As many readers of Religion Dispatches are likely aware, The Forward recently published a couple of pieces portraying Christian Zionism in general, and evangelical Christian Zionism in particular, as essentially benign. Most recently, a Christian lawyer writing under the pseudonym Jarvis Best accused some of his Jewish friends and others who harbor suspicion about the dark side of Christian Zionism, and its usually concomitant apocalypticism, of “paranoia.” Best even dismissed prominent evangelical author and pastor John Hagee’s view that God ostensibly used Hitler to forward his divine plan of gathering the Jews in Israel as mere “dabbling in anti-Semitism.”
As I argued in a rebuttal likewise published by The Forward, Best’s breezy, dismissive whitewashing of the more unseemly aspects of evangelicals’ support for (the most aggressively right-wing version of) Israel amounts to outright gaslighting. America’s conservative, mostly white evangelicals are President Donald Trump’s most consistently and enthusiastically supportive demographic. As authoritarians, they are far more in the grip of paranoia than Best’s Jewish friends, whose suspicions about their motives and the impact of their politics are justified. And theirs is a paranoia that’s moving the United States backwards on civil rights, as well as having a deleterious impact on U.S. foreign policy.
Here, I would like to expand further on the evangelical authoritarianism that Best seeks to sweep under the rug. As an ex-evangelical, it is immensely frustrating to me to see major commentators and media outlets time and again downplay the significance of the kind of intolerant, illiberal, authoritarian Christianity I grew up with. Authoritarian Christians are naturally fond of strongmen, so long as they’re strongmen for Jesus. And America’s Christian nationalists, including the vast majority of white evangelicals, understand Trump in precisely that manner.
Some of them admire Vladimir Putin. I’ll never forget how, at a picnic ahead of an outdoor concert in the summer of 2013, my pastor uncle, who is fond of blowing the shofar, commented out of the blue on how good it was to see someone, namely Putin, “finally standing up to the gays.” Putin’s Russia had recently passed a law banning “propaganda to minors of non-traditional sexual relationships,” something that horrified me but that my uncle evidently found laudable. Benjamin Netanyahu also gets to be an honorary strongman for Jesus, though, like Trump, he isn’t an evangelical and is hardly a pious man. He is, however, in the view of the vast majority of U.S. evangelicals, doing God’s will by doing everything possible to expand Israel’s borders to the purported borders of the ancient Davidic Kingdom, and to render impossible any two-state solution to Jewish-Palestinian tensions. While Netanyahu’s political future at the time of this writing is uncertain, it is nevertheless worth understanding why evangelicals support precisely his kind of vision for Israel.
Can such “support for Israel” really be equated to “love for the Jews,” as Best would have it? In my view, the idea is nonsensical on its face, as it’s impossible for anyone to love an entire people, which is, after all, an abstraction. For authoritarian evangelicals, however, the term “love” is often applied to abstract situations in which evangelicals’ responses are dictated by specific theological scripts. Evangelicals thus “lovingly” subject children to corporal punishment; “lovingly” risk the possible genocide of an entire people lacking immunity to most diseases in order to “preach the gospel” to them; and “lovingly” support policies, however inhumane, that may lead to the fulfillment of what they understand to be biblical prophecy.
And yet Jarvis Best would have us take all Christian “love” for “the Jews” and support of Israel “at face value”—that’s his own phrasing. Let me provide some examples of what this “love for the Jews” has looked like in my experience of evangelicalism. In the white evangelical milieu of my childhood, where we were confident that Christ might appear in the sky to take us up to heaven at any time, we sure did “love” Jews. Not that most of us actually knew any, or that even those of us who did through, for example, corporate work, would likely remember to take Jewish holidays into account when planning events.
While I’m sure it’s true that most U.S. evangelicals do not self-consciously hate Jews or wish to carry out direct acts of physical violence against them, one does frequently encounter, among less-educated evangelicals, anti-Semitic sentiments to the effect that “the Jews” control Hollywood, the media, and/or global finance, etc. Of course, many evangelicals consider themselves philo-Semitic, while simultaneously considering themselves to be the exclusive heirs of the Jewish tradition, which they believe Jesus to have fulfilled. I love you, in other words, but you’ve been replaced. By me. Of course you’re welcome to convert and join in the fulfillment of your faith.
