European Affairs

Israel's Most Devoted Ally: U.S. Evangelical Christians     Print Email
Zev Chafets

Zev ChafetsIn Europe, Christian fundamentalists are so few and far between that they are dismissed as small, secretive cultist sects— a minor curiosity in a secularizing age. So Europeans rarely understand that in America, the profile and weight of evangelicals are radically different. In the United States, evangelicals are the nation’s largest, fastest-growing religious grouping. In rivalry for influence and in active opposition in many views to the liberal Protestant establishment (of Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists and other churches), evangelicals are the core of the Christian conservative movement and thus play a considerable role in U.S. electoral politics and foreign policy. Because of their political activism and disciplined values, the evangelicals have gained since the 1990s what amounts to a veto on the nomination in the Republican party for any presidential candidate and for many other key political posts. The evangelicals’ most influential role lies in the Middle East, where their unwavering—indeed, unquestioning— loyalty to Israel is a major fact of life in U.S. policy and therefore in the geopolitics of this region that is the source of so much Transatlantic concern and so much divisiveness between Europe and the United States. In that sense, the role of evangelicals in U.S. policy in the Middle East is part of a much broader Transatlantic communications gap about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the place of Israel in the broader Middle East.


In practice, the evangelicals are “Christian Zionists” committed to the belief that the modern state of Israel is part of God’s plan for mankind’s ultimate salvation and therefore has a special status. Spiritual in nature, this view of Israel translates into total political support among American evangelicals, who are an important voting bloc in the broader movement known as the Christian conservative right. Standard estimates put their number at seven percent of the American population, but most observers put their numbers higher.1 Their political impact clearly outweighs their actual numbers because they are a committed group, almost all (with the exception of a handful of dissidents) with strongly uniform, strongly conservative views.

The defining tenet of evangelicals (whose ranks include several distinct strands of fundamentalism, including Pentecostals and other charismatic groups), is that each one of them has been “born again” by active personal conversion to Christ, they believe in the Bible as literal truth about the past and future and they want to testify and proselytize about their faith.

In international political terms, the evangelicals’ weight counts most powerfully on a single issue: their spiritual commitment to Israel and their love for Jews. Since evangelicals take the scripture in the Old Testament of the Bible literally as revealed truth and God’s plan for history, they see Israel as playing a unique role. It is the designated place for the Second Coming, when the Messiah appears at the end of history. So the return of Jews to Israel is part of God’s unfolding design for Jesus to return, an event triggering the battle of Armageddon, mass conversion to Christianity and the end of the world. (This view reflects the evangelicals’ special emphasis on the importance of Jesus, ironically a view that in earlier decades often put evangelicals at odds with Jews, sometimes in anti-Semitic ways.) It is a controversial connection, not least in the Transatlantic context, where Europeans are much more inclined than Americans to dismiss evangelicals as, at best, a minority exhibiting anachronistic religious fervor expressed in social/cultural campaigns against abortion or gay marriage. At worst, evangelicals are perceived as alarming millennial fanatics whose views are liable to encourage an apocalyptic turn of events in the Middle East.

Now this phenomenon—the geopolitical weight of evangelicals’ allegiance to Israel—has been well-explained and sharply delineated by Zev Chafets, the author of a new book, A Match Made in Heaven, about Jews, Israel and the Christian evangelist movement. An American- Israeli who has held senior positions in successive conservative Israeli governments, Chafets has a particular and knowledgeable vantage point on this little- explored, often touchy subject. In an interview with European Affairs, he outlines the basis and importance of this particular pro-Israel constituency in U.S. electoral politics and also tries to dispel what he says are some of them is conceptions about this strong “faith-based” tie with powerful operational consequences for Western governments’ attitudes (and divergences) where Israel is concerned.

