Sojourners Magazine - July/August 2003

Short Fuse to Apocalypse?

Some in the Religious Right call Middle East Peace efforts "Satanic heresy." A look at the political and theological roots of Christian Zionism - and why it puts the world at risk.
by Donald E. Wagner

"The Bible Belt is Israel's safety net in the United States."
—Jerry Falwell on CBS' 60 Minutes, October 6, 2002

Jerry Falwell told CBS' 60 Minutes last October that the Prophet Mohammad was "a terrorist" and a "violent man of war." This blasphemous remark insulted Muslims everywhere. Falwell's remarks followed a series of anti-Islamic statements from leaders of the Christian Right, including Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Vines of the Southern Baptist Convention. The outcry from the Islamic world was immediate, including demonstrations in major Islamic cities.

The timing of Falwell's interview was curious, coming as it did on the eve of President Bush's address to the nation calling for an attack on Iraq. After Sept. 11, 2001, the president solidified political support from two important U.S. constituencies previously deemed "soft" for the Republican Party: the fundamentalist Christian Right and the American Jewish community, particularly the powerful pro-Israel lobby. George Bush Sr. had been unable to mobilize support from these vital political components, but George W. has been able to build a powerful alliance that includes the pro-Israel lobby, the Christian Right, and neoconservative ideologues at the highest levels of decision-making in the Bush administration. Their ideology is supported by a network of financial backers of the conservative wing of the Republican Party and the arms industry and multinational construction firms such as Halliburton and Bechtel.

How does the Christian Right fit into this powerful lineup? Turn back to a series of events that occurred in April 2002, when Israel demolished the Jenin refugee camp and other targets in the West Bank following the dreadful Passover bombings by Palestinian suicide bombers. Under increasing international pressure, President Bush made a series of appeals for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw his forces from Jenin immediately. The pro-Israeli lobby, in coordination with the Christian Right, mobilized more than a million e-mails, telephone calls, and personal visits urging the president to avoid restraining Israel. Once their campaign was activated, not a single word of restraint was issued by the White House to Israel.

Suddenly, the secular press took note of the convergence of these "new" and very strange political bedfellows. Feature articles began to appear in the mainstream press including The New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Time, and even Mother Jones. Political support for Israel and hard-line Prime Minister Sharon has become one of the hottest issues of the American Christian Right. "You hear about it in the churches, on talk radio.... In the past 30 days, I have seen this move to the top of public-policy concerns," noted Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, in early 2002. So why is the American Christian Right so adamant in its support of the most extreme politicians in Israel? Is this a recent phenomenon, as several journalists in the mainstream press would have us believe?

Part of the answer lies in fundamentalist Christian culture in the United States. One clue can be found in the 1995 novel Left Behind, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. It was the first in a series of 10 novels that focus on events leading to the end of history and the return of Jesus. The books have caught the imagination of millions of North America readers, with the first two volumes reaching the New York Times bestseller list and the series selling more than 50 million copies.

The Left Behind series represents but one example of a message articulated every day on Christian radio and television and in the steady flow of Christian books that follow the theological approach to the Bible called "premillennial dispensationalism" (see glossary, this page). This powerful Christian tradition emerged in England in the early 1800s, when two theological themes began to merge: Jewish restorationism (the concept that the Jews must return to Palestine in order to fulfill the prophetic scriptures), and the literal and futuristic interpretation of the apocalyptic texts. Conservative Christian support for a Jewish state was clearly articulated in 1839 when the great evangelical social reformer Lord Shaftesbury published an article in the London Sunday Times calling for the English Parliament to support the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Shaftesbury's rationale was based on the premillennialism of Rev. John Nelson Darby—a renegade Irishman who eventually led a movement called the Plymouth Brethren—but it took on a distinctively political agenda.

Shaftesbury drew a relationship between three themes: 1) The idea that Jews must be restored to Palestine in order to fulfill the prophetic scriptures at the end of time; 2) the need for England to support a Jewish state in Palestine to fulfill that goal and to work toward the evangelization of Jews to Christianity; and 3) the belief that God would bless Britain if it supported the creation of a Jewish nation in Palestine, a matter that had colonial implications in England's competition with other European powers.

Darby is credited with bringing premillennial dispensationalism to the United States. His seven missionary journeys to North America influenced major American preachers and evangelists to adopt these "latter day" doctrines. Among them was Christian author William E. Blackstone, who in 1891 enlisted more than 400 leading politicians in a petition to President Benjamin Harrison, seeking his support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. President Harrison ignored Blackstone's petition, but it reveals nascent support of Zionism within Christian and political circles in the United States some eight years before Jewish Zionism marked its official political beginning.

When Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl gathered Jewish leaders in Basle, Switzerland, in August 1897—the meeting that launched the political platform of Jewish Zionism—Blackstone urged Herzl to adopt Palestine as the location for the state, which he argued would eventually find significant political support from "Christian nations" of the West.

The influential Lord Arthur Balfour, the conservative Tory leader of the time, was a true believer in biblical prophecy. It was Lord Balfour who penned in 1917 the Balfour Declaration, which granted the Zionist movement its first international legitimacy. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George was even more committed to the Christian Zionist orientation than Balfour and advanced the cause of British support for Zionism at every opportunity. Thus it was no accident that the Balfour Declaration was "written into" the final peace treaties at Versailles that ended World War I and granted to the British Empire the "Mandate" over Palestine.

Clearly, the Christian Zionist influence on British and later U.S. policy was not the primary political force that gave the Zionist movement such a distinct advantage over the Palestinians. British imperialism was driven by its need to outpace France in their race to control the Middle East while also envisioning a land bridge to India, the "Jewel in the Crown" of the Empire. Nevertheless, it seems legitimate to argue that the seeds of Zionism were in the British consciousness and in the hearts of key politicians as a result of Christian Zionist theology. In the last quarter of the 20th century, those seeds jumped the pond to play a significant role in U.S. politics.

FIVE TRENDS CONVERGED in the late 1970s and early '80s that led American Jewish leaders to re-examine their several-decades-long alliance with the liberal Protestant and Catholic establishment and turn to the Christian Right.

First, the fastest growing sectors of American Christianity were the charismatic, pentecostal, and fundamentalist churches. Catholic and mainline Protestant churches were on the decline, both in terms of membership and annual budgets, and the Christian Right had begun to assert its political clout.

Second, in 1976 an evangelical Christian and Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher was elected president, drawing considerable support from conservative Christians. Jimmy Carter's initial popularity gave positive energy and significant encouragement for conservative Christians to be involved more directly in the political process, something that had long been avoided by this growing sector of the body politic. Around the same time such organizations as the Moral Majority appeared on the scene, and televangelists such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell began to use their radio and television programs for political commentary and advocacy.

Third, Jewish leaders had noticed increased criticism of Israel from the National Council of Churches and several mainline Protestant denominations. Rabbi Marc Tannenbaum of the American Jewish Community summarized the shift like this: "The evangelical community is the largest and fastest growing block of pro-Israeli, pro-Jewish sentiment in this country. Since the 1967 War, the Jewish community has felt abandoned by Protestants, by groups clustered around the National Council of Churches, which because of sympathy with Third World causes gave an impression of support for the PLO. There was a vacuum of public support to Israel that began to be filled by the fundamentalist and evangelical Christians."

The fourth development occurred in Israel when Menachem Begin of the more militant Likud Party was elected prime minister. Begin often utilized biblical language to justify his policies, and he gave time and energy to nurture relationships with Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jesse Helms, and other leaders of the Christian Right. After Israel's pre-emptive strike on an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, Begin did not alert President Reagan initially, but telephoned Jerry Falwell immediately and asked him to "tell the Christians across America to support Israel's right to protect itself." The Israeli Tourism Bureau also began to court fundamentalist pastors in the Bible Belt for Holy Land Tours, which soon became significant sources of revenue and mass education of a new constituency of pro-Israel activists.

The final development occurred in March 1977 when President Carter, who was beginning to assert his commitment to human rights around the world, inserted into a speech that the Palestinians must have full human rights and have a right to a "homeland." No U.S. president had so clearly stated such a position.

The Israeli lobby and its new friends in the Christian Right were mobilized the rest of the year in opposition to Carter's policies, with full-page advertisements appearing across the United States and letter writing campaigns put in motion. The advertisement took direct aim at Carter's statement: "We affirm as evangelicals our belief in the Promised Land for the Jewish people.... We would view with grave concern any effort to carve out of the Jewish homeland another nation or political entity." The ad campaign was organized by Jerry Strober, a former employee of the American Jewish Committee, who told Newsweek magazine: "[The Christian Right] is Carter's constituency and he had better listen to them.... The real source of strength the Jews have in this country is from the evangelicals."

In the 1980 election, more than 80 percent of the Christian Right supported the candidacy of Ronald Reagan. Reagan became the most pro-Israel president in U.S. history, partly of political necessity but also as a result of his religious convictions. Reagan adopted the end-time Bible prophecy theology called dispensationalism, in which Israel plays a significant role prior to the return of Jesus and the final Battle of Armageddon. Reagan made reference to "Armageddon" on seven public occasions and seemed to blend his political analysis with his Armageddon theology. Two White House briefings were held for the Christian Right on the strategic alliance between Israel and the United States. Not a single mainline Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, or Catholic leader was invited.

