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Meet The New Zionist's
The members of the Christian
Coalition of America are some of the most passionate defenders of
Israel in the United States. There's just one catch: they want to convert
all Jews to Christianity. Matthew Engel reports on an unholy alliance
At first sight, the
scene is very familiar: one that happens in Washington DC and other major
American cities all the time. On the platform, an Israeli student is
telling thousands of supporters how the horrors of the year have only
reinforced his people's determination. "Despite the terror attacks,
they'll never drive us away out of our God-given land," he says.
This is greeted with whoops and hollers and waving of
Israeli flags and the blowing of the shofar, the Jewish ceremonial ram's
horn. Then comes the mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, who is received even
more rapturously. "God is with us. You are with us." And there
are more whoops and hollers and flag-waves and shofar-blows.
This support is not offered with any ifs or buts either.
The placards round the hall insist that every inch of the Holy Land should
belong to Israel and that there should never be a Palestinian state. These
assertions are backed up by biblical quotations. It could be a rally in
Jerusalem for those Israelis who think Ariel Sharon is a dangerous softie.
But something very strange is going on here. There are
thousands of people cheering for Israel in the huge Washington Convention
Centre. But not one of them appears to be Jewish, at least not in the
conventional sense. For this is the annual gathering of a very non-Jewish
organisation indeed: the Christian
Coalition of America.
And the strangest thing of all is not their support,
which is a novel and important development in American politics, but the
thinking that lies behind it - which is altogether more chilling to
Israel's traditional supporters than all the cheers and flags would
suggest. You might also describe it as downright weird.
In a country where weekly church attendance is about 20
times the level it is in Britain (40% v 2%), the relationship between
religion and politics in the US is intense. And there is little doubt
that, last spring, when President Bush dithered and dallied over his
Middle East policy before finally coming down on Israel's side, he was
influenced not by the overrated Jewish vote, but by the opinion of
Christian "religious conservatives" - the self-description of
between 15 and 18% of the electorate. When the president demanded that
Israel withdraw its tanks from the West Bank in April, the White House
allegedly received 100,000 angry emails from Christian conservatives.
A decade ago, when the president's father was in the
White House, his eldest son's election-time job was to act as unofficial
ambassador to this group, offer assurances that they and the
administration were at one on such matters as abortion and pornography and
prayer in schools, the issues they like to group together as "family
values". US-Israel relations, which reached rock bottom when George
Bush Sr was president and the obstreperous Yitzhak Shamir was Israeli
prime minister, were never an issue.
What's changed? Not the Book of Genesis, which is what
Michael Brown, the coalition's church liaison officer, quotes when you ask
him to explain the support for Israel. "And I will make of thee a
great nation," the Lord told Abraham, "And I will bless them
that bless thee and curse them that curse thee."
On the conference floor, however, the explanation has
more to do with the end of the world than the start of it. What has really
changed is the emergence of the doctrine known as "dispensationalism",
popularised in the novels of the Rev Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. LaHaye
and Jenkins may not mean much to you or to the readers of the New York
Times Book Review, but the ninth volume of their Left Behind series sold
three million hardback copies in the US last year, eclipsing John Grisham.
Central to the theory - based on a reading of scripture
Brown would prefer not to discuss - is the Rapture, the second coming of
Christ, which will presage the end of the world. A happy ending depends on
the conversion of the Jews. And that, to cut a long story very short, can
only happen if the Jews are in possession of all the lands given to them
by God. In other words, these Christians are supporting the Jews in order
to abolish them.
Oh yes, agreed Marion Pollard, a charming lady from
Dallas who was selling hand-painted Jerusalem crystal in the exhibition
hall at the conference. "God is the sovereign. He'll do what he
pleases. But based on the scripture, those are the guidelines." She
calls herself a fervent supporter of Israel, as does Lewis Hall of North
Carolina. "I believe they do have to accept the Messiah." And if
they don't? "I believe they will when they know who He is. I believe
that one day they are going to wake up. It might take a third world war to
Meanwhile, outside the hall was Leanne Cariker from
Oklahoma, carrying a placard saying "Just Say No! To A Palestinian
State". Her support of Israel is based on the same premise. "The
Bible says there is no way to worship God except through the son,"
To add to the bizarreness of this scene, she was
standing opposite another group of demonstrators: anti-Zionist Hasidic
Jews from Brooklyn in long black coats, who oppose the state of Israel
based on their own reading of the Bible. Confused? You should be. Poor
Leanne Cariker was. "I'm not against them," she wailed.
"I'm for them. I believe they're God's chosen people."
You might think these Christian activists represent the
furthest shores of American politico-religious wackiness. The politicians
don't think so. This conference began with a videotaped benediction
straight from the Oval office. Some of the most influential republicans in
Congress addressed the gathering including - not once, but twice - Tom
DeLay, who is hot favourite to take over as majority leader of the House
of Representatives after the midterm elections on November 5, thus
becoming arguably the most powerful man on Capitol Hill.
