Norton Mezvinsky: Christian Zionism and Evangelical Christian Zionists – A Lecture
Lecture Delivered by Norton Mezvinsky at the 2012 Summer Institute for Scholars, held by the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Herndon, Virginia on June 12, 2012
I am pleased to be here with you at this impressive IIIT Summer Institute for Scholars. Hopefully, I shall make a small, positive contribution to your deliberations. Similar to the topic of the previous presentation, my topic is certainly faith-based. My topic, however, is not oriented toward peace making. Evangelical Christian Zionism and evangelical Christian Zionists constitute a major threat to our society and too much of the world beyond. There are 2 major points to make in this regard: 1) Christian Zionism’s emphasis upon the state of Israel and Jews and 2) Christian Zionism’s antagonism directed against not just Arabs but also Islam and Muslims. These two points are connected to one another and overlap but also need to be analyzed separately. I shall focus upon each point in order.
As is often necessary, we need to begin with a definition of terms. Christian Zionism, broadly defined, is not limited to evangelicals. Ministers, lay leaders and congregations of many so-called mainline churches deserve to be called Christian Zionist; they believe and advocate that the political Zionism of the State of Israel’s character is legitimate, is moral, is authorized and authenticated by holy scripture and should be supported and maintained. These mainline Christian Zionists differ from one another in their perceptions of Islam and Muslims. The focus of my talk is, however, not upon these mainline Christian Zionists but rather upon evangelical Christian Zionists.
Not all evangelicals in the United States are Christian Zionists. Some evangelicals, e.g. the noted leader and speaker Tony Compolo, publicly oppose Christian Zionist theology. The large majority of evangelical Christian leaders and their followers in the United States, nevertheless, are Christian Zionists. The actual number of evangelical Christian Zionists in the United States in 2012 is difficult to assess accurately. Before he died, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, one the best known American evangelical Christian Zionist leakers, bragged and exaggerated that the number of evangelical Christian Zionists in the United States numbered 100 million; that number is an exaggeration. The number in 2012, determined from a consideration of many sources and studies, is instead in the 50 million range. Clearly, the number is sufficiently large to indicate its significance.
Evangelical Christian Zionism is one version of Christian fundamentalism. Christian Zionists believe that the Old Testament and the New Testament texts are literally the word of God. Briefly stated, evangelical Christian Zionism is a movement within Protestant fundamentalism that views the
modern state of Israel as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and thus deserves financial, political and religious support. Christian Zionists work closely with the Israeli government as well as with religious and secular Jewish Zionist organizations.
Christian Zionism grew out of a particular theological system called premillennial dispensationalism. Its doctrines became clear during the early 19th century in England when there was an outpouring of millennial doctrines following the year 1800. The preaching and writings of the Irish clergyman John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) and Scotsman Edward Irving emphasized the literal and future fulfillment of such teachings as the rapture, the rise of the antichrist, the battle of Armageddon, and the central role of a revived nation state Israel. Darby’s teachings became a central feature for many great preachers of the 1880-1900 period, including the evangelists Dwight L. Moody and Billy Sunday; major Presbyterian preachers, such as Reverend James Brooks; Philadelphia radio preacher, Harold B. Ironsides; and Cyrus I. Schofield. When Schofield applied Darby’s eschatology to the Bible, the result was a superimposed outline of premillennial dispensationalist notations on the biblical text, known as the Schofield Bible. Gradually the Schofield Bible became the only version used by most evangelical and fundamentalist Christians for the next century.
Premillennialism is a type of Christian theology that may be as old as Christianity itself. It has its roots in Jewish apocalyptic thought and generally believes that Jesus will return to earth before he establishes a literal millennial kingdom under his sovereignty. Darby added the distinctive elements of the “rapture” of true, burn-again Christians prior to the return of Jesus, and he interpreted all major prophetic texts with a future predictive understanding. Darby also marked world history according to certain periods, termed “dispensations,” that served to guide believers as to how they should conduct themselves. In this regard, the fulfillment of prophetic signs begins the central tasks of Christian evangelical interpretation.
