bush gave a speech to the group in 1999, and, despite public pressure, never released the tape of his remarks. He was many things, but one important quality is that he was willing to be led, and LaHaye was willing to lead.

Bush believed he was a servant of the Lord in the most literal possible way. His extravagantly dishonest administration continually felt the need to contradict accounts of his religious grandiosity: “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East,” he reportedly told French president Jacques Chirac. The report was contradicted in the highest possible dudgeon by Bush’s better-spoken apologists, who had also tried to walk back things Bush had said publicly.

In 2008, Barack Obama invited Rick Warren to pray at his inaugural. In a way, Warren was the perfect choice for Obama, a Democrat who couched his compromises with industrial healthcare and the security state in hopeful technocratic rhetoric about how much better things would eventually get. Warren, too, was a savvy operator with good instincts for when he needed to compromise and with whom. Warren avoided the appearance of proselytizing when he visited Israel; he visited Syria during the Bush administration, angering conservatives. But he also represented a huge body of believers to whom apocalyptic theology like Hagee’s and LaHaye’s had been normalized by decades of cultural inculcation and years—soon to be decades, as well—of a war that Bush once tellingly described as a crusade. Israel, in the evangelical mind, was at the very least the right side of the Manichaean conflict between Islam and the West. 

Years of working evangelicalism’s internal refs by Falwell and his ilk had paid off. End-times insanity was not just mainstream among Warren’s denomination, it was an elementary particle of Christian culture, ubiquitous in Christian bookstores, “faith-based” film  releases, and Christian music. For more of them than their leadership liked to admit, the man-made story—of heroic resistance and angelic warfare defending the sites of Biblical prophecy in Israel—now represented the hope of the world to come in a more direct, material way than the words of Jesus himself.

Obama may have understood that; then again, he may not have. His administration was less friendly to Israel’s right flank than Bush’s had been, and soon after Obama took office, Netanyahu had returned to power. He embraced Hagee and Hagee’s Christian Zionist activist organization, Christians United for Israel (friend of FOREVER WARS Talia Lavin notes in her excellent Rolling Stone piece that the group claims more members than there are Jewish Americans). And he embraced the Trump administration, which moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a huge symbolic victory for far-right Jews and far-right Christians alike. Every time the Israeli military humiliates or arrests worshipers at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, you can be sure that Hagee’s faithful are watching, slavering for a conflagration that will result in its destruction and thus tick yet another box in their list of preconditions for Armageddon. (Hagee has this all worked out in worrying detail, as David Corn documents over at Mother Jones.)

ONE THING THAT WILL JUMP out at you if you listen to John Hagee’s sermons or read The Late Great Planet Earth—or just poke through the stations on the AM radio until you hit a fire-and-brimstone preacher talking about the end times—is how specific they are, and thus how incredibly, outrageously wrong they are on just about every point. Falwell said that the antichrist was alive, well, and a Jewish man in 1999 (this is one of the milder things he had said about Jewish people generally). It’s proto-QAnon, after all—an antisemitic political movement founded on the collection of factoids and the assertion of tenuous connections and thus significance between them. 

Grand claims are the coin of the realm of prophecy grifters, both specifically within dispensationalism and among the related movements like QAnon. The grander those claims, the better, and nobody minds if they don’t turn out to match up with measurable reality. And that coin is worth quite a bit: Lindsay was “an Advent-and-Apocalypse evangelist who sports a Porsche racing jacket and tools around Los Angeles in a Mercedes 450 SI” in 1977, according to Publishers Weekly

 On October 19th, Israeli airstrikes killed eighteen people sheltering in a Christian church older than Methuselah. That day, Hagee’s evangelical Zionist group, CUFI, denounced all antiwar protesters as antisemitic to its audience of conservative American Christians. The Gazan Christian tradition is our oldest; it dates itself back to the first century and the church of St. Porphyrius was built in 425. The word in Arabic for Christian is Nasrani, or Nazarene. The two thousand year-old faith is so local that the language refers specifically to its home in the city in Israel that is the country’s center of Arab culture and politics, and was the place where Jesus himself lived. For people who practiced a real Christianity, these would be our dearest brothers and sisters, but instead we have forgotten them utterly. 

We don’t cheer for their annihilation. Worse, in the name of a God we inherited from them, we cheer for annihilation generally, and we greet news of their deaths with indifference. Whether or not Christian Zionism is a doctrinal afterthought or a cynical tool of “traditionalist” domestic realpolitik or merely the misunderstood best intentions of well-meaning people, this is Christian Zionism as it is lived.