t may sound strange, but it's true: Aside from Jews, the strongest American supporters of Israel are Evangelical Christians, many of whom fervently believe God has granted the Jewish people a divine right to rule over historic Palestine. At times like the present, when the Jewish state is largely friendless in a hostile world, the Israelis depends on the backing of this politically potent bloc of American voters to exhort Washington to look favorably upon its interests.
"I think it would be fair to say that Evangelical support for Israel and its legitimate security interests has been paramount to Israel's support in Congress and in many administrations, second only to the Jewish Committee itself," says Republican political consultant Ralph Reed. "The Jewish community has played a strong role in keeping the Democratic party strongly pro-Israel, and Evangelicals have played a similar role among Republicans."
In 1998, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was then prime minister of Israel, was not falsely flattering an Evangelical audience in Washington when he said to them: "We have no greater friends and allies than the people sitting in this room." Indeed, as Columbia University religion scholar Randall Balmer puts it: "Evangelicals have been very charitable, to say the least, toward Israel, because they believe the Jews are the Chosen People of God, even though they failed to recognize Jesus as Messiah. They believe that God's promises to Israel are still good, and that any nation that doesn't line up with Israel is against God."
The story of how this idea came to dominate the thinking of millions of Christians is one of the great tales of American popular religion, one that has more to do with the best-seller list than the writings of the ancient Church fathers.
It begins with a novel theory of the End Times developed by an Englishman, John Nelson Darby, who taught in the 1830s and 1840s that Christians would be taken instantaneously out of the world in the "Rapture" before Christ returns. Darby's views became known as dispensationalism," because he divided God's dealing with mankind in history into three consecutive "dispensations." The first dispensation was the Mosaic Law, through which God offered salvation to the Jews through the observance of His commandments. This age closed with the coming of Christ, who instituted the age of Grace, in which God became preoccupied with Christians. The third and final stage will begin with the return of Jesus, who will establish a literal thousand-year reign upon the earth.
"Dispensationalists see a clear distinction between God's program for Israel and God's program for the church," reads a statement issued by the Dallas Theological Seminary, a leading center of dispensationalist learning. "God is not finished with Israel. The church didn't take Israel's place. They have been set aside temporarily, but in the end times will be brought back to the promised land, cleansed, and given a new heart."
This is not what Christians prior to Darby had believed. The traditional Christian reading of Scripture, dating from the early Church fathers, held that the Jews' rejection of the Messiah abrogated, or at least reduced the significance of, God's covenant with them. As the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, an Antiochian Orthodox priest explains, "The Church's classical understanding is that she herself is the 'Israel of God,' the authentic continuation of the People of God, both ethnic Jews who accepted Jesus as Messiah and Gentile converts who, to use St. Paul's language, were 'grafted on.'"
Dispensationalists, who scorn the traditional teaching as "Replacement Theology," go further. As indicated above, they proclaim that the Bible foretells that the final stage of history before the advent of the Antichrist and the Second Coming of Christ would see an ingathering of diaspora Jews from around the world to the Biblical land of Israel a development that the 19th-century world could scarcely have foreseen. The beginnings of the Zionist movement in the latter part of that century energized American dispensationalists, who had grown in number thanks to the efforts of an extremely successful evangelist named D. L. Moody, who is chiefly responsible for introducing dispensationalism to America.
But it was the publication in 1909 of the Scofield Reference Bible, which has never gone out of print, that institutionalized what had been a radical new teaching. "The Scofield Bible provided a template for reading the Bible through dispensationalist eyes," says Ballmer. "It became enormously popular, and it really brought dispensationalism to the masses."
Theologian Martin Marty tells NRO that the advent of Pentecostalism and the clash of fundamentalism with modernism in the 1920s caused a fusion of Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Fundamentalists, who, despite some doctrinal differences, banded together under the dispensationalist banner. As Baptist church historian Timothy Weber notes in an informative Christianity Today article, "By the Twenties, many fundamentalists considered dispensationalism a nonnegotiable part of Christian orthodoxy. Since then, the system has been nurtured through an elaborate network of schools, publishing houses, mission agencies, radio and television programming, and the like. Channel surfers on cable TV know that dispensationalists are master communicators."
