By Maurice Chammah
On a Sunday evening two years ago, my partner Emily and I went to a small church in Waxahachie, Texas, to attend A Gathering of Solidarity with the State of Israel, hosted by the influential lobbying organization Christians United for Israel (CUFI). Having been raised Jewish (Reform, Bar Mitzvah at 13, now non-practicing but nostalgic, etc.) and having traveled through Israel and the West Bank multiple times in my late teens and early twenties, I had long been hearing about these events and I wanted to see one.
The description of what I was expecting won’t do it justice, so take a moment and watch this YouTube video if you haven’t seen the images of American Christians kicking up their legs in high spirits, singing in Hebrew, waving Israeli flags on skinny wooden sticks, and generally appearing super-duper excited about Judaism.
Led by the San Antonio pastor John Hagee, CUFI gathers hundreds of Christians yearly in Washington D.C. for several days of lobbying and conferencing for Israel. With millions of members, they have been widely viewed as partisans for the Israeli government’s more conservative tendencies. In support of their views they point to the moment in the Book of Genesis where God tells Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.” Their critics point to a handful of ideas about the end of time they’ve been known to promote, a mouthful of theology called dispensational premillenialism.
In essence, this is the idea that the future — perhaps far off, perhaps tomorrow — is predicted literally in the Book of Revelations. The end of time as we understand it will be preceded by a series of stages (that’s the “dispensational” part). One sign of the late stages is that the Jews return to the historical land of Israel. Many Christian Zionists believe the Israelis should not have to give up an inch of the West Bank for a Palestinian state, and that by helping them reclaim their historical homeland, they can hasten (“pre-”) the return of Jesus Christ to earth for a thousand year (“millennial”) reign. Sometimes it is just called dispensationalism, or millennialism. (You can read more about this theology in Don Jolly’s column bout Salem Kirban from the June 2014 issue of The Revealer).
So Emily and I, theological tourists for a night, drove three hours north from Austin to Waxahachie’s House of Praise, a non-denominational church visible from the highway. We walked in and passed a table with CUFI pamphlets and two women registering people to vote.
In the warmly lit sanctuary, we didn’t hear the words “dispensational premillenialism” once. There was no dancing or singing. No Israeli flags, either; just a speech, given to about a hundred church members by a retired army colonel with a gray buzz cut named John Somerville. “I know someone in here is worried,” he told us with a grin. “We’re talking about politics in a church. I know my mom told me not to, but sorry, Mom, it’s all I do!”
Somerville argued for supporting Israel with Biblical arguments (“We support Israel because the word of God tells us to support Israel”), historical arguments (“The Jews gave us the apostles and the messiah”) and contemporary political arguments about the threat of Iranian nuclear proliferation. He recalled a moment from his youth when a friend’s father told him that, one day, “You’ll be holding a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other and they’ll be saying the same thing.”
Everyone I met at the church was warm and friendly. When they learned that I was raised Jewish and had been to Israel, they were eager to chat about my experiences. A young couple offered to show Emily and me around Waxahachie.
Somerville seemed more suspicious and kept his distance. There was a recognition that, whatever my politics, I was as much of an outsider to this church as he was, and that my motivations for being there would never be clear enough to him to merit trust. I did not say I was a journalist. I was not there in any logical capacity — I was a tourist, maybe? A spectator? — so, for all he knew, I was a spy.
With our curiosity satiated, and a little disappointed at the lack of dancing, Emily and I left Waxahachie. I was impressed by the Christian Zionist movement’s long arm; similar events would take place over the next week in Georgia, Iowa, Tennessee and Minnesota. In a couple of hours, Somerville had spread CUFI’s message to more than a hundred receptive churchgoers, and this was happening multiple times a week around the country
But Emily was more cautious. Though nobody opposed Somerville, she said, few would probably engage again with CUFI past joining the mailing list. She also noted the lack of college students, traditionally the most likely group to turn their passion into organizing. In fact, Somerville had worried at length about the “anti-Israel, left-wing barrage students are getting these days.” CUFI’s grip, he noted, could slip at any time.
Two years later, Somerville’s worry looks more prescient. In June, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. narrowly voted to divest from several companies connected to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Pope Francis recently became the first head of the Catholic Church to fly directly to the West Bank and refer in official remarks to the “State of Palestine.”
