Evangelical Christians plead for Israel
|By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News, Washington
A week into one of the most severe crises the Middle East has seen in years, Israel is getting an influx of support from an unusual source. More than 3,400 evangelical Christians have arrived in Washington to lobby lawmakers as part of the first annual summit of Christians United for Israel.
Delegates have come from all 50 states and have 280 meetings on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Pastor John Hagee said.
Pastor Hagee, the main organiser, said the event was the first of its kind.
“For the first time in the history of Christianity in America, Christians will go to the Hill to support Israel as Christians,” he said.
The event was planned months ago, and is not a direct response to the ongoing violence in the region.
|They see God’s word being played out on their television sets
Timothy Shah, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life
But the military conflict “certainly makes our meeting more significant,” Pastor Hagee said.
The thousands of Christians in Washington – who came and are staying at their own expense – will be urging the US government “not to restrain Israel in any way in the pursuit of Hamas and Hezbollah”, he said.
“We want our Congress to make sure that not one dime of American money goes to support Hamas and Hezbollah or the enemies of Israel.”
Gift from God
John Hagee is the pastor of the 18,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, and a long-time fervent supporter of Israel.
In common with many American evangelicals, he believes that God gave the land to the Jewish people and that Christians have a Biblical duty to support it and the Jews.
His latest book, Jerusalem Countdown: A Warning to the World, interprets the Bible to predict that Russian and Arab armies will invade Israel and be destroyed by God.
This will set up a confrontation over Israel between China and the West, led by the anti-Christ, who will be the head of the European Union, Pastor Hagee writes.
That final battle between East and West – at Armageddon, as the actual Israeli location of Meggido is known in English – will precipitate the second coming of Christ, he concludes.
It is not clear how many evangelicals believe literally in those type of prophecies.
Research by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life last year found that evangelical Christians were more likely to support Israel than any other religious group in America besides Jews.
And there are far more evangelicals in America than Jews – estimates suggest that they represent about a quarter of the US population. (Jews make up about 2%.)
Two in three evangelicals believe that the establishment of the state of Israel fulfils Biblical prophecy, the survey found.
And what they see in the news only reinforces their faith, according to Timothy Shah, a scholar at the Pew Forum.
“When they see what’s going on in the Middle East, a whole range of enemies arrayed against God’s people, they see God’s word being played out on their television sets,” he said.
“They see Israel triumphing over its enemies as proof that God’s promises remain.”
Evangelical Christian support for Israel is “not a new phenomenon”, Mr Shah said, pointing out that there were Christian Zionists lobbying for a homeland for the Jews in Ottoman Palestine in the 19th Century.
|These groups have much more influence that Aipac or the so-called Israel lobby
Author of Kingdom Coming
What has changed is the movement’s level of political involvement, said Nancy Roman, the director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Washington programme.
“Part of what is happening is that the evangelical community in the US is becoming more engaged in the political process,” she said.
“Whereas the church used to counsel people not to engage in politics, many churches are now counselling the opposite.
“It’s important and it will have a huge influence on foreign policy over time,” she added.
Michelle Goldberg is deeply concerned about that influence.
She is the author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, which argues that a significant strain of conservative Christianity is working to undermine fundamental American rights and freedoms.
She said the movement was just as dangerous in foreign policy.
“Christian Zionism is responsible for American support for some of the most irredentist Israeli positions,” she said, such as support for settlement-building.
She said evangelical Christians had substantial influence on US Middle East policy – more so than some better-known names such as Aipac, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
“The influence of Hagee is to make the American public support the government’s completely one-sided, hawkishly pro-Israel stance. These groups have much more influence than Aipac or the so-called Israel lobby.”
Pastor Hagee himself said his group potentially had more clout than Jewish pro-Israel groups.
“When a congressman sees someone from Aipac coming through the door, he knows he represents six million people. We represent 40 million people.”
One of those people is Rosa Highwater of Biloxi, Mississippi, who heard about the Washington summit through a local pastor.
