Bible and sword: US Christian Zionists discover Israel
Part 3 in a series of 5 articles on Christian
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10/10/03: (Daily Star) The first lobbying effort on behalf of a Jewish state in Palestine was not organized or initiated by Jews. It occurred in 1891, when a popular fundamentalist Christian writer and lay-preacher, William E. Blackstone, organized a national campaign to appeal to the then-president of the United States, Benjamin Harrison, to support the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.
Blackstone gained notoriety through his 1882 national bestseller Jesus is Coming, his summary of end-of-time premillennial doctrines. He saw a need to politically support the Jewish people after hearing horrifying stories of the pogroms in Russia. Blackstone appealed to multimillionaire friends such as oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, publisher Charles B. Scribner and industrialist JP Morgan to finance advertisements and a petition campaign that were carried in major newspapers from Boston to the Mississippi. Aside from wealthy financiers, Blackstone also received support from most members of the US Senate and House of Representatives and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Despite powerful backing, his appeal went nowhere.
There is little record of significant political backing for the Zionist cause after Blackstone’s initiative, as fundamentalists began to withdraw from political activity following the Scopes trial and battles over evolution. However, after a 50-year hiatus, gradual change began occurring after World War II. Two post-war developments galvanized conservative Christians the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the Cold War. A previously small and marginalized school of Biblical interpretation called “premillennialism” began to assert itself within the larger evangelical Protestant community. Israel and the Cold War were usually linked by premillennial preachers and authors who interpreted them using selected prophecy texts. According to their prophetic timetable, as the end of history approached an evil global empire would emerge under the leadership of a mysterious world leader called the “Antichrist” and attack Israel, leading to the climactic Battle of Armageddon. Israel was understood by conservative Christians to be at the center of these Biblical events, and thus commanded unconditional financial and spiritual support.
When Israel captured Jerusalem and the West Bank (not to mention Gaza, Sinai and the Golan Heights) in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war, conservative Christians sensed that history had entered the latter days. L. Nelson Bell, the father-in-law of evangelist Billy Graham and editor of the influential journal Christianity Today, wrote in July 1967: “That for the first time in more than 2,000 years Jerusalem is now in the hands of the Jews gives the students of the Bible a thrill and a renewed faith in the accuracy and validity of the Bible.”
Premillennialism gained popularity through a flurry of books and the activities of radio evangelists and television preachers. For example, Hal Lindsay’s The Late, Great Planet Earth, which became one of the best selling books in history. Lindsay’s message popularized the premillennialist narrative for a generation of Americans, placing Israel at its historical center. Lindsay also developed a consulting business that included several members of the US Congress, the CIA, Israeli generals, the Pentagon and the then-governor of California, Ronald Reagan.
With the American bicentennial in 1976, several trends converged in America’s religious and political landscape, all pointing toward increased US support for Israel and a higher political profile for the religious right. First, fundamentalist and evangelical churches became the fastest growing sector of American Christianity, as mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic branches saw a decline in their members, budgets and missions.
Second, Jimmy Carter, an evangelical from the “Bible Belt,” was elected president of the United States, giving increased legitimacy to evangelicals as Time magazine confirmed when it named 1976 “the year of the evangelical.”
Third, following the 1967 war, Israel gained an increased share of US foreign and military budgets, becoming the “western pillar” of the US strategic alliance against a Soviet incursion into the Middle East, particularly after the revolution in Iran took the country out of the US orbit. It is during this period that AIPAC and other pro-Israel organizations started shaping US foreign policy.
Fourth, the Roman Catholic Church and mainstream Protestant denominations began to develop a more balanced approach to the Middle East, bringing them closer to the international consensus on the Palestine question. Pro-Israel organizations interpreted this shift as being anti-Israeli and, in turn, began to court conservative Christians. Marc Tannenbaum of the American Jewish Committee captured this sentiment well when he told the Washington Post: “The evangelical community is the largest and fastest-growing bloc of pro-Jewish sentiment in this country.”
