America, Israel and the Evangelical movement
On December 6th 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel and announced his attention to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, reversing decades of United States neutrality on the the issue.
The move was criticized by many nations and sparked a wave of protests across the Palestinian territories. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah denounced President Trump and called for a Third Intifada to waged against the Jewish State in the wake of the decision.
Now, I am under no impressions that anyone reading this considers themselves to be a friend of the State of Israel. Zionism and the establishment of the Jewish State has had (putting it mildly) drastic consequences for the Middle East and the Israel lobby in the United States has had overwhelming influence over how American policy is conducted in that region. Regardless, the decision should come as no surprise, as it certainly did not to this author. The relationship between America and Israel has had tragic consequences for, not just the United States, but for the entire Middle East and certainly for the Palestinian people. But such a relationship should not be considered surprising— moreover, it was a relationship more or less predestined to happen in a country for whose very foundation was fertile ground for Protestantism.
Christian support for a return of Jews to the Holy Land goes as far back as the Protestant Reformation, particularly within the Puritans who migrated to the New England colonies. U.S. President John Adam’s even remarked that, “I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation” believing once a future “Judean” state was established, they would become Unitarian Christians.1 However, for our purposes, the origins of Christian Zionism can be traced back to an Anglo-Irish Bible teacher by the name of John Nelson Darby. Darby is credited with being the father of Dispensationalism, a theological school of thought that would have a deep impact on American Protestantism. Dispensationalism is a pre-Tribulational school of Christian theology that states that the Seven Years Tribulation is to take place somewhere in the imminent future. This line of thought in particular stresses the importance of the Jewish people in relation to God’s plan for the End of Days. According to Dispensationalism, a future ‘kingdom’ of Israel will exist somewhere in the future, which will be beset on all sides by enemies of God. Dispensationalists point to Isaiah 66:8 and the 1948 founding of the State of Israel as the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy:
Can a country be born in a day or a nation be brought forth in a moment? Yet no sooner is Zion in labor than she gives birth to her children.
This verse, more than any other, is taken as proof by Dispensationalists that we are in the End of Days. During Darby’s lifetime, Dispensationalism was taken up by Baptists and Old School Presbyterians. Contemporaneously, it has been taken up by Pentecostals, Charismatic denominations and, of course, the Evangelical movement.
Evangelicalism in the United States is a ‘non-denominational’ or rather, inter-denominational movement emphasizing the “Evangelism” of the Gospels. Most Evangelical Christians identify as ‘non-denominational’ viz., that they do not belong to any one particular Church. This, however, is absolute bullshit. As this author grew up in the American Bible Belt, he can assure his readers that non-denominational Christians are merely Baptists who stopped caring about the particulars of their own theology. Nonetheless, Dispensational thought has had a profound impact on American Christianity. Now, all of this hullabaloo about the importance of Jews in God’s plan might very well raise the eyebrows of some Catholic or Orthodox readers. Dispensationalism, or rather Evangelicalism, is by all accounts, heretical. Like all movements within Protestantism, it is the personal opinion of a single individual whose personal interpretation of the Bible went on to be founded as a new Church in their own names. I recall that when the decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish State was announced, hundreds of Palestinian Christians gathered in Bethlehem, the town of Christ’s birth, to protest the decision.
If the founding of the State of Israel is the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, why on earth would their be protests by Christians of all people?
The truth of the matter is that Jerusalem occupies a very tenuous position as a city desired by both Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For the purposes of this article, we’ll only focus on its perceived importance within Christianity, as it is quite obvious to anyone who knows the history of that region why the Jews would want Jerusalem, their old Biblical capital, as the capital for their modern state.
Jerusalem once held a position within the then Christianized Roman Empire as a city within the Pentarchy, an amalgamation of five cities which held Bishopric seats within the ancient Christian world. Furthermore, when the Crusaders took the city 1099, it was under the impression that it would be established as the capital of a Christian realm. The idea that the Jews or the city of Jerusalem held the eschatological importance that it does now in as it might have in medieval times would have been seen as absurd.