She had no money to attend, she said, but added: “You have to believe and trust in the Lord when he tells you he’s going to do something.”
And in the end, friends paid for her journey to Washington and put her up in nearby Virginia.
She said she was not sure which congressman she would be meeting on Wednesday, but she knew her mission was important.
“Israel is God’s first love,” she said. “The Lord told me to come and be an intercessor. I said, ‘I got to go. I got to do this.'”
For all his flaws, George W. Bush is a master–or was–at courtship. On the campaign trail in 2004, Bush talked the talk, (and walked the walk) to the 100 plus million people who call themselves evangelicals. Like a compelling shepherd, Bush didn’t just ask God to bless America, he prayed with people, referred to his faith regularly and often told of his personal story of redemption. With enthusiasm and ease, he convinced hand-raising evangelicals to join his army, and follow their leader.
The successful relationship between Bush and evangelicals resulted in the year of that devoted values voter, the product of the carefully-followed specs of Karl Rove’s architectural genius: cater to the evangelical movement, a voting block too large to be dismissed. When the Bible-thumpers made up the margin of victory for President Bush, candidates and state parties took note. Two years later, they hired people to do what the President had done, but on a smaller scale: Hold voter registration tables at churches, send out marriage amendment petitions, set up prayer teams (I know, I was one of them.)
Though it didn’t work for Republicans this time around, while conservatives and Christians were licking their wounds, someone else picked up where President Bush left off. Like a dutiful dancing partner, Senator Barack Obama has begun courting the evangelical right, and some are already waltzing along in perfect time.
With his attendance at Rick Warren‘s church, Saddleback Valley Community, a mega-church in California for a large conference about AIDS, Obama has begun to align himself with an important base of voters to gain what conservatives lost this last year. Already lauded by some prominent evangelical publications for his outstanding “Christian faith” and a person Rick Warren called a “good friend” and a someone he’d like to work with on important issues, Obama is in perfect position, if he can keep the momentum, to use an unusual strategy for political gain.
Obama has become well-known not only for his charisma and sudden rise to fame in the last few months, but for his outspoken Christian faith to which he refers regularly. Over the past summer, Obama’s strategy started by chastising his fellow Democrats for failing to “acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people” (Associated Press, June 28, 2006).
While some liberal politicians, a la Hillary Clinton, have begun to gravitate to the center while citing the importance of faith and God, most stay away from being openly seen in the trenches with those believers: Someone might discover their Jesus-lingo is limited (remember Al Gore claiming John 16:3 as his favorite verse?). But Obama has taken a different approach and with Bush-like-bravado has positioned himself alongside those Onward Christian Soldiers, ready to fight their fights in the next important battle.
Unfortunately for Obama, he’s still got something of a pesky voting record, the one that alarmed the other half of evangelicals, and caused considerable controversy (18 antiabortion leaders asked Warren to disinvite Obama) when Warren invited Obama to his conference. That proof of his die-hard liberalism is in the pudding: His votes are 100% that of a Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi, and his pro-choice position on abortion, is his most alarming.
Though Warren admits he disagrees with Obama’s pro-choice position, that didn’t, and doesn’t, seem to stop many evangelicals to from dancing with their new partner. Oblivious to his liberal leanings, many seem smitten by his boyish charm, attracted to his forthrightness, and infatuated by his gravitas. Knowing this, Obama is visible among those evangelicals (like Warren) who are concerned with issues de jour, poverty and AIDS, instead of those aligned with typical, and more politically-charged issues like abortion and gay marriage.
While the evangelical movement has been regrouping from the losses of their pet conservatives this last year, Barack Obama snuck into their Jesus-camp. If he stays, he just may be one of the first to win both sides of the voting block, and if the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, conservatives could have a problem, and liberals could have their solution.
