Special Report

Countering Anti-Israel Evangelism

Gerald McDermott confronts a disturbing trend.

By 9.13.13

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Anti-Israel activism in U.S. church circles has increased in recent years especially among some evangelical elites. Mainline Protestant elites have been anti-Israel for decades. Last fall officials of several Mainline denominations urged Congress to reconsider U.S. military aid to Israel, prompting Jewish groups to cancel interfaith dialogue. More politically significant have been exertions to shift evangelicals away from their historically strong affinity for Israel.

For the last several years anti-Israel evangelicals have hosted a "Christ at the Checkpoint" conference in Bethlehem featuring some prominent U.S. evangelicals. Last year's included evangelist Tony Campolo, a spiritual counselor to President Bill Clinton, and Florida mega church pastor Joel Hunter, a spiritual counselor to President Barack Obama. The next "Christ at the Checkpoint" is February 2014 and will feature Geoff Tunnicliffe, head of the World Evangelical Alliance. There will also be a Dallas Southern Baptist pastor, despite his denomination's strong support for Israel. Additionally speaking is Gary Burge of Wheaton College, himself a prominent author critical of Israel who teaches at America's most prestigious evangelical college. Anti-Israel sentiment among evangelical elites is strongest in academia and in international relief and missions groups.

In November the Alliance for Baptists, a liberal Baptist denomination, will host Waging Peace and Justice in Palestine in Washington, D.C. at a prominent Calvary Baptist Church, which President Obama has attended. The featured speaker will be a Lutheran Palestinian pastor who in 2009 backed the anti-Israel Christian manifesto Kairos Palestine: A Moment of Truth, which Western church groups often cite.

And in December, Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) will host a similar but much larger advocacy event in Philadelphia called Impact Holy Land, featuring prominent Palestinian clergy and U.S. evangelicals. ESA is now co-headed by Pentecostal academic Paul Alexander, who helped push the Society for Pentecostal Studies in a more Palestinian direction at a 2012 meeting at Pat Robertson’s Regents University.

Anti-Israel activism by Mainline Protestants is often motivated by residual Liberation Theology. For evangelicals, it's concern about Palestinian Christians, hopes for better relations with Muslims, neo-Anabaptist pacifism discomfited by Israeli military strength, and disenchantment with the old Religious Right's strong support for Israel.

Responding to these currents, Anglican theologian Gerald McDermott of Roanoke College in Virginia recently defended Christian support for Israel to a mostly liberal-leaning audience of the International Council of Christians and Jews meeting in Chicago, receiving a mixed response. His arguments merit a larger audience.

The critique of pro-Israel evangelicals particularly has been that their motivation rests on end-times theology, controversial even among conservative Christians. McDermott offered broader historical and pragmatic arguments for Christian friendship towards Israel.

McDermott cited the infamous 2006 essay in the London Review of Books by foreign policy scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt that alleged an “Israel Lobby” manipulates U.S. foreign policy and that it is “far from what the national interest would suggest.” He also referenced a broader understanding of Christian Zionism rooted in American civil religion. The Christian Zionism most commonly criticized and caricatured originated in 19th century premillenialist dispensationalism founded by English pastor John Nelson Darby and popularized by Bible commentator Cyrus Scofield. It asserted that the Jews would rightfully return to their homeland before Christ’s return.

Darby’s modern adherents have included Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsey and John Hagee. McDermott notes that critics complain this sort of Zionism is prone to “ignore the legitimate needs of Palestinians, to support Israel right or wrong and even think Israel can do no wrong, to see the Middle East conflict solely in religious terms, and to ignore indigenous Christians in the region — both Jewish and Arab.”

Christian interest in a Jewish return to Zion actually goes back earlier than Darby, McDermott recalled, especially to the Puritans of Britain and New England in the 17th century. Eighteenth century philosopher-theologian Jonathan Edwards, on whom McDermott has written five books, espoused that perspective. Early American Calvinist philo-Semitism in fact inoculated America against Europe’s more virulent forms of anti-Semitism, McDermott suggested. It was propelled largely by Christians noticing that the Old Testament refers to "the land" 2,500 times, that at the heart of God's covenant with Israel is the promise of that land, and that the return of Jews to the land in the last two centuries is a partial fulfillment of biblical prophecies.