Christian Zionism in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries has supported the maximalist claims of Jewish political Zionism, including Israel’s sovereignty over the entirety of historic Palestine including Jerusalem. The modern State of Israel is viewed as a fulfillment of the prophetic scriptures and is one of the necessary stages prior to the second coming of Jesus. Christian Zionism asserts without question that Jews need to and shall be in control of the holy land before the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Christian Zionists believe and state unequivocally that Armageddon the “mother of all holocausts,” will occur before the Second Coming. During Armageddon only the real believers in the divine word, i.e. the true followers of Jesus including only 144,000 Jews, who had converted, will be raptured in the air. Other people will perish for having followed the anti-Christ. According to John Hagee, probably the major Christian Zionist minister, however, the Jews will be spared as a separate category. God, according to Hagee, will allow the Jews, as a special people, to survive Armageddon. The Jews, Hagee asserts, will accept Jesus as the Christ and their true savior only after he returns and appears before them.
Christian Zionists believe that they need to give full support and backing to the current Zionist Jewish state; they believe that they need to do whatever they can to support Israeli Jews against the people and governments of Arab nation-states and Palestinians. Evangelical Christian Zionists believe that the Holy Land must be controlled by Jews, who must be at least the majority of the population before the second coming of Jesus. Some Christian Zionists are more extreme and believe, as one of them told me three years ago: “The Jews must own all the land promised by God before Christ can return. The Arabs have to leave, because this land belongs only to the Jews.”
Within the past thirty-five years Christian Zionist leaders with a large number of followers behind them have developed one of the most powerful and influential lobbies in the United States. This lobby has exerted, and still does exert, at least as much political influence in Washington and throughout the United States as does the much emphasized Israel lobby, which is comprised of Jews. The Christian Zionist lobby, far more than the Israel lobby, is antagonistic to Muslims and Islam as being enemies of Israel, the Jews and Christians. After discussing more fully the Christian Zionist position regarding Israel and the Jews, I shall discuss the Christian Zionist views of Islam and Muslims.
At the time of the Camp David Accords 1978-1979 the Israeli government began to work closely with evangelical Christian Zionists in the United States. In 1978, Israeli Prime Minister Begin invited the Reverend Jerry Falwell to visit Israel, and the following year, 1979, Begin’s government gave Falwell a gift – a Lear Jet. Begin began working with Falwell at the precise time that evangelical Christian Zionists in the United States were beginning serious political work. In that same year – 1979 – Falwell formed the Moral Majority, an organization that to a significant extend changed the political landscape in the United States. Over twenty years ago, Ed McKeever, considered by many people to be the godfather of the Religious Right in the United States, stated in a CBS 60 Minute interview that Americans generally and the United States government specifically needed to understand that “every grain of sand between the Dead Sea, the Jordan River and the Mediterranean belongs to the Jews.”
There is no secret about the political influence of the Christian Zionist lobby in the United States. Typically, Akiva Eldar, one of Israel’s most outstanding political commentators, claimed on June 6, 2003 on Bill Moyer’s Now television program: “the most important thing is that they (Christian Zionists) have so much influence in Washington, that they are so influential in the White House and in Congress.” Professor Stephen Zunes, a distinguished American historian, noted in his article, published in Foreign Policy in Focus, June, 2004; “It appears that Christian Zionists are at this point more significant in the formulation of U.S. policy toward Israel than are the Jewish Zionists.” Zunes offered three examples to document his position:
1) After the Bush administration’s initial condemnation of the attempted assassination of the militant Palestinian Islamist, Abdul Aziz Rantisi, in June 2003, Christian Zionists mobilized and convinced constituents to send thousands of emails to the White House protesting the criticism. A key element in these emails was the threat that if such pressure continued to be placed upon Israel, the Christian Right would stay home on Election Day. Within 24 hours, there was a notable change in tone by the president. Indeed, when Rantisi fell victim to a successful Israeli assassination in April 2004 the administration-as it did with the assassination of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the previous month-largely defended the Israeli action.
2) When the Bush administration insisted that Israel stop its April, 2002 military offensive in the West Bank, the White House received over 100,000 emails from Christian Zionists in protest of its criticism. Almost immediately, President Bush came to Israel’s defense. Over the objection of the State Department, the Republican-led congress adopted resolutions supporting Israel’s actions and blaming the violence exclusively on the Palestinians.
3) When President Bush announced his support for the road Map for Middle East peace, the White House received more than 50,000 postcards over the next two weeks from Christian Zionists opposing any plan that called for the establishment of a Palestinian state. The administration quickly back-pedaled, and the once-highly touted Road map essentially died.
The Christian Zionist influence in United States Middle East policy, especially in regard to Israel and the Palestinians, from the time of the George W. Bush administration to the present can be clearly documented. Christian Zionist’s financial support for Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank has been and continues to be substantial. The exact total amount may not yet be known, but the total is clearly in the multi-million dollar range.