Catholics and Presbyterians have never formed the core of CUFI, which is primarily popular with Baptists, Pentecostals, and non-denominational evangelicals. But earlier this year, David Brog, the Executive Director of CUFI, published a long article arguing that his group’s hold among evangelicals may have started to falter. “A mere decade ago, Christian Zionism was seen as an emerging force in American politics,” he wrote, but now “more leaders of this generation are moving toward neutrality in the conflict while others are becoming outspoken critics of Israel.”
Brog pointed to 2010 statistics from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, indicating that among American Evangelical leaders, 39% sympathized with Israel, 13%
sympathized with the Palestinians, and 49% sympathized “with both sides equally.” To Brog, this is a big problem, and he documented a wide array of American evangelical voices whose positions were to the left of CUFI — arguing for Israel to give up land, for example, or criticizing Israeli military actions — and whose opinions were gaining traction with a younger generation. “Questioning Christian support for the Jewish state is fast becoming a key way for the millennials to demonstrate their Christian compassion and political independence,” Brog explained. “In short, this population is in play.”
Brog appeared on radio programs and on Glenn Beck’s television show. Christian publications followed up with short news articles about the trend. In July, Luke Moon of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, a Christian think tank, wrote that a “narrative of peace-loving Palestinians mistreated by heartless Israelis and their Christian Zionist supporters has been repackaged and promoted again and again by anti-Israel activists in some of the most influential Evangelical institutions in the United States.”
With more than 40 events each month around the country and at least a million members, CUFI and Christian Zionism are still the dominant voice of the American evangelical community when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But as Brog suggests, numerous influential evangelicals have felt comfortable breaking from the party line. Donald Miller, author of the bestselling Christian memoir Blue Like Jazz, has compared the conflict to the civil rights era in the United States. The 2010 Christian film “Little Town of Bethlehem,” funded in part by Hobby Lobby fortune heir Mart Green, explicitly compares Palestinian non-violent protesters to Martin Luther King, Jr. The implication, of course, is that Israel is the other side of that struggle. Cameron Strang, editor of Relevant, a magazine popular among young evangelicals, wrote in a cover story earlier this year that, “many Christians—fueled by theological conviction—contribute to a polarized conversation that actually fuels the conflict.” He did not specifically refer to CUFI, but he might as well have.
Brog and his fellow CUFI leaders are anxious about losing their backing among young American evangelicals. On the other side, evangelicals who for years have urged support for the Palestinians and what they call a more “even-handed” approach to the conflict are celebrating as the tides turn their way.
But underneath this debate is a rowdy variety of belief and biblical interpretation. In 2009, a Jewish professor of English named Stephen Spector published Evangelicals and Israel: The Story of American Christian Zionism, the product of hundreds of interviews with evangelical Christians who profess love and support for Israel. Spector found that the Christian Zionist community has never been nearly as monolithic or as obsessed with the end-times theology as it often appears.
“One thing always holds true: for evangelicals, their political views agree with the way that they read the Bible. That sometimes results in surprises, though. Some biblical literalists and even dispensationalists advocate a Palestinian state. They believe that God’s promises to the Jews are irrevocable and that prophecy will be fulfilled, but they acknowledge that they don’t know God’s timetable. So they support giving land for peace, confident that the Jews will regain the land at some unknowable point in time. Many others insist that Israel keep every inch. Evangelicalism is radically individual.”
Spector’s observation about Christian Zionists’ individualism is just as true, or perhaps even more so, among the new movement of evangelicals who are distancing themselves from Israel advocacy. This new movement is much wider than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and signals bigger generational, political, and cultural changes in evangelical life more broadly. The shifting ways American evangelicals are making sense of the conflict provide a crucial lens — if not always a clear one — into who they are, and who they are becoming.
I discovered that the best list of influential figures when it comes to evangelicals and the conflict was actually in Brog’s article. So I went through it, emailing and calling them one by one.
The Christian belief that the Jewish people should return to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea goes back to the Protestant Reformation, but the modern political movement of Christian Zionism in America is often traced to John Nelson Darby, an Anglican priest who left the Church of Ireland and toured the U.S. in the 1860s. More than a century before the rise of Zionism as a Jewish movement, Darby told American crowds that the Rapture was near, and that the Jews must return to Israel to hasten its coming.