Meanwhile, 19th century Protestant philo-Semitism in Britain fueled the Christian Zionism leading to Britain’s Balfour Declaration in 1917 affirming support for a Jewish state. Some English Zionists theorized that God judges nations by their treatment of Jews, contrasting Spain’s 1492 expulsion of Jews and Spain’s subsequent ultimate decline with Britain’s rising glory after Puritan Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell invited Jews to return after four centuries.

In mind to these Christian Zionists was the divine promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Some American Christian Zionists today, such as prominent Southern Baptist leader Richard Land, also commonly quote that passage.

Twentieth century evangelicals were gratified by Israel’s creation in 1947 while liberal Protestants were often more ambivalent. Catholic and liberal Protestant affirmations of God’s continuing spiritual covenant with Jews typically omit any connection to the land of Israel, which many Jewish interfaith partners “believe is an indispensable manifestation of the covenant.”

McDermott addressed how Christians should view the occupation of the West Bank, which liberal Protestants and some non-Zionist evangelicals routinely denounce. He said the “charge of illegal occupation must… be rejected” because “Israel has made repeated efforts to comply with UN stipulations for the territories, while its Arab neighbors have not.” And he cited Israel’s willingness in the 1993 Oslo Accord to cede 92 percent of the West Bank, which Palestinians rejected, as the latest example. McDermott noted that Jews have inhabited ancient Samaria (the West Bank) for over 3,000 years, while many anti-Zionists demand a Jewish-free West Bank as requisite for peace. “What other country has been required to give up land that it won in a defensive war?” he asked. “Do Germans displaced from Königsberg clamor and agitate for that German city to be returned to them by the victorious Russians?”

Today most Christian Zionists “generally think we need more humility when criticizing Israelis for how they treat Palestinians — particularly when the much-criticized fence (more popularly known as ‘the wall’) has nearly eliminated the suicide bombings that were once a weekly occurrence,” McDermott said. “They wonder how we would respond if we experienced a succession of 9/11-like attacks, regularly over several years, in a country the size of New Jersey or one-seventeenth the size of Germany, where nearly everyone knows someone who has been killed or maimed.” They also notice that critics of Israel hypocritically condemn Israel for alleged human rights abuses but typically ignore Iran, Syria, China, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia.

McDermott suggested non-theological, pragmatic reasons for a pro-Israel stance, such as its status as the “only true liberal democracy in the Middle East — which therefore offers the best environment for human flourishing — but also because it is good for Palestinians.” Israel is the only Middle Eastern country with “freedoms of speech and press, free trade unions, and religious freedom — for women, ethnic and religious minorities, and homosexuals.” Overall, the 1.3 million Israeli Arabs are the “best-educated, healthiest, and best-fed Palestinians in the Middle East,” thanks mostly to their “citizenship or other participation in the Israeli state.” Meanwhile, Palestinians under the Palestinian Authority have received per capita every year more foreign aid than the average annual salary in Egypt. Yet Jimmy Carter, a liberal Baptist, and others routinely denounce Israel for practicing “apartheid,” even while Palestinians in Israel have citizenship rights.

“No matter how Israel responds to the current political crisis, Christian Zionists will continue to believe that the land of Israel remains theologically important and that the Jews continue to have an important role in the history of redemption,” McDermott concluded. “This is the contribution which Christian Zionists have made to the Christian debates about Israel.” Unlike more liberal Christians, evangelicals have “insisted that the Christian church has not replaced the Jews without remainder, that the old and new covenants were integrally connected in the time of Jesus and remain so today, and that if the covenant with Israel is eternal then the promise of land is also still significant.”

Hopefully McDermott’s message about Christians and Israel, linked by both common faith and common adherence to democratic liberty, will resonate among Christians otherwise theologically divided by modern Israel’s exact theological significance. But more work will be needed to counter events like "Christ at the Checkpoint" that target clergy and young evangelicals especially with superficial appeals for peace and solidarity.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.