It is not surprising that public support in the United States for Christian Zionism has grown steadily for the past four decades. This is well illustrated by the enormous sales of popular novels, espousing Christian Zionism. The Late Great Planet Earth, written by Hal Lindsey and Carole C. Carlson, published in 1970, was the first of these best-selling novels. Over 26 million of this one novel had been sold by 1990; the number has almost doubled since then. The Late Great Planet Earth prophesized that Armageddon, the rapture and the establishment of the kingdom of Jesus Christ on earth would soon occur. (Soon was first designated to be by 1980, but the timing was extended by Hal Lindsey.) This novel emphasized the importance of the “rebirth” of Israel in 1948 which constituted a signal from God of the coming of these events. Lindsey reiterated and expanded his themes in some later best-selling novels.
The famous Left Behind Series of sixteen novels, written by Tim LeHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, published between 1995 and 2007 also sold tens of millions of copies in English; these novels were translated, published and then sold in many other languages. Video and movie spin-offs of these novels have been produced and are still watched. All the evangelical Christian Zionist themes are popularized in fictional stories in these novels.
In addition to support for Israel most Christian Zionist leaders have been and are presently outspoken publicly and privately about their antagonism to Islam and Muslims. The spokespeople saw George W. Bush’s declared “War on Terror,” to be primarily a war not only against so-called Islamic fundamentalism and Muslim extremists but rather a war against Islam and an evil religion and against its Muslim adherents.
Beginning in the middle of the 1970s, evangelical Christian Zionists began to focus attention on Islam and its expanding role in world affairs. Motivated by the belief that OPEC was largely responsible for an oil crisis in 1973, John F. Walvoord of the Dallas seminary reflected the concern about Islam in his book, Armageddon, Oil and the Middle East Crisis, which sold over 750,000 copies. Other Christian Zionist writers soon began to focus more and more upon Islam. The 1979 revolution in Iran, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, motivated additional concern. Some writers predicted that Islamic fundamentalist Iran would join with the Soviet Union in a final war against Israel. That Shi’ite Muslims were then opponents of the Soviets because of the Soviet Union’s invitation of Afghanistan mattered little in this kind of reasoning. What Christian Zionists regarded as the Ayatollah’s ruthlessness simply convinced them of what would develop. In 1989 Jim McKeevey typically predicted that Islam was more dangerous
than most people then believed. He wrote: “The Muslims have declared war on the West, the United States and especially the Christians.”
That same year, 1989, Pat Robertson, who started the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) and was voted the Christian broadcaster of the year, stated that Israel and America were automatically on God’s side against “evil Islam.” Robertson claimed that here he was speaking for 1600 Christian radio and television broadcasters with a combined audience of 141 million or almost ½ of the total population of the United States.
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, beginning in August, 1990, almost immediately motivated even more of the Zionist leadership an increased sales of earlier published Christian Zionist books. These books contained biblical prophecy of what would befall this world in the end time. Such biblical prophecy not only connected Iraq to pending doom but also provided more background to and a broader basis for antagonism to Islam and Muslims. Christian Zionist preachers and teachers, who emphasized such biblical prophecy, suddenly appeared regularly as scheduled interview guests on radio and television in 1990 and 1991 on CNN, CBS and CBN. The New York Times reported in 1991 that the general concern about such biblical prophecy was at “fever pitch.” The 1990 Gulf War convinced Christian Zionist preachers and teachers that Iraq was the Book of Revelation’s Babylon.
Most Christian Zionist preachers and teachers came to regard political Babylon (Iraq) as the anti-Christ’s revived Roman Empire and to regard ecclesiastical Babylon as the apostate religion. Many believed that Saddam Hussein planned to rebuild the ancient city of Babylon, that the Book of Revelations’ references to Babylon should be interpreted literally and that indeed Babylon should be reconstructed. The leading advocate for the rebuilding of Babylon was Charles Dyer of the Dallas Seminary; he argued that Saddam should rebuild Babylon so that the returning Christ could destroy it.
Many Christian Zionist spokespeople did not regard Saddam Hussein as the anti-Christ or the Gulf War as Armageddon. They were nevertheless convinced that this was a step towards the end-time, which they believed was fast approaching. Charles Taylor concluded, as did most other Christian Zionist spokespeople: “That which is transpiring is a shifting of the nations to get them in the proper position” for events leading to the return of Christ.
