A recently recognized source of support for Israel in the United States is helping to produce a political juggernaut of such strength that it, together with Jewish organizations, has elevated the U. S. policy of support for Israel almost above public discussion.
I refer to the Christian Zionists, conservative Christians, largely Protestant, who wholeheartedly back Israel and that nation’s cause. The question immediately arises as to how this seemingly implausible partnership arose.
The philosophical foundations of Christian Zionism go back to ancient times. They are associated with the age-old belief in an epic struggle between the forces of good and evil and a premonition that the world would soon end. This thread is traceable from early Hebrew prophets; from Jesus Christ, who apparently expected that the Kingdom of God would emerge in the lifetime of his disciples; and from the inhabitants of Qumran, whose writings prophesied a horrendous battle between good and evil. The seers considered the world of their day to be sinful, but after the great struggle an age of goodness ruled by God would emerge. No gray area permitting compromise exists between good and evil, they held. The staying power of those beliefs is so great that they are still with us after 2000 years and form the root system of the beliefs of today’s Christian Zionists.
This apocalyptic filament, hugely assisted by the Biblical books of Daniel in the Old Testament and Revelation in the New, wound its way through the Roman period and the Middle Ages toward our own time. A beast with the number 666, it was held, will control the earth until Christ overwhelms him at the battle of Armageddon. The forces of good throw the beast (the Antichrist) into the bottomless pit for a thousand years, permitting the millennium to arrive, a period of bliss and justice in which God rules. Then would come the last judgment and a new heaven, a new earth, and a new Jerusalem.
This idea can be traced through the ages. In the thirteenth century, many of the followers of St. Francis of Assisi viewed him as the torch bearer for a new age of the spirit in which good Christians would forsake material possessions. In the fifteenth, Girolamo Savonarola, a popular revivalist preacher, taught that people should lead a good moral life because the world would end momentarily. In the following century, Jan of Leiden preached the Second Coming of Christ and the arrival of the millennium. In the seventeenth century, at the instigation of Sabbatai Zevi and Nathan of Gaza, the Jewish world was in ferment awaiting the coming of the Messiah and the reappearance of the Temple.
Europe’s Reformation brought renewed interest in the Old Testament and with it the connection of the Jewish people to Palestine. The early English settlers of North America carried with them the belief that the conversion of the Jews to Christianity would be a blessing to the whole world, an opinion that fitted well into the apocalyptic scenario. Jonathan Edwards preached in the 1760s that the millennium was indeed imminent and that Christ would judge the quick and the dead thereafter. In the early 1800s Napoleon Bonaparte became a leading candidate for the position of the Antichrist. A long list of prominent though often controversial personalities, including King George III and the Pope (and even, eventually, Henry Kissinger), succeeded him as nominees for that post.
As one final example of the growth of this view of a coming Apocalypse, Joseph Miller, a popular minister from New York state, prophesied that the end of the world and the return of Christ would occur on March 21, 1843. Even after allowing for minor slippage, the event did not occur when predicted and the followers of Reverend Miller experienced what became known as “The Great Disappointment.”
Other ideas contributed to the growth of Christian Zionism, with England long a leading source for its development. John Nelson Darby, for instance, conceived the doctrine of “dispensationalism” in which the return of the Jews to Palestine played a major role. He traveled frequently to the United States and helped shape the views of evangelical leaders such as Dwight Moody, James Brookes, and William Blackstone.
The Zionist movement, however, might never have succeeded if a group of British politicians had not taken up the cause of restoring the Jews to Palestine. Lord Shaftsbury promoted the cause in the nineteenth century, followed by Lord Palmerston, David Lloyd George, and finally Lord Balfour, who provided an official basis for Jewish immigration to their ancestral homeland with the famous Balfour Declaration of 1917. A brand of idealism mixed easily with practical politics in the activities of these statesmen.
Christian Zionism was developing apace as the nineteenth century ended. A number of groups developed with somewhat differing emphases. Premilleniumists view the future in apocalyptic terms, with struggle between good and evil and the return of Christ, followed by the millennium. Postmilleniumists, however, believe the second coming of Christ will only occur after the millennium. Some concentrate particularly on the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of the priesthood.
The most compelling points of Christian Zionism are that Israel is of prime importance, that the Jews will eventually convert to Christianity, and that the future of the world permits no middle positions allowing compromise. There can be no half-way measures and those who advocate compromise are siding with the enemy.
England’s legal scholar Blackstone went so far as to present to U.S. President Harrison a petition calling for an international conference to promote the return of the Jews to Israel. He worked closely with Chief Justice Brandeis to achieve Zionist goals. As time went on in the twentieth century and Christian Zionism grew, Jewish organizations hoping to bring Jews back to Palestine gave them financial support.
The foundation of the state of Israel in 1948 gave a tremendous boost to Christian Zionists who considered it a fulfillment of Biblical prophesy. Israel’s victory in the Six Day War of 1967 seemed to them a triumph of good over evil in which the entire city of Jerusalem fell at last under Jewish control. Many far-right conservatives joined the Christian Zionists and the Jewish Zionists to form a triple political alliance of increasing power as events seemed to bear out the important role Israel would play in mankind’s future, as foreseen in the Old Testament.