As European Jews began moving to Palestine in the late nineteenth century, many evangelical Christians in the U.S. and Europe supported them without necessarily holding Darby’s beliefs. Over time, the message softened, to the point where many American Christians simply point to Genesis 12:3, in which God tells Abraham “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.” Still, dispensationalism persisted, and Israel’s founding in 1948 looked to many like a fulfillment of prophecy. In 1967, Israel warred with neighboring Arab countries, gaining control of the West Bank and the Gaza strip. The new territory included far more locations of Biblical relevance, giving the images displayed in newsreels and newspapers a spiritual intensity. In 1970, the American evangelist Hal Lindsey published The Late Great Planet Earth, which compared current events to Darby’s end-times prophecies. By 1990, the book had sold 28 million copies. Left Behind followed in 1995. It is the all time best-selling Christian fiction series, with more than 60 million books sold. (A new film adaptation of Left Behind, starring Nicholas Cage, will be released in theaters on October 3rd).
Even as dispensational thinking grew influential after the 1967 war, a small current of evangelicals pushed back. Some, like Gary M. Burge, a professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois, gained their skepticism through time spent in Arab countries. As a 20 year-old undergraduate at the University of California-Riverside, Burge had a Lebanese professor who urged him to study abroad at the American University of Beirut. At the English-speaking campus, Burge lived with elite, politically savvy Palestinian students and witnessed the opening moments of the Lebanese Civil War. “I couldn’t fly out because mortars had hit the runways,” he told me. “So I just stayed up late at night talking politics with Arab friends…I’m just having these crazy conversations, and we can’t leave the dorm because it’s so violent in the streets.”
As he continued to study and travel in the Middle East, Burge found himself suspicious of the premillenial thinking that was increasingly popular in the U.S. “When I listened to my own evangelical community paint this picture of caricatured Arabs and caricatured Jews,” he said, “I felt like we were exploiting both of these communities for our own theology.”
Burge started speaking at conferences held by a small, progressive group called Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding. He became friends with Palestinian Christian leaders. In 2003, he published a book aimed at non-theologians, Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told About Israel and the Palestinians, in which he balanced memoir, theology, and history. “Many of us in the evangelical community live with a troubled conscience,” he wrote. “We are learning that our vision is not what it should be. Our excitement at living in ‘the last days’ has led us to overlook some devastating facts about our faith, the Middle East, and what God would have us do.”
“I felt like we were exploiting both of these communities for our own theology.”
In 2010, he published Jesus and the Land, which argued in a more academic, theologically detailed register that the New Testament represented a break from the “territorialism” of the Old Testament. He quoted Leviticus 25:23, in which God says, “The land must not be sold permanently, for the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.” For Burge, this meant that the Israelites were tenants, not owners, and he paired this text with Deuteronomy 4:25-26, in which Moses warns his people, “After you have had children and grandchildren and have lived in the land a long time— if you become corrupt and make any kind of idol, doing evil in the eyes of the Lord your God and arousing his anger, I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you this day that you shall quickly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess.”
Burge has been called anti-Semitic and un-Christian for his views. Some see his thinking as “replacement theology,” or the idea that Christ’s promise of salvation for all replaces the earlier covenant with Abraham, and that the Jews no longer have special relationship with God. Replacement theology has been seen as a justification for centuries of anti-Semitism. Blog posts and YouTube videos attacking Burge come up within the first couple pages of hits when you search his name on Google. In our initial email exchange, he asked point blank to “let me know up front” if “you’re really doing this for CUFI or something.” I was briefly reminded of the colonel’s wary eye.
“Sorry I had to ask,” he added.
Perhaps because he is an academic and academics like to argue, or perhaps because he has been in the unpopular minority of evangelicals when it comes to Israel for so long, Burge often takes on an adversarial tone in his writing. This past summer, as violence grew between Israel and Hamas, Burge wrote in The Huffington Post, “For the sake of the innocents in Gaza and for the sake of Israel’s future among nations, the current immoral justifications for this Gaza campaign deserve a thorough denunciation.”
But other evangelical thought leaders, particularly pastors with large, diverse congregations, have been quiet and careful about their positions. Many talk of “fulfillment theology,” arguing that Jesus and the church are the “fruition,” or “expression” of God’s covenant with the Israelites. This allows them to differ from the Christian Zionist emphasis on God’s covenant with Abraham while also avoiding the implication that Jews have fallen out of God’s favor.
“Judaism is our mother religion. We don’t replace our mother,” pastor Joel C. Hunter told me when we spoke by phone. “We thank her for giving us birth, but we are not our mother.” Then, Hunter extended this metaphor into what sounded like a justification for critiquing Israeli policy. “Hopefully we do further the goals that our mother had in her best self,” he said, “without the limitations.”