What’s even more striking, from a theological perspective, is that dispensationalism implies two ways to salvation, one for Christians, and one for Jews. Within Traditional Christianity, the Church itself was taken to be the true Israel— the successor to the Levitical Tradition of the Old Testament. All whom are to be saved find their salvation within the Church. Dispensationalism, by contrast, implies that Jews (as an ethnic group) are a crucial part to the fulfillment of God’s plan for the world. This runs in the face of every Ecumenical Council declared by the Nicene Church. As it stands, according to Dispensationalism, there is the Church, reserved for gentiles, and Israel, which is held to be synonymous with all of Jewry.
Dispensationalism may have fallen out of favor, if it did not find new life within the 1970 book, The Late, Great Planet Earth by Christian Evangelical Hal Lindsay. The book includes numerous, personal Biblical interpretations by Lindsay, none of which have any relevance within Traditional Christianity. However, it should be noted that Lindsay identified the then Soviet Union as the Biblical ‘Gog and Magog’ who would, for whatever reason, invade the State of Israel, which would trigger an event leading to the Rapture. This lent credence to Russia being an evil empire of sorts, in league with Satan— despite the fact that Russia has been within the Orthodox Church for over one-thousand years— this, has probably, subconsciously influenced the ongoing Russophobia present within American discourse. These pre-Millennial, dispensationalist beliefs gained even wider popularity within the American consciousness with the immensely successful Left Behind series by Evangelical minister Tim LaHaye and fellow Evangelical Christian Jerry B. Jenkins which take place in a post-‘Rapture’ world ruled over by the anti-Christ.
Traditional Christianity, whether it be Eastern Orthodoxy, which is not well known in America or Roman Catholicism, which has traditionally been looked down upon as ‘quasi-Pagan’ within Evangelical and other Protestant circles, has had little to no impact on the development of theological discourse within the United States. This ignorance has led to memory-holing of Christian history before the year 1500. It would probably come as a surprise to most Evangelicals that within the Middle East dwell twenty-million Christians, although that number has been significantly reduced by the onslaught of the Islamic State; the majority of whom belong to the Melkite, Marionite, Antiochian, Syriac and Coptic churches. These ancient churches have theological views that run contrary to contemporary American Protestantism, to whom their views of the State of Israel and the prevalence of Jerusalem not only seem outrageous, but outright heretical.
With the theological issues set aside, this brings us to the geopolitical debate surrounding the Jewish State.
The current State of Israel emerged out of the British Mandate of Palestine which was carved up from the remains of the former Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. Arabs had lived in what was then called Palestine since the days of the Islamic conquests some fourteen-hundred years before; until then, however, there had never been a distinct ‘Palestinian’ identity. The announcement of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 mean’t support for a Jewish “homeland” in Palestine had the backing of the British Empire, but it wasn’t until the events and the aftermath of the Second World War that the idea of a Jewish “homeland” had morphed into an idea of a distinctly Jewish “State.”
The State of Israel was seen as something akin to a ‘Crusader State’ among the Arab nations; something foreign, alien, and quasi-Western. The events of the Arab-Israeli War (1948) and the Six Day War (1967), all of which resulted in decisive Israeli victories, mean’t that the Jewish State had firmly been established as a permanent nation among the countries of the Middle East. Moreover, since Israel had the implicit backing of the United States, and to a lesser extent, Europe—Arab incursions into Israel would mean that they would be facing down the brunt of not only the Israeli Defense Force, but the armed forces of the United States. American interests in the Middle East would not allowed to be challenged, as demonstrated by the 1991 Gulf War. If the Americans would send their armed forces to defend small, oil-rich emirates like Kuwait, what could Arabs expect if an Arab leader decided to cross the Jordan into the West Bank?
