American Christian support for Israel is perhaps at an all-time high. Christian-hosted events to “honor Israel” occur around the country year-round and routinely draw thousands. Christians United For Israel (CUFI), a Christian lobby only three years old, brings up to 6,000 clergy and Christian lay leaders each year for a mission to Capitol Hill. The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), another national pro-Israel organization, brings in thousands more for their annual dinner. Both organizations raise millions of dollars from the Christian community by appealing to their members to help Israel.
While it remains unclear how Christians outside the U.S. will embrace evangelical Christian Zionism, it is clear that Israel is becoming a key element in American Christian political activism. The Christian Zionist movement continues to strengthen the important bonds in the U.S.-Israel relationship and shows every indication of remaining influential for decades to come.
Understanding Christian Zionism
It is impossible to discuss Christian support for Israel without addressing some of the negative perceptions about “evangelicals” often bandied about in the mainstream media. Evangelicals are wrongly described as a monolithic bloc that votes Republican, opposes feminism, hates gays, or blindly supports Israeli policy. Indeed, Christian Zionists are often portrayed as an un-intellectual group that blindly recites their pastors’ pro-Israel mantra.
But the modern evangelical is just that, modern. Evangelicals are not monolithic, nor are they monochromatic, and they are not sheep to be led by a spiritual or political shepherd. They are far less “fundamentalist” than the liberal press would have one believe, and are quite capable of rational debate about their beliefs.
There are roughly 45 million evangelicals in America. The Assemblies of God (12,000 churches) and the Southern Baptist Convention (16 million U.S. members) are among the largest contributors to the movement.
The core teaching at these churches and thousands of others is a strong belief in the efficacy of the Bible. The words of the scripture have a special power and meaning, and are fully expected to provide advice and guidance. Beyond this, assumptions and stereotypes are unhelpful. Evangelicals are Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and are Black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, and White.
Misunderstanding Christian Zionism
The common backdrop to American evangelical Christianity is a religious theological framework known as dispensationalism. Born in 19th century England, dispensationalist thought became popular in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Put simply, dispensationalism is a system of understanding God’s relationship with mankind during different biblically defined periods or “dispensations.” For the purposes of this essay, it is important to note that dispensationalism recognizes the importance of the biblical covenant between God and Israel.
It is commonly argued by evangelicals’ critics that Christian Zionists embrace the notion of supersessionism, also known as “replacement theology.” According to this misbegotten theory, evangelicals believe that the Christian faith is a replacement for Judaism or a new requirement of Jews to obtain God’s grace. This is flatly wrong. Dispensationalists typically believe that Jews have a unique relationship with God. Replacement theology is on the extreme fringe of evangelical churches and is the core justification of most Christian anti-Semitism.
With regard to Israel, as former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Dore Gold explains, “the evangelical position is not unified, but is almost entirely supportive of the Jewish state.” Some see Israel as historically important, because it was home to Jesus, and because Israel continues to play an important role as a careful custodian of Christian historical sites. There are others who seek to repopulate Israel with Jews because the Bible unequivocally states that Israel is the home of the Jews.
Critics often assert that Christian Zionists only seek to repopulate Israel with Jews in anticipation of an apocalypse that would restore the Christian messiah. It is also stated with regularity that all Christian Zionists believe that during the Last Days, Jews must either accept Jesus as the messiah or perish. While some evangelicals hold these views, leading Christian Zionists largely do not.
In short, most dispensationalist Christians state plainly that the Jewish people remain God’s chosen people despite rejecting Jesus. Most also agree that modern Israel is the manifestation of God’s covenant with the Jews, and that Christians have an obligation to support Israel’s defense. By stressing that the Jewish people are the true people of God, and that the modern State of Israel is the Israel of the Bible reborn, Christian Zionists actively counter the ancient reasoning behind Christian anti-Semitism. The two-thousand year history of Christianity’s often genocidal hatred of Jews is an era of shame in the eyes of Christian Zionists.
There are several men of the cloth who are seen as the engine behind modern Christian Zionism. Perhaps the most well known among them is Pastor John Hagee, a mesmerizing and inspiring orator from the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas. Hagee has strongly and forcefully rejected replacement theology as well as attempts to evangelize in the Jewish community. As a dispensationalist, he believes that Jews have a unique, historical, and understandable reason for not accepting Jesus. He argues that it is a Christian’s responsibility to protect and preserve Jews and the Jewish state, given their unique relationship to God.
