Christian Zionism’s Political Power
by M. Reza Behnam
Geopolitical, economic, energy, and military determinants have shaped U.S. Middle East policy since the Second World War. No less significant, however, is the powerful influence of Christian Zionism on the formation of America’s Israel-first policy. With over 40 million adherents, it has become a powerful force in shaping that policy, especially today.
Christian Zionism is the political outgrowth of dispensationalism—a movement that originated with 19th century Anglican priest, John Nelson Darby. Darby’s theology reached a vast American audience with the 1909 publication and widespread distribution of the Scofield Reference Bible. By the 1970s, Christian Zionism had become synonymous with American evangelicalism.
Christian Zionists are committed to the preservation and expansion of the Jewish state of Israel based on the literal interpretation of biblical auguries. They have allied with the Israeli government and the U.S. Zionist lobby to ensure Israel’s regional supremacy.
Christian Zionism affirms that the Second Coming of Christ will be realised in Israel.
Using sacred texts to justify Israel’s claim to all of historic Palestine, Christian Zionists refer to God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15:18: “To your descendants I have given this land—from the river of Egypt to the great River Euphrates.” Taken literally, it would encompass Jordan and parts of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt.
American evangelicals and right-wing Israelis share the belief that the geography of the Promised Land is far larger than present-day Israel. In pursuit of their biblical cartography, Christian Zionists categorically support expansionist Jewish settlers—whom they call “pioneers“—and Israel’s aim of completely annexing the West Bank.
In its eschatological drama only those who have accepted Jesus, will be raptured into heaven, and all others will be destroyed.
Expedience and mutual exploitation explain why Israel’s leaders and supporters have been willing to ignore the destructive fate that evangelical prophecy holds for them, choosing instead to focus on the Christian Right’s electoral influence, extensive media resources, and deep pockets.
They also believe that God’s divine wrath awaits those who fail to defend the Jewish state based on Genesis 12:3 that “God blesses those who bless the Jews and curses those who curse the Jews.”
Evangelical leaders frequently declaim that God’s blessings on America depend on its actions toward the Jewish state. Speaking at a Washington summit of Christians United for Israel (CUFI) in July 2017, Vice President Mike Pence, a devout Christian Zionist, declared “…under President Donald Trump….America stands with Israel. Now and always.”
A recent Bloomberg poll indicated that almost 60 percent of evangelicals believe that America should support Israel even if the interests of the two nations diverge. Kay Arthur’s—radio and TV evangelist—comment is typical: “If I had to choose between America and Israel, I would choose Israel.”
Israel has successfully marketed the myth that Iran is a danger to Israel, the region, and the world. Christian Zionism’s vitriol toward the Islamic Republic has roots in the Israeli “threat” narrative.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has convinced the pliant Christian Right of the illogical assertion that the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which severely limits Iran’s nuclear program, endangers Israel. To stoke fear, Netanyahu routinely associates Iran with Islamic State terrorism, wilfully eschewing the fact that Iran successfully fought Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria. It should be noted, that Israel is the only country in the region with nuclear and modern chemical weapons.
A series of events in the 1970s brought Christian Zionism to the forefront of U.S. mainstream politics, leading to the immense influence it wields in Washington today.
After the 1976 presidential election of Jimmy Carter, a “born-again” Christian, the Israeli and American evangelical alliance intensified. Following Menachim Begin’s election in 1977, a coalition of American evangelical Christians, the Jewish lobby, and the political right emerged. They used religious arguments to legitimise the confiscation of Palestinian land.
The new realities of American politics gave birth to the establishment of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in 1979 and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition in 1989. Financial investment and lobbying on behalf of the Jewish state surged, and evangelical influence within the Republican Party swelled. In June 1981, for example, before bombing Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, Prime Minister Begin first called Falwell to secure evangelical support and then informed President Reagan.
The Christian Right and Republican Party had essentially become one following Reagan’s election in 1980. Believing in America’s divine mission to lead the world, Reagan depicted the Cold War as the struggle between good and evil, casting the former Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire“—a role in which Washington has cast Iran today.
The religious right’s influence over Middle East policy grew even greater with the 2000 election of George W. Bush—who won 78 percent of the evangelical vote—and the attack of September 11, 2001.
Bush’s “war on terror” and “axis of evil” rhetoric reflected his messianic worldview. After the invasion of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), Bush claimed to be on a mission from God.
Evangelical leaders extolled his preemptive war against Iraq, citing it as evidence of scripture being lived out in current events.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was cast as a common enemy by neoconservatives and Christian Zionists. For the Christian Right, he represented an evil force in their End Times narrative. In reality, Saddam stood in the way of American and Israeli regional interests.
Israel and the religious right have found powerful allies in the Trump White House. Having received 81 percent of the white evangelical vote in the 2016 presidential election, Trump has employed faith-based rhetoric and divisive cultural issues to preserve their support.
The administration’s early initiatives were glaringly revelatory—the appointment of David Friedman, a hard-line promoter of Jewish settlements, as U.S. ambassador to Israel and the controversial decision to move the American embassy to politically contested Jerusalem. Iran became an early target with the abrogation of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement.
Christian Zionists and pro-Israel zealots Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton, and megachurch Texas televangelist John Hagee are among Trump’s closest Middle East advisers. The main objectives of their hawkish Middle East policies are to favor Israel and regime change in Iran.