"Are you tired of all this, are you?" he
yelled to the audience. "Nooooooo!" they roared back. "Not
when you're standing up for Jews and Jesus, that's for sure," he
Jews habitually do not stand up for Jesus (although this
conference did have a sprinkling of Messianic Jews, who do just that). But
most Jewish leaders have opted to shrug, accept the Christians' support
and let them whistle for their conversions. That certainly goes for Ariel
Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, reportedly greeted "like a rock
star" by Christian evangelicals in Jerusalem last month. More
thoughtful leaders are at least concerned.
"I'm going to take the support because Israel needs
it," said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, vice-president of the US's
conservative (in this context middle-of-the-road) Jewish organisation, the
United Synagogue. "Their theology is in a different world. We can
cope with it. If I convince them not to support Israel, are they going to
give up their attempt to convert Jews? No."
Not everyone accepts this. "They don't love the
real Jewish people," the author Gershom Gorenberg told the CBS
programme 60 Minutes. "They love us as characters in their story, in
their play, and that's not who we are. If you listen to the drama that
they are describing, essentially it's a five-act play in which the Jews
disappear in the fourth act."
This is not something speakers at the rally are anxious
to emphasise. DeLay was followed by Pat Robertson, the coalition's
founder, sometime presidential candidate and the very personification of
the successful American TV evangelist: blow-dried hair, stick-on smile,
expensive suit, honeyed voice and certainty of tone.
Robertson prefers to dwell on Arab plans to drive Israel
into the sea and the iniquity of Yasser Arafat and "his gang of
thugs". But he also cites the stories of Joshua and David to prove
Israel's ownership of Jerusalem "long before anyone had heard of
Robertson has now retired from the coalition, leaving it
in the hands of Roberta Combs, a grandmother from South Carolina who has
the longest and most scarlet fingernails I have ever seen. She scratches
them across the table when she wants to make a point. In an interview, her
most vigorous point is in support of Bush. "I think he's a great
president. I think he's a caring person. First of all, he's a Christian,
which I identify with. He's pro-family, he's pro-life, he's a friend of
Combs is not in the Robertson league as a communicator.
And when I shift the conversation round to Israel, she discovers an urgent
need to attend to her toddler grandson, leaving me with her aide Michael
Brown. The prevailing view is that the coalition, a powerful voice in the
early 90s, is not the force it was.
This is partly held to be due to her failings, and
partly to the rhetorical excesses of Robertson and his ally Jerry Falwell,
leader of the Moral Majority, especially in September last year when
Falwell, on Robertson's TV show, blamed the attacks on, among others,
"the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and
The other week Falwell called Mohammed a terrorist,
which might have accounted for his unexplained non-appearance at the
conference. But even the coalition's most tireless opponent does not sense
any kind of victory. Rev Barry Lynn, himself an ordained minister and head
of the pressure group Americans United for Separation of Church and State,
likes to start his speeches by saying: "The good news is that the
Christian Coalition is fundamentally collapsing. The bad news is that the
people who ran it are all in the government." Whenever he goes over
to the department of justice, he keeps running into Pat Robertson's old
The linkage between the Christian right and the
Republican party is getting ever stronger, especially in the electorally
crucial states of the south and west. And Lynn is alarmed at the prospects
for the midterm elections. The Republicans are quite likely to regain
control of the Senate, removing the roadblock that currently stops the
president appointing conservative judges ("impartial judges",
according to most Republicans; "rabid rightwingers," according
to their opponents) to lower courts and, when the expected vacancies
arise, to the supreme court. This will give the right, and most
particularly the religious right, unprecedented influence over all three
branches of government in Washington.
"Karl Rove [Bush's political guru] has said
publicly you cannot alienate your base. You cannot alienate that 18% of
religious conservatives. You don't mess with these people," says
Lynn. "They want you to be just as they are. And Bush is just as they
are. He may waffle on one or two issues, such as stem-cell research. But
fundamentally he comes down on their side."
In the short term this might not alter American life all
that much. It might take a generation for the Supreme Court to roll back
the restrictions that, for instance, forbid prayer in school. The abortion
debate is for the moment dormant. Neither the churches nor the government
show any sign of imposing teenage sexual abstinence any time soon. Not
before, say, the conversion of the Jews.
One of the points Robertson likes to emphasise is to
reject accusations that the coalition's support of Israel is a
"Johnny come lately experience". "We've been with them
through thick and thin," he says. This is a point made by several of
his supporters, one of whom presses on me a little booklet with quotes
from Christian theologians on the subject. He especially recommends the
one from Jonathan Edwards, the 18th-century puritan divine. "The Jews
in all their dispersions shall cast away their old infidelity," said
Edwards, "and shall have their hearts wonderfully changed, and abhor
themselves for their past unbelief and obstinacy. They shall flow together
to the blessed Jesus."
See Also: Israel's
Source: Guardian Unlimited ©
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