In late 2007, Hagee was roundly criticized in Christian circles for statements in his newest book, In Defense of Israel, which implied that Jesus was not the messiah of the Jews, but only the Gentiles. Hagee had also declared in a promotional video for the book, “The Jews were not rejecting Jesus as Messiah; it was Jesus who was refusing to be the Messiah to the Jews!” This statement in particular drew the ire of many evangelicals in America, including many otherwise supportive of Hagee and his Zionism.
While perhaps meaningless to outsiders, these arguments are important within the Christian Zionist movement. The narrative continues to be formed and shaped by the movement’s leaders. In order for this narrative to be meaningful, it must reflect evangelical interpretations of the scripture in a way that reminds its members of the eternal covenant between God and the Jews.
The Chicago-based IFCJ, led by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and the former pastor George Mamo, draws support from the Christian Zionist community, and holds an annual Day of Prayer for Israel that routinely involves more than 15,000 U.S. churches. Though not a formal lobby like CUFI, since its inception in 1983 IFCJ has raised more than $500 million dollars in aid for Israeli social programs.
“When I formed IFCJ,” says Eckstein, “I did so believing that Jews and Christians could move beyond their partisan divisions to work productively on our areas of common interest, which are considerable. I continue to believe that evangelical Christians are Jews’ greatest allies in the struggle for a peaceful and secure Israel and in our efforts to assist poor Jewish communities in Israel and around the world.”
Since 1992, IFCJ’s On Wings of Eagles program has helped over 300,000 Jews make aliyah. They come from all over the world – the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, India, and Argentina, to name a few, as well as Arab and Muslim lands. IFCJ also provides them with resettlement aid to help them integrate into Israeli society.
Eckstein has long called for “strategic alliance” with evangelical Christians, calling them “our best friends and closest allies.” Eckstein dismisses concerns about supposed ulterior motives – converting Jews and advancing Armageddon – as a “figment of… liberal, Jewish journalistic imagination.”
Christian Zionism Outside the U.S.
There are several influential Christian Zionist movements outside the United States. Among them is the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, founded in 1980. The leader of the ICEJ is Malcolm Hedding, a familiar face to the “700 Club” who is closely associated with early televangelists like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.
Hedding’s Zionism is profoundly biblical and literalist. “The Embassy proclaims a message to Zion that her modern-day restoration is not a historical accident,” reads an Embassy press release, “but the fulfillment of God’s Word (Ezekiel 36:24-26, Luke 21:24). A time of great glory awaits Israel, even though dark times may precede the break of day.”
Hedding was instrumental in the creation of the Christian Allies Caucus in the Israeli Knesset, providing an international forum for Christians to connect with Israeli lawmakers. The Embassy has affiliates in 55 countries, and is arguably the largest Zionist organization in the world. Hedding is controversial, however. Specifically, he has drawn criticism from supporters of the Palestinian cause for saying, “There is no such thing as a Palestinian.”
It should also be noted that Australia is today a bastion of evangelical Christianity, and Australian evangelical thought has influence worldwide. The popular Australian conservative Pentecostal theologian Andrew Corbett, for instance, rejects Hagee and Hedding’s version of dispensationalism, but remains a supporter of Israel. “The Christian needs to take great care in being polarized about Israel,” writes Corbett on his website. “Jews have a precious heritage.”
The Future of Christian Zionism
Christian Zionism still has many hurdles ahead. Dispensationalist thought remains appealing to many evangelical Christians, but its theology is complex and often discredited outside of its American incubator. Orthodox denominations largely reject the perceived reduction of the role of the Church and “elevation” of the Jews. More liberal mainline churches largely reject literalist interpretations of scripture and prophecy. But for all this, a remarkable percentage of the American Christian population still holds Israel to be a key element of their faith.
Groups like CUFI and IFCJ are generating increased awareness for the importance of supporting Israel. When mainline churches hold anti-Israel or even ambivalent stances regarding Israel, Christian Zionists challenge them with facts and theology, backed by strong convictions. With this multifaceted approach, Christian Zionists are changing minds and opening eyes, and remain vital allies for the State of Israel.
Jonathan Calt Harris, a Christian Zionist, is director of the Michigan chapter of StandWithUs, and a former senior legislative analyst for the Zionist Organization of America.