There's no greater example of that than the chart-busting success of Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth, the apocalyptic tome that became the top-selling book of the 1970s. Lindsey claimed that the founding of Israel in 1948 was God's sign that the Last Days the Rapture, the Antichrist, Armageddon are upon us. Though Lindsey's crystal ball proved unreliable in ensuing decades, the mega-selling Left Behind novels pick up today where Lindsey left off. Dispensationalists ideas have so informed the popular culture that it isn't odd to find Catholic fans of Left Behind shocked to learn that their Church doesn't believe in the Rapture.
But tens of millions of Protestant Christians (though not all Evangelicals) do, and they tend to back Israel with an uncritical fervor that exceeds that of even some American Jews. The Israeli government tapped this deep, unlikely vein of support in the 1970s, and has assiduously courted these Christians for a generation especially because many self-described "Christian Zionists" back Israeli settlements in the occupied territories as part of God's prophetic plan. One of the leading Christian Zionist organizations is the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, a nondenominational Protestant group (without diplomatic standing) which established a presence in the Israeli capital in 1980.
"We're trying daily to encourage the Israeli people," says Susan Michael, director of ICEJ's Washington office. "The Israelis are very depressed. We want to let them know that they have friends who understand the battle they're in."
Esther Levens is a Jew and a Kansas Republican who founded an ecumenical group called National Unity Coalition for Israel, a network of over 200 Jewish and Christian congregations who pray for, donate to and lobby on behalf of the Jewish state. She chides American Jews for being "a little short-sighted" in not properly valuing the efforts Christian conservatives make for Israel.
Aside from dissenting from Christian conservatives on many domestic issues, some Jewish leaders look upon organizations like ICEJ warily, fearing these Christians support Israel only as a prelude to evangelizing Jews. (ICEJ explicitly renounces proselytizing Jews, which has earned it criticism from Jews for Jesus and other evangelical groups.)
"If that's the reason they support Israel, that would be of great concern to me," Levens responds. "But I find so many truly dedicated Christians who are involved because of a growing awareness of their Jewish roots, and who feel they owe a real debt of gratitude, historically, to the Jews."
Others in the Jewish community are grateful for Christian political and financial backing, but resent the notion that Israel is worth supporting because it fits into an apocalyptic endgame scenario not shared by Jews particularly because the dispensationalist script predicts the Jews will convert en masse to Christianity at the end of time.
Palestinian Christians resent it, period. They overwhelmingly belong to either the Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic churches, neither of which accepts dispensationalist theology (a small number belong to mainline Protestant confessions, which also reject that creed). Since the 1948 war, the once-sizable Christian population has dwindled to a mere two percent of the three million Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem. Most of them have emigrated to the West.
Suzan Sahori lives in the Christian village of Beit Sahour, east of Bethlehem. NRO reached her yesterday as her town was literally being taken over by Israeli troops. Speaking frantically over her cell phone, Sahori said, "The situation is very bad. We feel abandoned in this moment. I don't care whether you're Protestant, Latin, Orthodox, whatever you are. We're human beings!"
Palestinian Christians felt abandoned by Christians in America long before the recent wave of violence. They are perhaps more estranged than ever these days, with a recent poll revealing that Americans back Israel in this conflict five-to-one. There aren't enough dispensationalists in the United States to explain why so many American Christians feel a strong obligation to support Israel. The Islamic suicide bombers whom Sahori supports surely have a lot to do with it, as does America's feeling about Arab terrorism since September 11 (the image of dancing in the streets of Ramallah when the Twin Towers fell is not easily forgotten). "Now you know how we feel," an Israeli said to an American then.
Along these lines, Fr. Mathewes-Green suggests a possible answer, in the form of a question a moral query thoughtful Christians should ask themselves: "Does the Christian have a responsibility to a small nation, populated in part by survivors or descendants of a genocide, in a hostile environment? I believe this very important question should be separated from the faulty assumptions of the dispensationalists."