Christian Zionism: When Religious Ideology Powers World Politics
by Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, President of Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture
Vice President Pence is expected to visit the Middle East this week. When President Trump made his Jerusalem declaration, VP Pence stood behind him. Many believe that the Vice President was the main architect behind the declaration. VP Pence describes himself as a “born-again, evangelical Catholic”. Substantial political support for Israel is powered by a radical evangelical ideology called Christian Zionism. Looking at the development of this ideology might give us a better understanding of the Trump declaration on Jerusalem and VP Pence’s personal background.
There are four formative stages in the development of the Christian Zionist ideology:
The First Stage was a result of the religious revival in Europe and the “Second Great Awakening” in the US during the 19th century. The rapid social and political changes of that time made people feel that the second coming of Christ is drawing near. Yet, three development were a prerequisite for that to happen: The triumph of Protestantism through mission, the defeat of Islam represented by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the conversion of the Jews to Christianity. John Nelson Darby, an Anglo-Irish Bible teacher, connected the conversion of the Jews with the restoration of what he called “the Kingdom of Israel” that he saw prophesied in the Bible. The Scofield Reference Bible became the expression of this era.
The Second Stage came in the mid-20th century. Many Christian theologians felt that the Holocaust and anti-Semitism were grounded in a Christian anti-Jewish ideology. This realization led to an opposite philo-Semitic movement that started glorifying everything that is Jewish. This liberal ideology was coined as Judeo-Christian and became part of the dominant popular narrative of the West. This development coincided with creating a state with a biblical name, Israel. Lion Uris Novel “Exodus” became the bestseller and the best expression of this era.
The Third stage started with 1967 war. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai was portrayed as the little David (state of Israel) defeating Goliath (the Arab states). Many Christians felt that this could not have happened without a divine intervention, giving a boost to dispensationalism (dispensationalism is based on a literal interpretation of the Scripture, especially prophecy, and with an end time perspective of a unique role for contemporary Israel in the fulfillment of God’s plan). A song with several biblical references to Jerusalem as a deserted city longing for its Jewish inhabitants called “Jerusalem of Gold” became the battle cry for the Israeli Occupation Forces; and the same song even became the song of the year after the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem. Three years later, in 1970, Hal Lindsey published “The Late Great Planet Earth”, claiming that all biblical prophecies show that the end of “history as we know it” is near and thus the second coming with a special place for the state of Israel in those unfolding events is approaching. The book became a best seller with over 28 million copies sold.
A Fourth and New Stage started in 1977 with the Likud party coming to power in Israel. The Labor party, which ruled Israel from 1948 to 1977, was more or less secular while many leaders in the Likud party were religious. Israeli Prime Minister, Menachim Begin, was the first Israeli leader to discover the importance of utilizing Christian Zionism in support of Israel, followed by Natan Sharansky and Benjamin Netanyahu. In this stage, Christian Zionists had a direct connection to the Israeli political establishment. They launched huge programs to support Aliyah (bringing Jews from several countries such as the Soviet Union, Ethiopia, etc… to Israel) and to boost Christian tourism to Israel (since 1979 to coincide yearly with the Feast of Tabernacles). When the Israeli Knesset passed in 1980 the law of declaring Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel, all embassies moved their staff to Tel Aviv. That same year and in recognizing Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel, a group of Christian Zionists created The International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ). The best seller of this era was a series of dispensational religious novels with the title “Left Behind” that was published between 1995 and 2000 with Jerusalem in the center of end time apocalypse. Trump’s Jerusalem declaration has to be seen within this context.
Christian Zionists in the Time of Trump:
Today, in the Trump era, Christian Zionists are one of his key constituencies and the current Netanyahu government is welcoming them to Israel in increasing numbers. There is a growing Christian Zionist tourist industry that has been expanding as it propagates a distorted Christian narrative that portrays the Holy Land as exclusively the land of Israel. Such narrative is antithetical to the very existence of Palestinian Christians and to a view of the Holy Land as shared by two peoples and three faith traditions. Christian Zionism was declared by the local churches as heresy.
When such a dangerous religious ideology starts influencing world politics then this has to set off an alarm. The danger of Christian Zionism is that it allows for human rights to be violated by “divine rights” projected in the Bible. It places God in the service of imperial politics and its wars instead of on the side of the oppressed and of justice and peace. For us, however, the theme of the Bible was and remains to be liberation, never occupation; inclusion, never exclusion; equality, never supremacy.