Hunter is President Obama’s spiritual advisor and the pastor of the 20,000-member Northland Church in Orlando. He is one of the most influential evangelical leaders to have publicly expressed sympathy for Palestinians and representative of the way the ideas of theologians like Burge are reaching the pulpit.
In 2012, Hunter spoke at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference, a theological and political gathering of Palestinian and American Christians hosted by Bethlehem Bible College. In an impassioned sermon, he argued that God created Eve at the beginning of time in order to create disagreement among humans. Adam needed a relationship, Hunter argued, so he could see situations from multiple perspectives. With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he reasoned, there should be plenty of room for differing opinions.
For Hunter, this means publicly disagreeing with Israeli policies when they appear, to him, to diverge from Israel’s best interest. “There are a whole swath of our people that when they see the checkpoints and acts of hostility from the Israeli military, like mowing down fruit trees, it’s hurtful and it’s unhelpful to the well being of Israel.”
When we spoke, Hunter was careful to begin by saying the “security and sovereignty and legitimacy and Israel remain paramount. We all want to promote the well-being of the state of Israel.”
But, he continued:
“There’s been a major shift over the last ten years. You can see its rapidity in the last half-dozen years. What is happening in the evangelical community is the next generation of leadership is not shaping its views with traditional theological categories. Many of the new pastors haven’t been trained in traditional seminaries, so they haven’t been trained in dispensational premillenialism, the idea that modern Israel equates with ancient Israel.”
Hunter was harkening back to Spector’s argument that “evangelicalism is radically individual,” but suggesting that the ground has shifted as a new generation has grown up without immediate knowledge of the historical events — Israel’s founding in 1948, the 1967 war — that gave Christian Zionism a sense of divine inevitability. For these students, the newspapers in one hand and the Bibles in the other have not been saying the same thing. If Israel is not struggling to fulfill God’s plan, then it’s just another country.
“While older evangelicals grew up on stories of Israel overcoming the odds in order to survive, younger evangelicals see Israel as an established, wealthy, and powerful nation,” explained Christian author Dale Hanson Bourke at the website OnFaith. “Far more than their parents, younger evangelicals are attracted to justice issues like HIV/AIDS, poverty, and human trafficking. They are drawn to the underdog. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Palestinians are seen as poorer and less powerful than the Israelis. For some young evangelicals, Palestinians are seen as the victims in a power struggle.”
For Hunter, this new perspective is part of a much bigger picture, and you have to zoom out from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to see it. Across the board, younger evangelicals are less interested in tying Biblical literalism to conservative political views than they were a generation ago. This became particularly clear around the 2008 presidential election, when Obama reached out to evangelical voters and found that the ultra-right influence of groups like the Moral Majority had withered.
Across the board, younger evangelicals are less interested in tying Biblical literalism to conservative political views than they were a generation ago.
“Since 2004, influential pastors and the heads of many large faith organizations have set a new national-policy agenda, one founded on their understanding of the life of Jesus and his ministry to the poor, the outcast, and the peacemakers,” the journalist Frances Fitzgerald wrote in The New Yorker around that time. Fitzgerald was profiling Joel Hunter, using his example to illustrate a broader trend of suburban evangelical leaders trading abortion and gay marriage for issues like environmentalism, poverty, and global health.
Though he voted for Mike Huckabee in the 2008 Republican primaries, Hunter now prays with Obama and has emerged as a standard-bearer for a more inclusive and less politically consistent — and therefore less consistently Republican — evangelical politics. Viewed from this perch, the issue of Israel-Palestine looks like one rock in a tectonic shift that sociologists will be puzzling over for years to come, and for which Hunter has made himself into a spokesman. But on the most basic level, I got the sense from Hunter that his views on Israel-Palestine, like his views on other political issues, were part of a broader effort to be inclusive, to make keep Christianity up to date with a younger, more liberal demographic in the suburbs and the cities, far from the rural areas where Baptism and Pentecostalism embraced Christian Zionism and premillenial dispensationalism.
