Why Everything You Think You Know About Christian Zionism Is Wrong
A movement helped created and shaped by Israel that liberal Jews are embarrassed to have the support of
Evangelical Christianity remains one of the few topics about which it remains permissible, and possibly even praiseworthy, for a Jewish liberal to know nothing. Take evangelical attitudes toward Israel. Almost every time the subject comes up, someone will explain that Christian Zionism conceals, under a cloak of philo-Semitism, a nefarious agenda. Christian Zionists support Israel, supposedly, to hasten the end-times, when, as Bible professor Candida Moss writes, “Jews must convert or die.” Political scientist Elizabeth Oldmixon explains that evangelicals are part of “movement in Christianity that’s as old as Christianity itself,” and want to hasten “a millennium in the future,” in which “the Jews, will convert” or be damned.
This narrative is very popular with liberal and leftist Jews. Benjamin Koatz writes of Christians United For Israel’s “esoteric anti-Semitism” and that Christian Zionists believe Jews “will be prodded into conversion by the horrors of anti-Semitism… [or] God will inspire revelation in our hearts at the last moment, allowing us to proceed willingly into rapture.” The same logic underlies Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb’s article, “Anti-Semitism Behind the Christian Zionist Lobby.”
Liberals, and especially liberal Jews, enjoy this story, which allows us to score points against our more conservative co-religionists. The only trouble is that it isn’t true. (Even some basic statistics can be surprising, like that “nine out of ten” American evangelicals reject end-time prophecies involving Jewish control of the Holy Land.) As Daniel G. Hummel documents in his new book, “Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, and U.S.-Israeli Relations,” Christian Zionism’s history reveals that the movement is “less about apocalyptic theology or evangelism” than about “mutual and covenantal solidarity.” Through telling the story of Christian Zionism in intricate, narrative detail and paying attention to the splits and fissures within American Christianity, Hummel dismantles virtually every part of the familiar story. Christian Zionism isn’t age-old; its founders were innovating, largely in response to the Holocaust. Christian Zionists do not secretly want to convert Jews; in fact many argue vociferously against missionizing, flirting with the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy in the process. Nor is the movement fundamentally apocalyptic: end-time prophecies motivate some believers, but by no means the majority. Finally, Christian Zionism isn’t even entirely Christian, since it began with interfaith dialogue and was carefully cultivated by the Israeli government.
Hummel’s story begins in Jerusalem immediately after World War II, with American Christians who came to Palestine and then Israel as missionaries. In 1949, there were more than fifteen thousand Christian missionaries in Israel, more per capita than anywhere else in the world. Yet they were remarkably ineffective. Not only were European Jews deeply inhospitable to Christianity after the Holocaust, but the Israeli state impeded missionary work, placing sharp legal limits on proselytizing and even attempting to limit Christian Bible shipments. Moreover, the Ottoman millet system, which broke citizens into fixed religious groupings, made little space for either conversion or even non-indigenous Christian groups. (Absurdly, Southern Baptists and Lutherans fell under the authority of the Jewish Chief Rabbinate, which refused to perform their marriages, making it impossible for American Protestants to wed in Israel until the mid-fifties.)
More surprisingly, some missionaries found themselves doubting the morality of their efforts. They “sparred with” Jewish academics in Jerusalem, and had their eyes opened to the long history of Christian anti-Semitism, the Jewish background to the Gospels, and the importance of Zionism in Israeli Jewish life. Some began to argue for a shift from converting to what they called “witnessing”: this meant downplaying conversion, embracing Zionism, and honoring Jewish history and culture. American evangelicals like Robert Lindsey started making a point of Jesus’s speaking Hebrew, for instance, and urged their peers to forgo missions. This shift was highly controversial. So, as Hummel documents, Carl Henry, the editor of Christianity Today and mid-century evangelical leaders, warred with Donn Odell, his pro-Israel correspondent in Jerusalem, over how to cover Israeli anti-missionary measures. Odell called for “simple, loving witness for Christ… with no connection to foreign missions” and attempted to enlist U.S. support for Israel during the Suez Crisis. But Henry ignored geopolitics and focused his magazine’s coverage, Hummel writes, on “a critical view of religious liberty in the country.” This split was to play out frequently over the coming decades.