This belief is often accompanied by a sort of patronizing respect for ultra-Orthodox Jews, as well as a sneering dismissal of “cosmopolitan” Jews who “don’t believe their own scriptures,” to quote a young man I knew in college who assured me that Jews who do believe their scriptures are “easy to convert,” because you can simply show them how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament. This arrogant young theocrat did not want to kill Jews, but he was typical of evangelicals, whose theology is overtly anti-pluralist, in his desire to see Jews become Christians.
Jews for Jesus and other such shady missionary groups were widely admired in the evangelical milieu of my childhood and youth. It’s hard to find exact numbers here, but I’m confident that most evangelicals believe that Jews who never “accept Jesus as their personal lord and savior” go to hell when they die. Around the time I went to college, however, I was introduced to a seemingly more benign theological possibility; namely, that when Paul wrote “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26) he really meant every Jewish person. (One wants to know how God determines exactly who, in this formulation, counts as a Jew and whether he strictly follows matrilineal descent, but I digress.) But even if Paul really meant that all Jews will be saved, according to this way of thinking they are still saved by ultimately recognizing Jesus’s sacrifice for their sins.
One might consider all this within the framework of “cultural appropriation on steroids” that Best himself offers in passing, as if no harm can be done by such things. But supersessionism has been central to orthodox Christian theology since late antiquity, and, given how dominant European and American Christianity has been through subsequent history, supersessionist beliefs have caused a great deal of harm. Witness, for example, the extremely anti-Semitic writing of the aging Martin Luther, whose expectation, that his “purification” of Christianity would lead to large-scale Jewish conversion, had been dashed.
But what about that apocalyptic violence, the notion that when Jesus returns he’ll “kill all the Jews”? Well, I was certainly never taught that growing up, and I can grant to Jarvis Best that such reductionist rhetoric may well qualify as “conspiracy theory.” However, I was taught that Armageddon would be an immensely destructive battle centered around Israel, and it cannot be said that the evangelical imagination is devoid of apocalyptic violence. Witness for example the Left Behind series of novels and its video game adaptation, in which those who only convert to Christianity after the Rapture, and are thus “left behind,” seek to convert or kill those on the side of the Antichrist.
As I argued in my piece for The Forward, giving examples from my study of Russian Orthodox Christian intellectuals who did not believe in the Rapture, none of the violent implications of Christian Zionism hinge specifically on adhering to premillennial dispensationalism. Nevertheless, dismissing evangelicals’ widespread Rapture obsession on the basis of the historical newness of the idea and the supposed fact that it “cannot be found in the Bible,” as Best does, will not do. What can be found in the Bible is very much open to interpretation, and premillennial dispensationalists are certain they’ve found the Rapture in passages like Matthew 24:30-31, which, in the NSRV, reads:
“Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”
As for historical newness, it only makes sense that with the rise to prominence of Zionism in the late nineteenth century, Christian Zionism, which has roots in the Protestant Reformation, would take new forms in conjunction with the suddenly less improbable possibility of the creation of a modern state of Israel. Religions are dynamic and ever evolving cultural systems, and the relatively recent appearance of Rapture theology has in any case nothing to do with how socially significant it has been among American fundamentalists and evangelicals since the early twentieth century.
Of course, I agree with Jarvis Best that social harmony between Christians and Jews—and I would add Muslims, Neo-Pagans, atheists, and others—is a desirable goal. But as I wrote in The Forward, “One cannot achieve a healthy religious pluralism by pretending that robust mutual respect for religious diversity exists where it does not exist.” I daresay that if Best had grown up literally listening to his Christian school A.P. biology teacher ramble about the genetic engineering of red heifers, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the likelihood that “the Rapture will probably happen this fall around Yom Kippur,” as I did, he would not be so dismissive of the ugly side of Christian Zionism. And given how influential radical Christians are in the crafting of America’s domestic and foreign policy today, those of us who are aware of these realities because we’ve lived them should be heeded.