As American mega-churches have grown in size and diversity, they have also been looking to expand their reach globally, and this may have further diluted their commitment to Christian Zionism. Bob Roberts leads the 3,000-member NorthWood Church in Keller, Texas, near Fort Worth. His views make for an instructive case study when it comes to Israel-Palestine because he is perhaps one of the least likely leaders to diverge from Christian Zionist orthodoxy, and therefore one of the most representative of the front edge of the trend away from CUFI. His church is only a few hours up the highway from the church in San Antonio where John Hagee, the founder of CUFI, preaches regularly (Waxahachie, by the way, is on the same highway). Along with Hunter and Burge, he signed a 2007 letter to then-President Bush arguing for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and justice, broadly conceived, for both parties. Like Hunter, he has spoken at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference.
Growing up in East Texas, Roberts spent much of his early life believing that the end of time was coming. But as an adult, Roberts told me, that changed, and it was because his pastoral work came to focus more on global ministry. Northwood Church sends missions to Vietnam and Mexico. Roberts recently hosted Muslim leaders from throughout the Middle East at a cowboy ranch, where he took them skeet shooting. He traveled to Iran, along with Hunter, to meet with Islamic clerics.
In 2002, American military involvement in Afghanistan widened, Roberts’ church began building schools and clinics in tribal areas. “Hands down, no matter where I went, the whole Palestinian question came up,” Roberts told me. He found that many Muslims in Afghanistan were antagonistic not because he was American, but because they assumed he supported Israel and didn’t care about the Palestinians. This spurred him to revisit the dispensationalist theology he had grown up with. “I realized it was not so well-outlined,” he recalled. “You had to pull and connect verses. You almost had to lift it out of scripture.”
“I began to wonder: What do I really know for sure about the second coming of Christ? There is strong disagreement among conservative Bible scholars of all views. What do I know for sure? That Christ is coming back. If that’s so, why am I supporting a theology that supports one people over another?”
Roberts found that sticking to CUFI’s theology and advocacy got in the way of the most basic definition of evangelical Christianity: to evangelize. This was true in Afghanistan, but it was even more true in the West Bank, where there is a sizable number of Christians.
At a recent Christ at the Checkpoint conference, Roberts paid penance to Palestinian Christians in much the same way Christian Zionists have expressed remorse to Jews for centuries of anti-Semitism. “Because of our views on the second coming of Christ, we have ignored them,” Roberts said. “We have marginalized them. We need to love them. We need to support them. We need to love them as much as we love the Jews. We need to care for them. They want to fulfill the Great Commission [Christ’s personal directive to his followers to spread his teachings, found in the Book of Mathew]. They would be far better at it in the Middle East than us. We should serve them.”
This wasn’t just about a big, vague trend among young evangelicals towards political centrism and a focus on justice. It was also, at the most basic level, about being evangelical. Roberts had abandoned Christian Zionism not because he didn’t care about Jews but because it was getting in the way of his connection to other Christians and those who might become Christians.
Hunter had similar thoughts. “Those of us who want to work on a global scale don’t want everything to come back to the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” he told me. “It can’t be the centerpiece of everything we do.”
In other words, despite CUFI’s best efforts, evangelical Christianity may shed the theological Zionism it once championed not because the group fails to win hearts and minds, but because for many evangelicals, evangelizing proves more important than the finer points of political theology. Saving souls, it turns out, comes first.
I should end this article with some disclaiming. The trends teased out by Burge, Hunter, Roberts, and others are just seedlings. For the most part, Christian Zionism — whether pinned to ideas about the end of times or not — remains hugely strong in American evangelical circles. There are no evangelical leaders, at least that I can find, who express serious antagonism towards Israel. All they do is criticize some of the country’s policies while openly sympathizing with Palestinians. This looks to some, including members of CUFI, like an effort to delegitimize Israel, or even an incipient anti-Semitism, but to the participants in this trend it just looks like compassion.
If there is one clear takeaway, it is that there is no longer a clear, uninterrupted line between evangelical beliefs and fervent devotion to Israel’s side in the conflict. Each Christian holds a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, but separating the two is their own mind, and each mind is different. As Spector, the professor who spent years interviewing Christian Zionists, told me, “I found that you need to talk with each person at length to discover how his theology and politics converge to result in a perspective on Israel and the Palestinians.” The more I dug into the subject, the more I felt like a tourist, stopping by a church many hours from home on a Sunday evening for no clear reason other than curiosity. I had only glided, briefly, across the surface.
Maurice Chammah is a writer and musician in Austin, Texas who studied journalism in Egypt as a Fulbright student, 2011-2012. More about him at http://www.mauricechammah.com. He writes regularly for The Revealer.