Most observers of contemporary Christian Zionism emphasize the importance of the Six-Day War in shaping the alliance between conservative evangelicals and the Israeli government. The seeds of that alliance were, however, planted decades earlier, dating back to the first years of Israel’s existence. Both Oral Roberts and Billy Graham are a part of that story. They embraced Israel as a cause to be supported—and laid the groundwork that made support for Israel one of the pillars of evangelical politics. When Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979 he made unconditional support for Israel a part of the organization’s platform.
Both Graham and Roberts—who died in December at the age of 91—had a significant role in transforming the religious landscape of the twentieth century. With the help of radio, and later television, millions across the globe received their message and were themselves transformed. As Edwin Harrell Jr. noted in Oral Roberts: an American Life: “as early as 1955 the Oral Roberts TV programs were being broadcast regularly to the nation, and the response was overwhelming.”
Along with lesser luminaries in what we now call ‘televangelism,’ both Roberts and Graham were deeply affected by the establishment and growth of the State of Israel. In the state’s self-description and emerging self-understanding the establishment of Israel marked “the return of the Jews to their land”; or in biblical terms, the Return to Zion. Many, though by no means all, American evangelicals tended to see that ‘return’ as fulfilling Biblical prophecy and presaging the Second Coming.
‘The Spell of Israel Over Me’
It isn’t Roberts’ connection to the evangelist BG (Billy Graham) that I want to address here—a connection commented on by others who have written of his passing—but, rather, Oral Roberts’ connection to another BG, David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel. (“BG”—pronounced “beegee”—was how Ben Gurion was known to many of his Israeli associates.)
Decades before the development of the remarkable ‘romance’ between today’s conservative evangelicals and Israel, Pentecostals, particularly those in the Pentecostal Holiness Church (the denomination Roberts was affiliated with before he returned to the Methodist Church in 1968), were deeply interested in developments in the Holy Land. Elements of this interest included a commitment to a Christian mission to Jews and a fascination with the ‘unfolding events of the End Time.’ Roberts visited Israel in 1953, the first of what would be many trips which frequently consisted of a combination of pilgrimage, preaching, and missionizing. Reporting to his flock on the occasion of that first visit, Roberts wrote that “there is a feeling of awe that sweeps over me when I step on the soil of Israel. My entire being seems to vibrate with the presence of God.”
During his 1959 visit, an “awestruck and elated” Oral Roberts met with Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. According to Roberts’ account in “The Spell of Israel Over Me,” published in Abundant Life magazine in 1959, the meeting ended as Roberts “prayed with the Prime Minister” and took his leave. We are not told what form this prayer took, but surely Ben Gurion (who was assertively secular and anti-clerical) must have understood the event otherwise. Ben Gurion was proud of his aversion to all froms of organized religion and delighted in illustrating that aversion to interviewers. When the State of Israel was established, according to Tom Segev in 1949: The First Israelis, “[Ben Gurion] obliged Rabbi Meir Bar Ilan by going to the Yeshurun synagogue in Jerusalem to attend a thanksgiving prayer. ‘This is the first time that I have attended a synagogue in the Land of Israel,’ he noted later in his diary. He had been in the country for forty years.”*
Ben Gurion’s American-born wife, Paula, was equally contentious about matters of religious observance, especially if they impinged on what she considered her domain—the kitchen of the modest Ben Gurion household. Asked by a reporter from the London Jewish Chronicle if she shopped at a kosher market, Paula Ben Gurion said, “yes, but when I get the food home I make it treyf.”
Despite his aversion to religion, Ben Gurion understood that Christian support for Israel—especially American Christian support—was deeply religious in nature. And while he could spar with Israel’s rabbinical authorities, many of whom he had appointed during his long tenure as prime minister, he couldn’t afford to alienate American religious leaders. In 1961 the Israeli government, still led by Ben Gurion, assisted in the organization of the Sixth World Conference of Pentecostal Churches. Held in Jerusalem, the conference attracted 2,600 delegates from thirty countries. BG’s message to the attendees, read by a representative of his government, stated that “[in Israel] today we are privileged to see the fulfillment of the prophecy and promise of the Bible.”
More Genesis than Revelation
Ben Gurion’s phrase is very telling, emphasizing as it does both prophecy and promise; in order to understand the commitment of many Christians to the Zionist cause one must take into account both the first and last books of the Christian Bible, Genesis and Revelation. I emphasize this here because many writers on Christians and Zionism highlight the ‘Left Behind’ or ‘Armageddon’ aspect of the phenomenon found in the Book of Revelation. These writers overlook the fact that for many American Christians God’s promise to Abraham that “unto thy seed I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7) is understood as now fulfilled by the establishment of Israel. Modern Israel’s existence ‘proves’ to many conservative evangelicals that God still acts in history and it enables them to counter secularist claims. Yes, the role that Israel is slated to play in End Time scenarios is significant, but not, I would contend as significant as the ‘Genesis’ factor.
Oral Roberts did not attend the 1961 Pentecostal conference in Jerusalem. By the early 1960s, he had begun to drift towards the mainline Protestant denominations, and in 1968 he left the Pentecostal Holiness Church to become a Methodist minister. But his attachment to and fascination with Israel remained undiminished. After the 1967 War, Roberts returned to Israel, visited the Christian Holy Places now under Israeli control, and enthusiastically promoted the view that the Israeli victory was the unfolding of God’s plan for Israel and for the world.
It was at this juncture that the next generation of ‘televangelists’—most notably Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson—jumped on the Israel bandwagon. They also jumped on numerous El Al flights to Tel Aviv, often accompanied by large groups of fellow pilgrims to the Holy Land. In a 1984 interview Falwell asserted that:
The destiny of the State of Israel is without question the most crucial international matter facing the world today. I believe that the people of Israel have not only a theological but also a historical and legal right to the land. I am personally a Zionist, having gained that perspective from my belief in Old Testament scriptures.
In Falwell’s office at his own Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia the wall behind his desk was adorned with a large reproduction of the front page of the Palestine Post (the precursor of today’s Jerusalem Post) of May 14, 1948, which reads: “State of Israel Declared.”
When Jerry Falwell died in May of 2007, he was eulogized by leaders of the American Jewish community as “a dear great friend of Israel.” Oral Roberts, Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson made the case for Israel so consistently and unequivocally that today, among the conservative evangelical faithful, it is a case that no longer has to be made. For millions of American Christians, support for Israel and its policies is understood as a religious and political obligation.
*This paragraph originally appeared in a slightly different form, incorrectly noting that the rabbi on whose urging Ben Gurion went to synagogue was Rabbi Fishman (later Maimon).