Why such a close relationship between Israel and the United States of America? What is the fascination with Israel among Evangelical Christians in America? There is a simple explanation. At least one in four American Christians surveyed recently by Christianity Today magazine said that they believe it is their biblical responsibility to support the nation of Israel. This view is known as Christian Zionism.
At its simplest, Christian Zionism is Christian support for Zionism. The driving principle of Christian Zionism is the belief in the abiding relevance of the promise God made to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 “I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse and all the peoples on the earth will be blessed through you”.
Christian Zionists support the secular ideology of Zionism that is a national movement for the return of the Jewish people to Palestine and the sovereignty of the Jews over the whole land. They see themselves as defenders of, and apologists for, the Jewish people and in particular, the State of Israel.
The Pew Research Center put the figure at 63% among white evangelicals. Christian Zionism is therefore pervasive within American evangelical, charismatic and independent denominations including the Assemblies of God, Pentecostals and Southern Baptists, as well as many of the independent mega-churches and among television evangelists.
Christian Zionism is much less prevalent within the historic denominations (Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian), which show a greater respect for the work of the United Nations, support human rights, the rule of international law, empathize with the Palestinians and cooperate with the indigenous Middle East churches.
The Origins of Christian Zionism
The origins of the movement can be traced to the early 19th century when a group of eccentric British Christian leaders began to lobby for Jewish restoration to Palestine as a necessary precondition for the return of Christ. The movement gained traction from the middle of the 19th century when Palestine became strategic to British, French and German colonial interests in the Middle East. Proto-Christian Zionism therefore preceded Jewish Zionism by more than 50 years. Some of Theodore Herzl’s strongest advocates were actually Christian clergy, like Revd William Hechler.
Christian Zionism as a modern theological and political movement embraces the most extreme ideological positions of Zionism. It has become deeply detrimental to a just peace between Palestine and Israel. It propagates a worldview in which the Christian message is reduced to an ideology of empire, colonialism and militarism. In its extreme form, it places an emphasis on apocalyptic events leading to the end of history rather than living Christ’s love and justice today.
For many American evangelicals, the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 came to be seen as the most significant fulfilment of biblical prophecy, and ‘the greatest piece of prophetic news that we have had in the 20th Century.’ The 1967 ‘Six Day War’ marked a further significant watershed for evangelical Christian interest in Israel and Zionism. Billy Graham’s father-in-law Nelson Bell, for example, then editor of Christianity Today, expressed the sentiments of many evangelicals when, in an editorial for the magazine he wrote,
‘for the first time in more than 2,000 years Jerusalem is now completely in the hands of the Jews gives a student of the Bible a thrill and a renewed faith in the accuracy and validity of the Bible.’
Followers of Christian Zionism are convinced that the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 and then the capture of Jerusalem in 1967, as well as the Sinai, Golan Heights and Palestinian West Bank, all in just six days was the miraculous fulfilment of God’s promises made to Abraham that he would establish Israel as a Jewish nation forever.
In 1976 a series of events brought Christian Zionism to the forefront of US mainstream politics. Jimmy Carter was elected as the ‘born again’ President drawing the support of the evangelical right. In 1977, in Israel, Menachem Begin and the right-wing Likud Party came to power. A tripartite coalition slowly emerged between the US political Right, evangelicals Christians and the Jewish lobby, facilitated by church leaders such as Jerry Falwell.
For over 40 years the Zionist Christian Lobby has helped ensure almost complete bi-partisan support for Israel and antipathy toward Israel’s neighbours, in both the US Congress and Senate.
Burgeoning Christian Zionist organizations such as the International Christian Embassy (ICEJ), Christian Friends of Israel (CFI) and Christians United for Israel (CUFI) wield considerable influence on Capitol Hill, claiming a support base in excess of 50 million true believers.
This means there are now at least ten times as many Christian Zionists as Jewish Zionists. And their European cousins are no less active in lobbying for Israel, attacking its critics and thwarting the Two-State Solution. The United States and Israel are often portrayed as Siamese twins, joined at the heart, sharing common historic, religious and political values.
Pastor John Hagee is one of the leaders of the Christian Zionist movement. He is the Founder and Senior Pastor of Cornerstone Church, a 19,000-member evangelical church in San Antonio, Texas. His weekly programmes are broadcast on 160 TV stations, 50 radio stations and eight networks into an estimated 99 million homes in 200 countries. In 2006 he founded Christians United for Israel admitting,
“For 25 almost 26 years now, I have been pounding the evangelical community over television. The Bible is a very pro-Israel book. If a Christian admits ‘I believe the Bible,’ I can make him a pro-Israel supporter or they will have to denounce their faith. So I have the Christians over a barrel, you might say.”
In March 2007, Hagee spoke at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference. He began by saying:
“The sleeping giant of Christian Zionism has awakened. There are 50 million Christians standing up and applauding the State of Israel…”
As the Jerusalem Post pointed out, his speech did not lack clarity. He went on to warn:
“It is 1938. Iran is Germany, and Ahmadinejad is the new Hitler. We must stop Iran’s nuclear threat and stand boldly with Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East… Think of our potential future together: 50 million evangelicals joining in common cause with 5 million Jewish people in America on behalf of Israel is a match made in heaven.”
The Political Agenda of Christian Zionism
The political agenda of Zionist Christians is multifaceted. It is shaped by their ultra-literal and fundamentalist theologyand directed by agencies such as AIPAC, the ADL and Zionist Federation:
- The belief that the Jews remain God’s chosen people leads Christian Zionists to seek to bless Israel in material ways. However, this also invariably results in the uncritical endorsement of and justification for Israel’s racist and apartheid policies, in the media, among politicians and through solidarity tours to Israel.