As Chafets explains, evangelicals have emerged as one of Israel’s most valuable sources of support in the world because they are a strong ally—an unquestioning ally—of any Israeli government. Because their allegiance stems from their spiritual views, the evangelicals are not interested in debating any specific actions by Israel. Nowadays, evangelicals’ influence in Middle Eastern politics often arouse unease among many people, including Americans and Europeans, Jews and non-Jews, for a very different reason—their view welcoming the end of the world in which Jesus’ return is preceded by the disastrous world-destroying event known as Armageddon. In other words, the evangelicals’ views may encourage recklessness in an explosive region, perhaps involving nuclear weapons. Chafets contends that this concern is misplaced, explaining that the core of evangelicals’ faith is a fatalistic acceptance of God’s fore-ordained plan without any place for evangelicals to try to shape the outcome of events in the promised land or accelerate God’s divine immutable timetable. Some Jews remain suspicious of evangelicals’ intentions because they see the evangelicals working for the Second Coming of Jesus and the battle of Armageddon as the signal for mass conversion, including of Jews, to Christianity. Down-playing both these concerns about the end of days, Chafets stresses that the operational importance of the way in which evangelicals have become “Christian Zionists” is that they have come to view the Jews in Israel as the legitimate, divinely-appointed custodians of the “Holy Land”—the Israel of the Bible and the Israel that is to come at the end of history. Excerpts from the interview follow:

European Affairs: You explain that the “Christian Zionism” of evangelicals comes from a religious allegiance to Israel that in practice translates into automatic political support, regardless of what policies the Israeli government pursues.

Zev Chafets: Yes, the important point is that this support from evangelicals is freely given, with no political strings or questions. In a sense, this support is of even better quality than support from American Jews, who tend to divide politically over this issue or that concerning Israeli actions. So in that sense, it’s a heaven-sent match for Israel diplomatically. And, of course, politically, the evangelicals are on the American right, where by and large the Jews aren’t. On the right in the U.S., Christian conservatives are very important, and among them the evangelicals are an important bloc. The result is that the evangelicals wield what practically amounts to a veto against any moves by the Republican party that seemed liable to cause conflict with the Israeli government. Right now, that contingency is highly unlikely because President Bush personally is an evangelical who shares the special reverence for Israel.

EA: Describe for us the evangelicals’ attitude toward Israel. Surely, there are some contradictions. Israel is a secular state whose religious commitment is to modern Jews, not fundamentalist Christians looking for the return of Jesus.

ZC: It is important to understand a key point about the evangelicals’ commitment— the fact that it is unquestioning. It comes froma religious conviction. When you see evangelicals visiting Israel, they are not reading newspapers or noticing what is going on in Israeli politics or society. (Incidentally, their visits to Israel do not fall off during periods of high terrorist risk, as those of American Jews, because the evangelicals are fatalistic about their lives and consider that the hour of their death is entirely in God’s hands.) So the evangelicals look at Israel through entirely different eyes from more secular observers: they see the country simply as the land where God sent his son and where he will reappear, and they have come to view today’s Israeli Jews as the biological descendants of the Biblical Hebrews and of the “Israel” in the Old Testament. So in their context, the actions of any particular Israeli government are irrelevant to their reasons for supporting Israel. Whatever Israel says, whatever Israel wants, the evangelicals support it, unconditionally, because they are not interested in temporal developments. All they feel is that it all fits into a larger design unfolding according to God’s wishes and design.

EA: How do you define these evangelicals and are there enough of them to really matter politically?

ZC: The term “evangelical” is elastic and includes a range of faiths from fundamentalists like Pat Robertson who believe in the literal truth of scripture to Pentecostals, who sometimes go to extreme mystical practices such as speaking in tongues. The basic tenet of them all is that you have to be “born again” by embracing Jesus as your savior and then feel compelled to bear witness to, talk about, your religious experience and faith. In the United States, they are estimated to amount to seven percent of the population. But they are concentrated largely in the south of the country and in the part of the West known as “the Bible belt” and they are almost all Republicans. So they have a powerful voice in the process inside the Republican party to choose a nominee for the presidential election and it is very hard for anyone to be nominated as the Republican presidential candidate over their opposition. They have what amounts to a veto over the nomination of any conservative presidential candidate. Since the power of Jews in America is concentrated on the left, in the Democratic party, it means that there is strong support for Israel across the political spectrum in the United States. In fact, support for Israel is the only consensus position in foreign policy on the U.S. domestic scene.

