In assessing the political conditions necessary to establish a lasting peace in Israel-Palestine, Americans are confronted with a theological question: Does the Bible insist that Christians take a certain view regarding the treatment of the Jewish people in particular, their presence in the Holy Land, or the placement of the borders of Israel?
One particular subset of American Christianity answers that question in the affirmative. Yes, they believe, the Bible does mandate that we treat the Jews—specifically, the Jews of Israel—not merely as another ethnic group of fallen (sinful) people, made in the image of God and in need of the Gospel, but as one that holds God’s unique favor and is deserving of our full, unconditional support. This subset is made up largely of American evangelicals who are committed to something called dispensationalism. “The essence of Dispensationalism,” according to Charles Ryrie, a dispensationalist theologian, “Is the distinction between Israel and the Church. This grows out of [our] consistent employment of normal or plain interpretation, and it reflects an understanding of the basic purpose of God in all His dealings with mankind as that of glorifying Himself through salvation and other purposes as well.”
The fruits of this “normal or plain interpretation” of the Bible have raised any number of red flags for conservative theologians of all Christian denominations. Of greater concern to us here, however, is the way in which many popular and powerful dispensationalist leaders apply their apocalyptic understanding of the place of the modern state of Israel on the stage of world history—the “other purposes” by which God must be glorified—in the form of “Christian Zionism.”
When President Bush, himself an evangelical, proposed statehood for Palestine in his 2002 “Road Map,” several key evangelical leaders denounced the plan, hinting that they would withdraw support for him if he failed to reconsider. According to their Christian Zionist understanding of dispensationalism, there simply cannot be a Palestinian state, because God has promised all of Eretz Israel to the Jews—forever. The borders of the state of Israel must extend, literally, to biblical proportions, including all of the land that is now in dispute—the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and all of Jerusalem—and we must do everything in our power to make it so.
Addressing this way of thinking is essential to the success of any peace plan for the Middle East that involves the United States, because the sheer size of the umbrella group that we call evangelical—there are an estimated 65 million evangelicals in the United States—means that, in a democracy, their deeply held beliefs matter. (President Bush won the White House in November 2004 with fewer than 61 million votes.) Although, obviously, all 65 million evangelicals are not militant Christian Zionists, many are beholden to leaders who are unflinching supporters of the state of Israel and actively hostile toward the Palestinians. Paul Charles Merkley, author of Christian Attitudes Towards the State of Israel, conservatively estimates that Christian Zionists number in the “tens of millions.”
The greatest source of Christian Zionist influence is found in the Christian media. Evangelical Christians are fed a steady diet of dispensationalist/Zionist interpretations of the news every day through the radio and television programs of Pat Robertson (CBN News, The 700 Club); Jerry Falwell (the Liberty Channel, which broadcasts, among other things, Zola Levitt Presents); John Hagee; Benny Hinn (This Is Your Day!); Kerby Anderson (Point of View); Jack Van Impe (Jack Van Impe Presents); and countless others, with audiences in the millions. Megachurches, which are virtual media centers, hold prophecy conferences all across America and invite rabbis to come and speak to Christians on Israeli history and politics. Perhaps most influential have been the best-selling books of the Left Behind series, by Timothy LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. The 12-book series, offering a fictional account of the playing-out of dispensationalist interpretations of biblical prophecy, has enjoyed sales of over 62 million units, eclipsing Hal Lindsey’s dispensationalist fantasy novel, The Late Great Planet Earth, the best-selling book of the 1970’s.
The net effect of this constant barrage of media attention focused on Israel as the center of God’s plan for the world is that Christians who may not be experts on the “70th Week of Daniel” or the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” are nonetheless prone to accept any negative interpretation of the Palestinians and are favorable toward the fulminations of politicians and journalists who reject any right of return for Palestinians and the very idea of Palestinian statehood. It means that the neoconservatives and members of Likud who are eager to increase their own power and sphere of influence can easily find an audience willing to listen and organize at the grassroots level in support of their candidacies and policies. And it means that Israel-first politicians, Jewish resettlement groups (which bring tens of thousands of Jews from around the world to populate settlements in such hot zones as the West Bank), and far-right Israeli Zionist groups have an American cash cow eager to fund their efforts—efforts that war against any final-status settlement for peace.
Evangelicals are encouraged to lavish money on various pro-Israel groups, such as John Hagee’s Exodus II, which has given over $3.7 million to finance the immigration of over 6,000 Russian Jews to Israel; or Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein’s HaKeren Leyedidut, which has raised $100 million over the past eight years; or Pat Robertson’s Bless Israel, in which Christians are asked to “show your support for Israel by blessing their [sic] economy.” In addition, they are prodded to attend such spectacles as the Christian Coalition’s “Christian Solidarity for Israel Rally” in Washington (2002) to hear speeches by Dick Armey, J.C. Watts, Tom DeLay, and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert and to sign pledges of total support for Ariel Sharon and his use of whatever means are necessary to defeat “terrorists.”