The outbreak of the second Golf War, which began when the United States invaded Iraq in march of 2003, produced mixed reactions from evangelical Christian Zionist preachers, teachers and writers. Some were more restrained than they and their colleagues had been in 1990 about prophetic
connections to the end-time. Others reacted in the same manner and sometimes even more strongly than they and their colleagues had reacted earlier.
In his book, Beyond Iraq: The Next Move (2003) Michael Evans insisted that Iraq, Islam and Muslims are modern-day representatives of the forces of Satan and, as ordered by God, must be crushed. They are allegedly connected to ancient Babylon, a once great city that turned evil and was hence destroyed. The 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States was for Evans a prelude to the coming Armageddon, the mother of all holocausts.
In his book, Evans focused even more in-depth on Arabs and Muslims. He argued that they must be humiliated and subjugated before finally being crushed and killed. He quoted the Bible and said God blessed Isaac and his descendants, the Jews, but had a different plan for the Arabs, descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s other son. Evans quoted the Bible’s description of Ishmael as a “wild man” whose hand will be raised against all persons. Evans called Mohammed a “proto-terrorist”, who banished and killed Jews for not believing in him and for spawning Muslim terrorists with Islam. Terrorism, claimed Evans in his book, is a logical consequence of Islam. He argued that the Qaddaffis, Khomeinis, bin Ladens and Husseins of the modern day are disciples of Muhammad and Islam. From Evans’ perspective, Islam was and is a “malevolent manifestation of religion conceived in the pit of hell.” Evans equated Islam with the anti-Christ, against whom all Christians must fight with all the resources at their command.
Michael Evans is a widely acclaimed Christian Zionist spokesperson. He is not only a best-selling author; he as appeared on the BBC and US major television network shows and has published articles in the Wall Street Journal and the Jerusalem Post. He founded the Jerusalem Prayer team, which included at its inauguration other leading Christian Zionists, e.g. Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as well as United States Representative Dick Armey and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Evans received the Ambassador Award from the Israeli government and has been a confident and advisor to numerous Israeli Prime Ministers and mayors of Jerusalem. The jacket of Evans’ book, Beyond Iraq: The Next Move – Ancient Prophecy and Modern Day Conspiracy Collide contains a quotation from Benjamin Netanyahu praising him for having “consistently demonstrated the moral clarity that is necessary to defend Israel from the lies and distortions of its enemies.”
Many other major evangelical Christian Zionist leaders have echoed the themes expressed by Evans. They often have used the term “militant Islam” negatively to portray Islam in general. John Hagee, founder and past or the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, has repeatedly in speeches and in writing reiterated the alleged connections between ancient Babylon, Iraq and Islam. Hagee, who by the end of the 20th century, as previously stated, had become the most influential Christian Zionist leader, has, to date, consistently emphasized in his books, articles and radio and television interviews that Islam is an evil and dangerous religion and that militant Muslims are committed to wage holy war in the Middle East and throughout the world against non-Muslim enemies. The Muslim aim, according to Hagee, is to expand the Islamic religious-political empire to eliminate all enemies. Hagee has consistently maintained that the Islamic aim is to triumph over all religions. He continues to assert in writings and orally that the Koran mandates the killing of Christians and Jews. He has said this on National Public Radio and in numerous other broadcasts and speeches.
Hagee, in line with other Christian Zionist leaders, has severely and specifically criticized Islam, Muslims and Arabs for targeting and attacking Jews and Judaism. In his book, Beginning of the End (1996), Hagee typically asserted: “The conflict between the Arabs and Jews goes deeper than disputes over land. It is theological. It is Judaism verses Islam.” The origin for this conflict, according to Hagee, is the biblical rivalry between Isaac and Ishmael. This rivalry allegedly expanded to the point that militant Islamists hate and want to kill the Jewish people. Hagee considers Hamas and Iran the leaders in this attempt to kill the Jews, and sees a re-born Russia conspiring with Islam in a campaign against the state of Israel and the West. Hagee believes Christian Zionists are obligated to support and defend the state of Israel and Jews against the onslaught of Islam and the Muslims.
Again and again, Christian Zionists have maintained that the state of Israel stands as a Judeo-Christian fortress, surrounded by evil Muslim nation-states and threatened by Muslim terror. From the Christian Zionist perspective, Israel remains an important outpost of the West in the post-cold war struggle of civilizations. The antagonism towards Islam exploded after September 11, 2001. For evangelical Christians generally, the clash of civilizations was developing into a hot war. The role of Israel thus became more important in this developing war, and the Christian Zionist support for Israel increased and became more intense. Gary Bauer, a political activist who was formerly on President Ronald Reagan’s staff, is a Christian Zionist leader who considers himself a solder in the clash of civilizations. Bauer, has to date, consistently argued that the United States and Israel are “twin pillars of the West” and that any harm to Israel would be “a disaster for Western civilization.” Bauer has repeatedly asserted that the United States and Israel are under attack from the same enemy.