EA: Historically, of course, there is a record of tensions and mutual suspicion between Christian fundamentalists and Jews. So this relationship is new, isn’t it?

ZC: The conservative direction of evangelicals and their importance in the political spectrum is an outgrowth of the religious and political activism of the 1960s. That period is often thought of in terms of leftist militancy, particularly in Europe. In the United States, however a great deal was happening on the conservative right [starting with the people around Senator Barry Goldwater] and the evangelical movements started to move to the right on social issues such as abortion, gay marriage, school prayer and the like. Right up into the 1970s, Christian evangelicals had closer ties to the Democrats than the Republicans. But just as most Protestants moved behind a left-leaning liberal agenda, the evangelicals moved into what is now known as the Religious Right. The trend was consolidated by evangelical pastors such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who say that they were dragged into politics to resist a trend dragging down the United States morally. This ministry rose and spread during the Cold War years in the United States and that thrust has continued ever since. Evangelical churches have vast social programs and electronic reach, and they are growing fast as established religions decline in the United States. More to the point for this discussion, nowadays evangelicals are the most outward looking group in the United States in the sense that they have their own take on their issues around the world. In Africa, they have been in the forefront of work on AIDS and on Darfur—where they are a key factor in forward-leaning U.S. policy. And evangelicals and their associated social movements are growing fast around the world, especially in Asia and Latin America, where they have missions and schools and converts.

In contrast, they don’t seem to have much footing or acceptance in Europe. The tradition of established churches in most European countries works against them. There are signs of inroads in some places, notably in Eastern Europe. Even so, for historical and cultural reasons, I think it’s hard for Europeans to understand the crucial point I’m explaining—that evangelicals love Jews. They see Jews, at least Israelis, as actors in God’s master-plan, which is working itself out in its own way, which evangelicals embrace and do not want to question.

EA: A lot of people worry about the evangelicals’ completely one-sided bias toward Israel. For one thing, it seems to encourage extremism. For example, are evangelicals backing the Israeli settlements in the occupied territory? In addition, many people are nervous about the risk that evangelicals, in their zeal to see God’s blueprint materialize in the Holy Land, might encourage political risk taking and precipitate an apocalyptic disaster in the Middle East. Isn’t this a source of worry for people concerned to see rational policy-making?

ZC: No, that represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the evangelicals’ faith. They do not feel entitled to change history. They simply want to live with respect for God’s will. They are fatalistic, and they are only pro-active in defending what they see as essential in God’s eyes. They do not seek to change the divine timetable. People cite President Bush, who says he is acting to fulfill God’s will. That’s what he says and, I think, believes. And that involves sticking by Israel. But even so, precisely because of his evangelical faith, any move by him to accelerate history or bring on a final outcome would actually be sacrilegious. Given the nature of his faith, it’s the last thing he would do.

On current issues, evangelicals tend to be hawkish against Arab jihadists and if you took a poll asking whether Israel should withdraw from the West Bank, evangelicals would say “no.” They grumbled a bit when (Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon withdrew from Gaza. But generally speaking, evangelicals just don’t take sides on specific Israeli policy choices.

On the specific question of the settlements in the West Bank, evangelicals don’t play a significant role politically or financially in the Israeli settlements. The bulk of the money from Christian sources in the United States does not go to the settlements but into Israel itself.

1 Nearly 40 percent of Americans considered themselves “evangelicals” in February 2007, according to a survey by the Barna Group, a company specializing in Christian demography in the United States. A poll was conducted in February 2007 in New Hampshire—a key state in the U.S. system of primary elections for the presidential nominations in the two parties in 2008—in which it was found that 16 percent of people intending to vote identified themselves as “Christian conservatives.” Most of them will vote in the Republican primary, but the surprising aspect of the finding is the size of this voting bloc in a part of the United States, the Yankee Northeast, where Christian fundamentalists are thought to have a small presence compared to their popularity in the South and the West of the country.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 8, Issue number 1 in the Spring of 2007.