Oftentimes, more moderate, mainstream evangelical groups give money and support to more radical Christian Zionist efforts. One group that enjoys the support of the Christian Coalition is the Battalion of Deborah, which conducted its “2005 Solidarity With Israel Tour” from February 20 to March 3. On February 23 to 24, paying guests enjoyed being “assigned to work at one of the Barak Brigade army bases.” According to the promotional literature,
The Barak Brigade is a tank unit in the Golan that serves along the Syrian border. Each participant will be issued an army uniform and assigned to work as a volunteer in tasks ranging from painting to oiling equipment and other important things in between . . . but most of all loving and encouraging the young soldiers defending Israel.
Christian Zionist leaders are not shy about using a little muscle when it comes to playing hardball politics and have sometimes interfered in the peace process. In January 1998, for example, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netan-yahu embarked on a diplomatic mission to the United States to visit President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The Clinton administration intended to press Netanyahu to pursue a “credible withdrawal” of Israeli Defense Forces from the West Bank, to offer the Palestinian Authority some degree of limited autonomy, and to make greater efforts to comply with the Oslo accords. After Netanyahu’s initial meeting with Albright, despite her statement to the media that the meeting went “extremely well,” it was clear that Netanyahu would not budge on any of these issues. Yet President Clinton’s frustration turned to outrage when, before meeting with him, Netanyahu attended a rally in Washington on Monday, January 19, of the Christian Zionist group Voices United for Israel, then held a private meeting with Jerry Falwell, Morris Chapman and Richard Lee (of the Southern Baptist Convention), and John Hagee (a San Antonio megachurch pastor). The purpose of both the rally and the closed-door meeting was, according to a New York Times report, to encourage Netanyahu to “oppose steps to give up any more land to the Palestinians.” Falwell (who was, at the time, disseminating a video implicating President Clinton in the death of Vince Foster) made it clear to the prime minister that he could mobilize a substantial Republican voting bloc, the Christian Zionists, to counter any political fallout that might occur as a result of Netanyahu’s refusal to negotiate. “There are about 200,000 evangelical pastors in America,” said Falwell, “and we’re asking them all through e-mail, faxes, letters, telephone, to go into their pulpits and use their influence in support of the state of Israel and the prime minister.” The rally, cosponsored by Pat Robertson’s and Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition and the National Religious Broadcasters, circumvented the peace process and sent a clear message to American evangelicals that only “liberals” (such as Bill Clinton) think that Israel should make land concessions in the quest for peace. Adding to this, President Clinton, after concluding his failed talks with Netanyahu, went on The Newshour With Jim Lehrer that very evening, as the Monica Lewinsky scandal was breaking, to deny that “there is a sexual relationship” and to describe his time with Netanyahu as “difficult.”
The Republican Party, so heavily influenced by the neoconservatives, is happy to cultivate the dispensationalist evangelicals, both through promises of promoting their “moral values” and through tough talk about “terrorists”—where terrorist is often a synonym for Palestinian. A strange and perverse symbiosis exists between many politicians, who promise the moon to evangelicals, and popular evangelical leaders, who are so eager for access to the corridors of power that they are willing to compromise again and again on those “moral values” issues (“gay marriage,” abortion, euthanasia) in order to stay in the loop.
America’s evangelicals are, by and large, sincere in their commitment to what they believe the Bible teaches and think that those who deny their interpretation of Israel’s place in the world and the land to which she is entitled are simply theological liberals who do not take the Bible seriously. In these troubled times, the last thing that Christians need to do is to stop taking the Bible seriously. However, in the absence of historic Christian teachings on the Last Days and biblical prophecy (so rarely confessed and taught by the traditional Christian denominations in America—Lutheran, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, etc.), these Christians have come to believe that there is but one “literal” interpretation of the Bible when it comes to the land of Israel.
Some conservative evangelical intellectuals are bristling at the embarrassment that the efforts of the Christian Zionists provide them, opting for “progressive dispensationalism,” which seeks to tone down the extreme obsession with Israel that characterizes Christian Zionism. Others are going a step further and renouncing dispensationalism altogether—while retaining a commitment to what is now called “historic premillennialism.” Historic premillennialists do not radically divide Israel and the Church but emphasize continuity between the two Testaments, Old and New. Still others are embracing “covenant theology,” a modern incarnation of the historic Christian eschatology embraced by some American Calvinists. Progressive dispensationalists, historic premillennialists, and covenant theologians engage in friendly debate and dialogue, reflecting their more balanced and academic approach to questions of biblical eschatology. This dialogue, however, seems to occur primarily among theologians and pastors and has not yet trickled down to the evangelical laity, who remain under the powerful influence of the Christian media.
If we are to remove the obstacle of Christian Zionism, we must encourage and support the efforts of those evangelical theologians who are earnestly seeking to reform evangelical eschatology in favor of a view that both takes the Bible seriously and places emphasis on the crucified and risen Christ (Who will, indeed, come again), not on the state of Israel. Furthermore, we must make every effort to expose the relationships among the Likud, the neoconservatives, and the Christian Zionist leadership and the cynical ways in which they seek to manipulate faithful evangelicals into supporting their secularist goals—goals that have nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, from which evangelicals derive their name. Evangelicals must be brought to the conclusion that it is through the Church and the Gospel, not through the Republican Party, that God’s purposes on earth are furthered. Today, with Christian Zionism exerting so significant an influence on 65 million Americans—and on politics and foreign affairs—such efforts are essential if we are to see a lasting peace in Israel-Palestine, something all Christians of good will should desire.