Christian Zionists do not accept the statements of Christ and other early Christian leaders that criticize Old Testament practices. Instead, they project Old Testament practices and prophesies into today’s world. Consequently, they revere the Jews as God’s chosen people with a divine right to all lands promised the Jews in the Old Testament. The territory of Greater Israel, the entire city of Jerusalem, and a rebuilt temple have become the chief objects of Christian Zionist attention. The rebuilt temple would require the installation of the ancient priesthood and resumption of practices such as animal sacrifice. Hal Lindsey, the most popular Christian Zionist author of our day, has written that he expects the Jews to take over the Temple Mount and commence rebuilding the Temple very shortly.
Among the best known Christian Zionist leaders is Jerry Falwell, pastor and founder of Baptist Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, with over 10,000 students. He also sponsors the Liberty Broadcasting Network TV channel and the Old Time Gospel Hour with 350 stations. Falwell is likewise founder of the Moral Majority, which has generated significant public interest. Israel’s victory in the Six Day War helped to cement his identification with Israel, so much so that the Israeli government furnished him with a Lear jet to help him spread his advocacy of Israel. He has promised to mobilize 70 million Americans to promote the cause of Israel. Pat Robertson, president of the Christian Broadcasting Network and leader of the Christian Coalition, and Hal Lindsey are also leaders of Christian Zionism who combine religion with politics in a major way. The latter is author of many books with circulation running into the tens of millions, including his best seller, The Late Great Planet Earth, published in 1970. The common theme includes the emergence of the anti-Christ, the rise of Israel, the return of Christ, Armageddon, the victory of good over evil, the rebuilding of the Temple and the coming of an era of peace and justice. These events were to peak in 1988. Fortunately, the major force for evil, the Soviet Union, collapsed at about this time, so the struggle subsided.
The Arab world replaced the USSR as the major force for evil, however, and the struggle goes on with a new antagonist. The transition from the second to the third millennium provided another auspicious date for the end of our world. Some groups of true believers in the apocalyptic interpretation of history ascended to the hilltops to await the event. When another happening heaves into sight we may expect a similar increase in apocalyptic activity.
The Christian Zionists believe we will live in a period of increasing violence as the epic struggle progresses. People who truly believe and live a moral life may escape that violence, however, and be raptured into Heaven. Those remaining will suffer as the violence increases. Palliative measures, such as President Bush’s proposed “Road Map” to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict in their view will only confuse the clear-cut issue between good and evil and may take away territory which rightfully belongs to Israel. Christian Zionist leaders encourage Israeli settlements on the West Bank in opposition to long-standing U. S. policy. They arrange for Jews in other countries to move to the settlements and help finance the establishment of new settlements. In some cases, individual churches adopt settlements to support. Likewise, Christian Zionists resist proposals to make East Jerusalem the Palestinian capital or to arrange for joint or international administration of the city.
Christian Zionist campaigns to influence Presidential politics began in a major way with Ronald Reagan’s campaign in 198O, when they joined with much publicity in the effort to boost him into the White House. The new president quickly brought Christian Zionists, such as Falwell, Robertson, and Hal Lindsey, into White House activities that included Congressional and national leaders. He sponsored discussion groups that gave the Christian Zionists an opportunity to advertise their beliefs and their power.
Presidents Bush Senior and Clinton did not have the same rapport with Christian Zionists as their predecessor, although the various pro-Israel lobbies helped to keep them on a path generally favorable to Israel.
At the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) 1995 annual policy conference, an important link was forged in the development of Christian Zionism. Up to that time many evangelical Christians tended to oppose Jewish organizations because they thought Jews tended to be too liberal and contributed to a lowering of the nation’s moral standards. The old belief that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ also persisted in some evangelical circles. However, at this juncture Jewish leaders and supporters of Israel realized that to carry forward their own goals regarding Israel, they needed help from evangelical organizations. Consequently, they invited Ralph Reed, executive director of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, to join the conference. The two groups found they could reach a concurrence of views on the basis of promoting the welfare of Israel. Relations between the two movements have become progressively closer since then and they cooperate to prevent any governmental action that they deem contrary to Israel’s interests.
Robertson, who ten years ago decried Jewish influence in America, recently declared he would stand with Israel and he would oppose creation of a Palestinian state. When in May 2002 President Bush called for the withdrawal of Israeli tanks from the Palestinian cities on the West Bank, the White House received more than 100,000 angry e-mail messages from Christian sources objecting to his appeal. As previously mentioned, Christian Zionists vocally oppose the President’s Road Map to peace in the Middle East, which would include the creation of a Palestinian state on land the Zionists, Christian and otherwise, believe should be forever a part of Israel. Perhaps their opposition constitutes one reason why the Bush administration has not promoted the Road Map with more vigor in recent months and has recently shown a willingness to approve Prime Minister Sharon’s plan to include major Israeli West Bank settlements in Israel.
Even though their beliefs are certainly mistaken, Christian Zionists together with the Jewish lobbies, which have gained considerable influence in the U. S. Congress, have achieved great political strength in this country. Unlike Western Europe where such movements are less powerful, it is no longer possible to hold a major, wide-ranging public discussion on the merits of the American policy of support for Israel. A gulf is developing between the foreign policy perceptions of many Americans and those of our European allies, as well as of Islamic countries. Unless a counter force develops, Washington will not be able to support with consistency a policy in the Middle East involving compromise—the only one that can bring peace.
Bill Dale served thirty years in the Foreign Service. His posts, aside from Washington, were Copenhagen, Ottawa, Paris, London, Ankara, Tel Aviv, and Bangui. He was the U. S. envoy in the Central African Republic, 1973-75.