Numerous members of Congress, acknowledging their evangelical Christian Zionist beliefs, have emphasized as well the Islamic threat and the need of the United States to stand with its chose ally, the state of Israel, in opposing this threat. On July 23, 2003 the then house of Representatives Majority Leader Tom DeLay, in his speech to an American Public Affairs Council (AIPAC) Leadership Summit, stated: “America’s victory in our war on terror relies on Israel’s victory in its war on terror. The common destiny of our two nations is not an artificial alliance dictated by our leaders, or a partisan political calculation. It is a heartfelt friendship between the citizens of two democracies at was, bound by the solidarity of freedom.”
After September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush declared, in discussing his war against terror, that Islam was “a peaceful religion” and that al-Qaeda did not represent Islam’s true nature or character. Many evangelical Christian Zionists were upset by the president’s remarks. Jerry Falwell, called Mohammad, Islam’s prophet, a terrorist. Jerry Vines, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said Mohammad was “demon possessed”. Franklin Graham stated clearly and publicly on behalf of the numerous Christian Right leaders: “We’re not attacking Islam, but Islam has attacked us…I believe it is a very evil and wicked religion.”
Franklin Graham is the son of the famous evangelist preacher Billy Graham, who had converted George W. Bush to evangelical Christianity. Franklin Graham delivered the benediction at both the 1996 and 2000 Republican national conventions, gave the invocation at George W. Bush’s presidential inauguration and often was invited to lead prayers at the Pentagon. President Bush did disapprove of the Graham attack upon Islam, and White House press releases said the president viewed “Islam as a religion that preaches peace.” The president’s disapproval of Franklin Graham’s statements in turn antagonized many other Christians Zionists leaders. Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian coalition, the most important Christian Right organization in the United States in the 1990’s, took issue with the president’s description of Islam as being peaceful. Robertson specifically declared that Islam was not peaceful and that Muslims did not believe that Islam should co-exist with other religions. Islam, according to Robertson, sought ultimately “to control, dominate and then, if need be, to destroy.” Robertson’s view reflected the sentiments of numerous prominent Christian Zionist leaders from the 1990’s onward. Hal Lindsey often told audiences that he wished president George W. Bush, as a Bible-believing Christian, understood and realized that Islam without question was “violent to the core’ and must be opposed. The Reverend Rob Parsley repeatedly has told his 12,000 member congregation in Columbus, Ohio in sermons and thousands of others, who listen to his weekly radio show, that the United States should wage war against “evil Islam.” These are typical and representative Christian Zionist views. Many Christian Zionists believe Islam and Muslims should be obliterated. They sincerely believe that God wants this to be done.
As I conclude my remarks I would like to put on the hat of an activist and suggest for your consideration what could be done that might counter the threat, presented by Christian Zionism. Given the seriousness of this threat, I must admit that in a lighter and yet positive sense I am a bit amused when I think about a Jew, suggesting to an audience primarily of Muslims at an important Islamic institute how they should consider dealing with some Christians. Suffice it to say that this may constitute one aspect of inter-faith dialogue. At any rate, I want to emphasize that the first requirement in countering the threat is to acquire a sophisticated understanding of evangelical Christian Zionism. Secondly, the topic needs to be discussed in some depth in our society generally. Admittedly, it will be difficult to convince committed Christian Zionists to change their ideas. Those people believe they have the word of God; hence, they are not prone to be convinced otherwise by human beings. Discussing with the choir – so to speak – that is with Muslims and others who already are or would be opposed to evangelical Christian Zionism – is of some importance. Such discussion could deepen understanding and even provoke some creative countering ideas. Perhaps most importantly, discussing and conveying the threat of Christian Zionism to others in our American society, who are relatively unsophisticated about Christian Zionist ideology, about Islam and about the Zionism of the state of Israel’s character, could do some good. Pinpointing in such discussion the numerous violations of human rights of Palestinians by the state of Israel which are supported by evangelical Christian Zionists, would make the case moral, enticing and conceivably effective. Attempting to do this is at least worth a try.
Thank you so much for your attention.