Criticism of Israel goes back to its founding and criticism of Zionism going back even further; one of the charges raised against Israel is that it is effectively an apartheid state— displacing the ‘native’ Palestinians for the implementation of continued Israeli settlement throughout Palestine. By all accounts, this is objectively true: the State of Israel is both implicitly and explicitly, both de jure and de facto, a Jewish ethnostate— founded for Jews and their interests. Although, as much as one may be want to criticize Israel for their blatant violation of the rights of the Palestinian minority, whether from a position of legitimate concern of humanitarianism or of simple antisemitism, this effectively ignores three obvious things:
- Israel has won numerous wars against it’s neighbors and is a nuclear power.
If the stereotypes are correct, Jews at their core are a cunning people. No Arab state has crossed the Jordan or into the Negev without being driven out and humiliated. Israel has made alliances with the United States of America and many countries within the European Union, making it doubtful that any invasion of it’s territory would be tolerated in any scenario, despite ongoing criticisms for it’s treatment of Palestinians. Coupled with this, Israel is believed to have a nuclear arsenal and given it’s militaristic culture, it is unlikely that any hypothetical occupation would be successful.
- Palestinian lives effectively don’t matter.
Anyone with half a working brain knows that if the kind of population replacement occurring in the West Bank were happening anywhere else, the United Nations would have declared it a genocide and Blue Helmets would have been flocking into the West Bank. Israel, however, has the unique position of being a State founded by persecuted peoples escaping genocide and has been able to milk this narrative for everything that it is worth. The starvation campaigns and blockades in the Gaza Strip and the colonization of the West Bank would have been enough to have to incur sanctions from every nation in the civilized world were it not for the particular set of circumstances that proceeded Israel’s founding. The truth of the matter is, in a few decades every Palestinian will have been pushed out of the West Bank, immigrated to either Egypt or Jordan, or killed in the last Intifada before the land which comprised the original Mandate of Palestine is effectively majority Jewish. Despite all the protests, all the ‘grass roots’ campaigns, and all the “Free Palestine” T-shirts and bumper stickers, the Arab population within the Jewish State has nothing to look forward to but demographic replacement. And, from the continued lack of a real response from Western nations, there seems little to suggest that the ethnographic destruction of Palestinians is all but assured.
This article opened with the religious and theological presuppositions which allowed a tiny ethnic enclave to be supported by the world’s sole superpower despite being geographically unimportant and thousands of miles away. The Evangelical Right in America, so long as they remain a continued influence, will ensure that the State of Israel continues to exist as a polity in the Middle East. Televangelists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have been instrumental in drumming up support for the Jewish State for decades. Falwell, who once said in 1981 interview: “To stand against Israel is to stand against God. We believe that history and scripture prove that God deals with nations in relation to how they deal with Israel.” was one of Evangelical Christianity’s biggest supporters for political Zionism. However, continued support for Israel from the religious Right cannot be guaranteed. As America becomes less White, and less Christian, the influence that religious leaders and even Jewish leaders have for Israel will be effectively diminished. America’s most rapidly growing demographic, Hispanics, are overwhelmingly Catholic and follow an eschatology completely different from Evangelicalism. Why on earth would a radically different racial minority care about a pet issue of fundamentalists of a nation that now makes up a minority in their own state? This, perhaps more than anything else, might prove to be Israel’s downfall. After all, it isn’t Blacks or Hispanics or Asians building Holocaust memorial museums.
The future of the Jewish State in the Middle East effectively depends on whether or not it can survive without the help and backing of America on its side. Jews have no where else to go. It is doubtful they would want to immigrate to an ever Islamizing Europe (or Madagascar for that matter). Conspiracy theories about a ‘Greater Israel‘ aside, the Jews of the Levant realize they are surrounded by regimes that hate them, that support for their state is diminishing and that the memory of the Holocaust and the pogroms is effectively being lost on newer generations and people’s so distinct from them that they are unable to see them as anything else but a different shade of White, with all the ‘privilege’ that implies. Still, it remains a (remote) possibility that the Evangelicals were right all along and the apocalypse is just around the corner; in which case none of this matters anyway.
1Kark, Ruth (1994). American Consuls in the Holy Land, 1832-1914. Wayne State University Press. p. 23.