On the fringes, “witnessing” even affirmed the religious validity of Judaism. Invented by the Anglo-Irish theologian John Nelson Darby, the theology of covenantal dualism posited “separate eternal states for Israel and the church” — that is, that Jews could be saved without becoming Christians. Though this dualism never became mainstream, it constantly hung around the edges of Christian Zionism. Christian Zionists were frequently attacked as heretical by other Christians. For instance, the televangelist Billy Graham, an enthusiastic supporter of Israel, faced repeated critique for disavowing Jewish conversion.
Far from being anti-Semitic, Christian Zionism was fostered and shaped by American Jews and the Israeli government. Institutions like the American Institute of Holy Land Studies — a Christian college in Jerusalem that emphasized Jewish history and whose founder, G. Douglas Young, publically prayed for Israel during the 1967 war as his students drove ambulances through the city — persuaded Israeli officials that Christianity, far from representing a missionary threat, in fact represented an untapped base of support in America. Soon, more than “half of the institute’s lecturers… were Israeli scholars or government officials.”
Particularly after 1967, Israel targeted American evangelicals for tourism, with the Ministry of Tourism and El Al Airlines producing pamphlets promising that visitors could “relive the biblical epics.” This influence shaped the direction of the movement. Despite the apocalypticist Hal Lindsey’s massive reach in the United States, the Israeli government preferred Christian Zionists motivated by pragmatism and philo-Semitism, and they effectively marginalized Lindsey’s presence in the tour industry. In the United States, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum advised Billy Graham and other Christian leaders on how to speak and write about Israel. He was not always successful, but sometimes he wrote the words they preached. Liberal cavils about Christian Zionism’s anti-Semitism often miss that the movement has been in significant part created and shaped by Jews.
The final chapters of Hummel’s book trace the rise of the Christian Right and the recent globalization of Christian Zionism. The first story will be familiar to many readers: the backlash, led by Jerry Falwell, against racial integration and the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, the increasingly strident involvement of evangelicals in American politics, and the alliance Ronald Reagan and Menachem Begin forged between the American and Israeli right wings, both newly dependent on religious voters and activists.
Liberal Jews today judge Christian Zionism by these right-wing leaders, like Falwell, who notoriously declared that the anti-Christ would have to be Jewish, and Pastor John Hagee, who has implicitly blamed the Holocaust on its Jewish victims. But even here, centering covert anti-Semitism misses the most interesting stories. Although Hagee is best known for his end-time prophecies, Hummel shows his success has far more to do with his championing of the prosperity gospel. Give to Israel, he preaches, and you will become rich. The Christian Right is far more motivated by capitalist ideology like Hagee’s and by the ideology of a Judeo-Christian civilizational alliance against Muslims than it is by wilder, apocalyptic prophecies.
But more importantly, Hagee and Falwell are no longer the most important Christian Zionist leaders. The center of the movement has shifted overseas. When Hummel visited the “International Christian Embassy’s Feast of Tabernacles celebration,” he heard a Nigerian preacher addressing an international audience, with only a muted American presence. The global movement emphasizes Jewish-Christian “reconciliation” and a shared biblical inheritance, often rejecting end-times prophecies. They also associate Israel with far-right, ultra-nationalist politics, as when the Brazilian Pentacostalist Rene Terra Nova “administered a mass baptism in the Jordan river to a group of Brazilian tourists before leading a chant in support” of fascist leader Jair Bolsanaro — a gathering that reached large Brazilian audiences through social media.
Hummel has written a masterful, very readable book that manages at once to mount a surprising argument and tell compelling narrative history. Nor is he an apologist for Christian Zionism: he emphasizes repeatedly the “dark underside of reconciliation” between Jews and Christian Zionists in “the erasure of concern for Arab Christians and… Palestinians.” That critique is inescapable and damning, though of course it applies to Graham, Falwell, and Hagee not because they are Christians, but because they are Zionists.
Reading Hummel, I realized that liberal Jews prefer to imagine Christian Zionists as anti-Jewish because we find it painful to confront the sincerity and integrity of their Zionism. We would prefer to think of their Islamophobia and imperialism as “Christian” and quarantine the American right from Jewish concerns and interests. We would prefer not to reckon with the fact that Israel has become the central symbolic cause of the world’s political right. We would prefer to deny what Christian Zionists announce loudly and repeatedly — that they reject Christian anti-Semitism and love Jews — because we are ashamed to be loved by such people. Progressive Jews caricature Christian Zionism only partly because we so poorly understand evangelicalism. More deeply, we do so because we would rather not understand why Zionism is so attractive to the Christian Right, for to do so would prompt too many questions about our own Zionism.