CUFI, founded by Hagee, is one of the largest, most powerful, and well financed pro-Israel organizations in the United States. In 2006, as Israeli bombs ravaged Lebanon, Hagee famously remarked that American support for Israel was “God’s foreign policy.”
At the first annual CUFI conference in Washington, D.C., Hagee stated, “I would hope the U.S. would join Israel in a military preemptive strike to take out the nuclear capability of Iran for the salvation of Western civilisation….I don’t believe that the Islamofascist mentality will ever respond favourably to diplomacy. Their agenda is the destruction of Israel and death to Jews and Christians.” He ignores the fact that Iran has one of the oldest and largest Jewish populations in the Middle East, after Israel. Hagee insists that military confrontation with Iran is foretold in the Bible as a condition for the Second Coming, believing that the battle of Gog and Magog will be waged between a nuclear Iran and Israel.
More than 200 different evangelical organisations in the United States and Canada are committed to Christian Zionism. For example, the lobbying group Alliance for Israel Advocacy, comprised of Jews who have converted to Christianity, has floated legislation in Congress that would pay Palestinians to permanently move to other countries. Human rights groups have condemned the legislation as a “U.S. funded ethnic cleansing plan in Palestine,” seeing it as a strategy to ultimately annex all of the West Bank.
Alliance Executive Director, Paul Liberman, describes Palestinians as “squatters,” and insists that they must leave the land they have lived on for centuries. Asserting that the “Bible is the deed to the land of Israel that God gave the Jewish people,” his organisation is bent on changing the demography of the West Bank and has garnered support from evangelical leaders, the White House, members of Congress, and Israeli officials.
The Christian Right has been successful at pressuring members of Congress to support Israel, whose attendance at AIPAC and Christian evangelical events has become almost mandatory. Newly elected members routinely participate in lavishly financed AIPAC-sponsored trips to Israel, designed to give them a biased Likud view of the region.
As a challenge to such propaganda trips, freshman representative Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.)—the only Palestinian-American woman ever elected to Congress—is planning an alternative trip to the West Bank. Paradoxically, as a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, advocate, Tlaib is serving in a Congress attempting to pass legislation designed to criminalise participation in the BDS movement. Additionally, she may have difficulty getting into Israel because of a Knesset law which bans foreign-born BDS supporters from entering the country.
Aware of tourism’s potential for indoctrination, the Israeli government, along with its American evangelical allies, promotes religious tourism. The industry, message, and agenda of its solidarity tours and pilgrimages is strictly controlled. While readily exploiting Palestinian historical sites, Israel makes sure that Western tour groups are kept distant from Palestinians or their Christian community.
Increasingly popular are Israel’s anti-terrorism fantasy camps, where tourists learn to kill “terrorists,” who just happen to look like Palestinian Arabs. Conducted by former Israeli commandos, tourists pretend to be combat soldiers, with the Israeli soldier playing the heroic guardian and defender of the Jewish state against menacing Arabs. Killing Arabs is promoted as a fun activity. Tourists are kept far from the harsh realities of Israel’s military rule and numerous checkpoints, but go home instead extolling the virtues of the Jewish state.
The $500 million Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. is an example of the religious rights’ goal of strengthening its ideology in America. Inspired and financed by the conservative Christian family-run company, Hobby Lobby, the museum is one of the largest in the nation’s capital. Just three blocks from the capitol, it emphasises the Old Testament as integral to American life and appears intended to leverage policymakers. Additionally, the museum foundation finances programs which, like the Jewish “birthright” trips offered to young Jews, takes Christian youth on tours to Israel.
Christian Zionists have been the most fanatical advocates for the illegal expansion of Jewish settlements and for aggression against Palestinians by right-wing Jewish settlers.
By understanding and defining Palestine-Israel in explicitly mythical Bible stories, Christian Zionists have abetted Israel’s racist and oppressive policies. The Palestinian tragedy that has resulted from Israel’s nation-building is completely excluded from Christian Zionist discourse.
Religion has played a profound political role in the United States and Israel. American evangelicals have attempted to “restore” their idea of Christianity in the United States; while in Israel, conservative religious orthodoxy has commandeered the country’s politics and government. The question of whether Israel is a nation or a religious community, solely for the Jewish people, has been intrinsic to its identity and future. Like their right-wing Israeli counterparts, Christian Zionists unequivocally answer that it is a state only for Jews.
Inherent in the myopic Christian Zionist narrative is a destructive and reckless attitude about the future. The Middle East is facing urgent political, economic, and environmental challenges of prolonged drought and the traumatic impact of years of war. But for many Christian Zionists the ongoing suffering and ruinous consequences of war in the Middle East are seen merely as a necessary condition for the fulfilment of biblical prophecies.
The powerful emotional force of religion is being used by Christian and Jewish Zionists to consecrate Israel’s relentless colonising adventures, and to promote an intransigent politics of bigotry and fear. The merging of religion and politics does not bode well for Palestinians, for Israelis and for a Middle East free of chaos and war.
M. Reza Behnam, Ph.D. is a political scientist specialising in the history, politics and governments of the Middle East, and author of the award-winning book Cultural Foundations of Iranian Politics.