The fifth development was the victory of Menachem Begin and the right-wing Likud coalition in the Israeli election of 1977. Begin’s Revisionist Zionist ideology that mandated establishing an “iron wall” of Israeli domination, and his policy of annexing Arab land, accelerating construction of Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories and militarizing the conflict with the Arab world, all found ready support within the American Christian right. Likud’s tactic of employing Biblical names for the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and Biblical arguments to defend its policies (“God gave us this land”) found resonance with fundamentalist Christians.
A surprising development, and arguably the lynchpin in forging the fundamentalist Christian-Zionist alliance, occurred in March 1977, when Carter inserted the clause “Palestinians deserve a right to their homeland” into a policy address. Immediately, the pro-Israel lobby and the Christian right responded with full-page ads in major US newspapers. Their text stated: “The time has come for evangelical Christians to affirm their belief in biblical prophecy and Israel’s divine right to the land.” The text concluded with a line that took direct aim at Carter’s statement: “We affirm as evangelicals our belief in the promised land to the Jewish people … We would view with grave concern any effort to carve out of the Jewish homeland another nation or political entity.”
The advertising campaign was one of the first significant signs of the Likud’s and the pro-Israel lobby’s alliance with the Christian right. It redirected conservative Christian support from Carter, a Democrat, to the Republican right. Jerry Strober, a former employee of the American Jewish Committee, coordinated the campaign and told Newsweek magazine: “The evangelicals are 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.”
By the 1980 elections the political landscape had shifted, both in the Middle East and in the US. The Iranian hostage crisis helped ensure Carter’s defeat against his Republican rival, Ronald Reagan. However, it was not the only factor: An estimated 20 million fundamentalist and evangelical Christians voted for Reagan and against Carter’s brand of evangelical Christianity that failed the test of unconditional support for Israel.
The power of the pro-Israel Republicans became a prominent feature during the Reagan years, with the president leading the way. On at least seven public occasions Reagan expressed belief in a final Battle of Armageddon. During one of his private conversations with AIPAC director Tom Dine, Reagan said: “You know, I turn back to your ancient prophets in the Old Testament and the signs foretelling Armageddon, and I find myself wondering if if we’re the generation that is going to see that come about.” The conversation was leaked to the Jerusalem Post and picked up across the US on the AP wire. This stunning openness displayed by an American president with the chief lobbyist for a foreign government indicated the close cooperation that had developed between the administration and Israel.
A little-known feature of the Reagan White House was the series of seminars organized by the administration and the Christian right with assistance from the pro-Israel lobby. These sessions were designed to firm up support for the Republican Party, and, in turn, encourage AIPAC and Christian Zionist organizations to advance their respective agendas. Participation by the Christian right in gala dinner briefings at the White House reads like a Who’s Who of the movement, including author Hal Lindsay, Jerry Falwell, the head of the Moral Majority, and evangelist Pat Robertson, as well as Tim LeHaye (co-author of the influential Left Behind series) and Moral Majority strategist Ed McAteer. State Department official Robert McFarlane, one of those implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal, led several briefings. Quietly working in the background was another Christian fundamentalist, Marine Colonel Oliver North.
Begin developed a close relationship with leading fundamentalists, such as Falwell, who later received a Learjet from the Israeli government for his personal travel and in 1981 was honored with the Jabotinsky Award in an elaborate ceremony in New York. When Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, Begin made his first telephone call to Falwell, asking him to “explain to the Christian public the reasons for the bombing.” Only later did he call Reagan. Falwell also converted former Senator Jesse Helms from a critic of Israel into one of its staunchest allies in the US Senate, where he chaired the influential Foreign Relations Committee.
Late in the Reagan administration, a number of scandals in the Christian right began to erode its public support. Pat Robertson’s ineffective run for the presidency in 1988 led to a decline in fundamentalist political fortunes. Resilient as ever, the pro-Israel lobby was able to somewhat reassert itself with the election of another Bible-toting Southern Baptist president, Bill Clinton, despite his liberal social agenda. However, Christian Zionist influence did decline after the Reagan presidency, though it would return with renewed vigor after the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001.
Donald Wagner is professor of religion and Middle Eastern studies at North Park University in Chicago and executive director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He wrote this text, the third in a series of five on Christian Zionism, for THE DAILY STAR
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