AFTER SEPT. 11 the pro-Israel lobby and the Christian Right began to close ranks, fearing that George W. Bush's support for Israel was beginning to waver. At the April 2002 "Washington Rally for Israel," for example, an impressive lineup of U.S. politicians were joined by leading voices from Israel and the American Jewish community to address the audience of well over 100,000 people on the Washington Mall. The list included former Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, New York Gov. George Pataki, and others.

The loudest cheers of the rally, however, were reserved for Janet Parshall, who hosts her own nationally syndicated radio program, Janet Parshall's America, and serves as a spokesperson for the Family Research Council. Parshall drew an immediate ovation when she said, "I stand before you today representing the National Religious Broadcasters...we represent millions of Christian broadcasters in this country. We stand with you now and forever." She went on, to loud applause and sustained cheers, to say, "I am here to tell you today, we Christians and Jews together will not labor any less in our support for Israel. We will never limp, we will never wimp, we will never vacillate in our support of Israel."

Last fall in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon addressed more than 3,000 Christian fundamentalists—most from the United States, South Africa, and Europe—at a festival organized by the primary international Christian Zionist organization, the International Christian Embassy-Jerusalem. Sharon said, "Coming here, I heard many people say, ‘We love you, we love Israel.' I tell you now—we love YOU. We love all of you!" Sharon continued, "You did not come here as normal tourists, you came because your souls and your hearts brought you here. And when you come here you don't need a ‘guide book.' You have a guide book, you have the Bible in your hands." Many of the Christian Zionists called out to support Sharon in "finishing the job" and encourage him to "annihilate" Yasir Arafat.

The theology and political ideology of Christian Zionism raises important challenges for Christians, Muslims, and Jews as the world learns to cope with the new American imperialism, in the Middle East and beyond. For Jews, there are serious questions to be raised concerning the alignment of many major American Jewish organizations and the Christian Right. While the prospect of unconditional support for Israel from upwards of 25 million Christian fundamentalists may be an attractive political venture, the Jewish community might be reminded of the history of anti-Semitism from these new "friends," whose eschatological vision gives Jews the choice of converting to Christianity or being incinerated at Armageddon.

Gershom Gorenberg, author of The End of Days, warns Jews of the dangers of such marriages of convenience with groups that ultimately have little in common with Jewish values. Gorenberg writes, "In the long run, [the Christian Right's] apocalyptic agenda has no room for Israel as a normal country. Boosting their expectations could well increase the acrimony when Israel's real needs lead it to depart from the ‘prophetic program.'"

The alignment of the Christian Right with Likud politics in Israel and the new power alignment within the Republican Party raises multiple problems for Christians. Evangelicals are challenged to not just distance themselves from the Christian Right but to engage in a constructive dialogue that raises significant theological concerns about justice, peace, and the consequences of literal biblical hermeneutics. In addition to a significant lack of justice for the Palestinians, the Christian Zionist agenda does not consider long-term survival for the state of Israel in an increasingly hostile Middle East. Should Israel, because of its increasingly hard-line agenda, lose the approximately $6 billion it now receives annually from the United States, it will face possible economic collapse and increased security threats.

Perhaps the most glaring weakness in the Christian Zionist program is its failure to relate to or defend Palestinian Christians, who are fleeing their homeland in record numbers not due to Islamic extremism, but because of Israel's brutal occupation policies, including economic closures, theft of land and settlement construction, and military aggression.

Jesus was challenged by a type of apocalyptic Zionist question just prior to his ascension, when he was asked if it was time to restore the kingdom to Israel. He rejected the idea and told his followers that it was not for them to know the "times or the seasons" that God has chosen. In other words, do not take prophetic texts and turn them into an apocalyptic scenario of the end times and strive to use scripture in a predictive and reductionist form of prophecy. This usurps the sovereignty of God and places human speculation at the center of the Christian mission, which is inevitably fallible.

Jesus offers another direction. He says, "But it is for you to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the world." Or, put another way, go into the difficult places, the places of persecution and crucifixion, and live the gospel. Love one another and proclaim the gospel of justice and love where it will bring opposition. And start in Jerusalem—the city of the prophets, the city of the empty tomb, the city of Abraham, and learn to live the new life of discipleship. And then, the text continues, Jesus vanished from their sight—without leaving defined answers to their prophetic questions, but instead leaving the task to figure out how to live as servants of the living God.

Donald E. Wagner is a professor of religion and director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at North Park University in Chicago. He is the author of Anxious for Armageddon (Herald Press, 1995) and Dying in the Land of Promise: Palestine and Palestinian Christianity from Pentecost to 2000 (Fox/Melisende; second edition, April 2003).

Short Fuse to Apocalypse? by Donald E. Wagner. Sojourners Magazine, July-August 2003 (Vol. 32, No. 4, pp. 20-24, 47). Cover.

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