Let’s Stop Stereotyping Evangelicals
By Joseph Loconte and Michael Cromartie
Wednesday, November 8, 2006; A27
It was in 1976 — the “year of the evangelical,” according to Newsweek — that conservative Christians burst upon the political landscape. Critics have been warning about the theocratic takeover of America ever since. Thus the plaintive cry of a Cabinet member in the Carter administration: “I am beginning to fear that we could have an Ayatollah Khomeini in this country, but that he will not have a beard . . . he will have a television program.”
This election season produced similar lamentations — Howard Dean’s warning about Christian “extremism,” Kevin Phillips’s catalogue of fears in “American Theocracy” and brooding documentaries such as “Jesus Camp,” to name a few. This theme is a gross caricature of the 100 million or more people who could be called evangelicals. But the real problem is that it denies the profoundly democratic ideals of Protestant Christianity, while ignoring evangelicalism’s deepening social conscience.
Evangelicals led the grass-roots campaigns for religious liberty, the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage. Even the Moral Majority in its most belligerent form amounted to nothing more terrifying than churchgoers flocking peacefully to the polls on Election Day. The only people who want a biblical theocracy in America are completely outside the evangelical mainstream, their influence negligible.
So as Jerry Falwell and other ministers were jumping into politics, leaders such as Charles Colson — former Nixon aide turned born-again Christian — were charting another path. In 1976 Colson launched Prison Fellowship, a ministry to inmates, to address the soaring crime problem. Today it ranks as the largest prison ministry in the world, active in most U.S. prisons and in 112 countries. “Crime and violence frustrate every political answer,” he has said, “because there can be no solution apart from character and creed.” No organization has done more to bring redemption and hope to inmates and their families.
Evangelical megachurches, virtually unheard of 30 years ago, are now vital sources of social welfare in urban America. African American congregations such as the Potter’s House in Dallas, founded by Bishop T.D. Jakes, can engage a volunteer army of 28,000 believers in ministries ranging from literacy to drug rehabilitation. Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose-Driven Life,” has organized a vast network of churches to confront the issue of AIDS. “Because of their longevity and trust in the community,” Warren has said, “churches can actually do a better job long-term than either governments or” nongovernmental organizations in tackling the pandemic.
Whether or not that’s true, these evangelicals — Bible-believing and socially conservative — are redefining social justice. They’re mindful of the material conditions that breed poverty and despair, but they emphasize spiritual rebirth. Though willing to partner with government agencies, they prefer to work at the grass roots, one family at a time.
Meanwhile, churches and faith-based organizations are growing enormously in their international outreach. Groups such as World Vision are often the first responders to natural disasters. The Association of Evangelical Relief and Development Organizations, founded in 1978, now boasts 47 member groups in dozens of countries. As anyone familiar with these organizations knows, they help people regardless of creed, race or sexual orientation — another democratic (and evangelical) ideal.
It is surely no thirst for theocracy but rather a love for their neighbor that sends American evangelicals into harm’s way: into refugee camps in Sudan; into AIDS clinics in Somalia, South Africa and Uganda; into brothels to help women forced into sexual slavery; and into prisons and courts to advocate for the victims of political and religious repression.
Indeed, probably no other religious community in the United States is more connected to the poverty and suffering of people in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations argues that evangelicals offer moral ballast to American foreign policy. “[E]vangelicals who began by opposing Sudanese violence and slave raids against Christians in southern Sudan,” he wrote recently in Foreign Affairs, “have gone on to broaden the coalition working to protect Muslims in Darfur.”
Of course it’s true that a handful of Christian figures reinforce the worst stereotypes of the movement. Their loopy and triumphalist claims are seized upon by lazy journalists and the direct-mail operatives of political opponents.
Yet it is dishonest to disparage the massive civic and democratic contribution of evangelicals by invoking the excesses of a tiny few. As we recall from the Gospels, even Jesus had a few disciples who, after encountering some critics, wanted to call down fire from heaven to dispose of them. Jesus disabused them of that impulse. The overwhelming majority of evangelicals have dispensed with it as well. Maybe it’s time more of their critics did the same.
Joseph Loconte is a distinguished visiting professor at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. Michael Cromartie is vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. They co-direct the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.