- As God’s chosen people, the final restoration of the Jews to Israel is therefore actively encouraged. The emigration of Jews from Russia is funded and facilitated by Christian Zionist agencies in partnership with the Jewish Agency.
- Eretz Israel, as delineated in the Hebrew scriptures, from the Nile to the Euphrates, belongs exclusively to the Jewish people, therefore the land must be annexed and colonised, Palestinians forcibly removed through home demolitions and land confiscation and the illegal Jewish settlements expanded and consolidated.
- Jerusalem is regarded as the eternal and exclusive capital of the Jews, and cannot be shared with the Palestinians. Therefore Christian Zionists have lobbied the US Administration to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem and thereby ensure that Jerusalem is recognised as the undivided capital of Israel.
- Christian Zionists offer varying degrees of support for organisations such as the Jewish Temple Mount Faithful who are committed to destroying the Dome of the Rock and rebuilding the Jewish Temple on the Haram Al-Sharif (Noble sanctuary of Al-Aqsa).
- Christian Zionists invariably have a pessimistic view of the future, convinced that there will be an apocalyptic war of Armageddon in the imminent future. They are deeply sceptical of the possibility of a lasting peace between Jews and Arabs and therefore oppose the peace process.
John Hagee’s views are representative of the wider Zionist Christian agenda. At a meeting of Christians United for Israel, July 17, 2007, held in Washington, D.C. he insisted,
“We want you to recognize that Iran is a clear and present danger to the United States of America and Israel. And… that it’s time for our country to consider a military pre-emptive strike against Iran if they will not yield to diplomacy.”
Christian Zionism, therefore, as a modern theological and political movement, embraces the most extreme ideological positions of Zionism. It has become deeply detrimental to a just peace between Palestine and Israel. It propagates a worldview in which the Christian message is reduced to an ideology of empire, colonialism and militarism. In its extreme form, it places an emphasis on apocalyptic events leading to the end of history rather than living Christ’s love and justice today.
A Response from the Middle East Church
In 2006, the Jerusalem Declaration on Christian Zionism was signed by four of the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem: His Beatitude Patriarch Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch, Jerusalem; Archbishop Swerios Malki Mourad, Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate, Jerusalem; Bishop Riah Abu El-Assal, Episcopal Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East; and Bishop Munib Younan, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land.
“We categorically reject Christian Zionist doctrines as a false teaching that corrupts the biblical message of love, justice and reconciliation.
We further reject the contemporary alliance of Christian Zionist leaders and organisations with elements in the governments of Israel and the United States that are presently imposing their unilateral pre-emptive borders and domination over Palestine. This inevitably leads to unending cycles of violence that undermine the security of all peoples of the Middle East and the rest of world.
We reject the teachings of Christian Zionism that facilitate and support these policies as they advance racial exclusivity and perpetual war rather than the gospel of universal love, redemption and reconciliation taught by Jesus Christ. Rather than condemn the world to the doom of Armageddon we call upon everyone to liberate themselves from ideologies of militarism and occupation. Instead, let them pursue the healing of the nations!
We call upon Christians in Churches on every continent to pray for the Palestinian and Israeli people, both of whom are suffering as victims of occupation and militarism. These discriminative actions are turning Palestine into impoverished ghettos surrounded by exclusive Israeli settlements. The establishment of the illegal settlements and the construction of the Separation Wall on confiscated Palestinian land undermines the viability of a Palestinian state and peace and security in the entire region.”
The patriarchs concluded, “God demands that justice be done. No enduring peace, security or reconciliation is possible without the foundation of justice. The demands of justice will not disappear. The struggle for justice must be pursued diligently and persistently but non-violently.” The prophet Micah asks, “What does the Lord require of you, to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8).
Christian Zionism is now the largest, most controversial and probably most destructive organised lobby within Christianity today. It bears primary responsibility for perpetuating tensions in the Middle East, justifying Israel’s apartheid colonialist agenda, inciting military aggression toward surrounding nations and thwarting the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
The closing chapter of the New Testament takes us back to the imagery of the Garden of Eden and the removal of the curse arising from the Fall:
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb… On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 22:1-2)
Surely this is what Jesus had in mind when he instructed his followers to act as ambassadors of peace and reconciliation. Let us work together to bring about justice, peace and reconciliation – then may God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
A Personal Perspective
Given that at least nine out of every ten Zionists claim to be Christians, it is perhaps not surprising that Zionists are ultra-sensitive when their Christian supporters are challenged. Those who defend Palestinian rights or critique Zionism are invariably intimidated or defamed and accused of antisemitism or Holocaust denial.
In my case, it began with attempts to have my PhD from Middlesex University revoked and by challenging my examiners. When my thesis was published, they tried to pressure the publisher to withdraw my books. They repeatedly used anonymity to attack me online. They telephoned and wrote to members of my church staff to persuade them to leave or disassociate from me. They brought a formal complaint against me to my Bishop which was eventually withdrawn. They repeatedly intimidated the staff and trustees of various charities I was associated with. Invitations to speak at conferences were occasionally withdrawn due to pressure. When I have spoken at conferences, they have tried to disrupt the meetings. So, if you are motivated to advocate for justice, peace and reconciliation in Palestine, be prepared to be targeted, vilified and ostracised. Then remember you are in good company.
Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.” (Luke 6:22-23)
“May the justice of God fall down like fire And bring a home for the Palestinian
May the mercy of God pour down like rain And protect the Jewish people
And may the beautiful eyes of a holy God Who weeps for all His children
Bring the healing hope for his wounded ones For the Jew and the Palestinian.”
From “Ten Measures of Beauty” by Garth Hewitt