The insidious influence of Christian Zionism on domestic American politics and through these politics on actions that prevent a just outcome to the Israel Palestine impasse is far deeper and more threatening to peace and security than is popularly understood. It is past time that it is called out as having no biblical foundation, that its unconditional support for Israel has resulted in actions that are antithetical to Christianity and that its opposition to a just peace, given full reign, would lead the Middle East on an apocalyptic trajectory, a trajectory justified by Zionists as fulfilment of biblical prophecy.
How might Christian Zionism be defined? Christian Zionism is a political movement within Protestant fundamentalist Christianity that views the modern state of Israel as the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, thus deserving unconditional economic, moral, political, and theological support.
Searching for insights into the reach of contemporary Christian Zionism, let’s begin with the opening of the US Embassy in West Jerusalem in May 2018. The Christian leaders invited to pray and speak at the ceremony were John Hagee, senior pastor at the Cornerstone Mega Church in San Antonio Texas and Robert Jeffrees, pastor of the Southern Baptist Church in Dallas Texas and host of Pathways to Victory syndicated TV programme. Currently, they are arguably the highest profile US Christian Zionists. Let’s hear a little from John Hagee:
For 25, almost 26 years now, I have been pounding the evangelical community over television. The Bible is a very pro-Israel book. If a Christian admits ‘I believe the Bible,’ I can make him a pro-Israel supporter, or they will have to denounce their faith. So, I have the Christians over a barrel, you might say.
In March 2007, Hagee spoke at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference. He began by saying, “The sleeping giant of Christian Zionism has awakened. There are 50 million Christians standing up and applauding the State of Israel…”
He went on to warn:
It is 1938. Iran is Germany, and Ahmadinejad is the new Hitler. We must stop Iran’s nuclear threat and stand boldly with Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East… Think of our potential future together: 50 million evangelicals joining in common cause with 5 million Jewish people in America on behalf of Israel is a match made in heaven.
Encouraging Donald Trump to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem Hagee trumpeted “through this action the president will enter political immortality”.
Christian Zionism does not support Israel for Israel’s sake, but because ‘believers’ have been led to understand the Bible teaches Israeli sovereignty from the Nile to the Euphrates will herald the end of the world and trigger the ‘rapture’, when Jesus will come again and establish his Kingdom – from Jerusalem. So important is the acquisition of land to this cult like ideology that Zionists resist ‘land for peace’ or the unfolding of a peace process that would ultimately see the establishment of a Palestinian state.
It should not simply be left to secularists to describe this for what it is – absurd, dangerous, nonsense; but Christian voices should cease politely tiptoeing around, seemingly to avoid causing offence to fellow Christians, or being characterised as anti-Semitic by Zionist supporters. What is at stake is nothing less than our understanding of the Gospel itself. Tiptoeing around is to condone cruel apartheid for Palestinians who, through accident of birth and heredity, inconveniently stand in the way of these delusional ambitions, cloaked as they may be in saccharine piety. Tiptoeing around is not simply to support Israel in its overtly apartheid system of colonisation, it is also to turn a blind eye to the reality that Saudi Arabia has been the cradle from which terrorism has sprung, while the demonization of Iran leaves it dangerously outside the checks and balances that come with being part of an international community of trade and diplomacy.
Just as Christian Zionism’s concern for Israel resides in a very different priority; similarly, US Middle Eastern politics is driven not by events in the Middle East, but by US domestic politics and the base from which Donald Trump relies on for support – the Evangelical Christian right. We are confronted with utter hypocrisy and disdain for truth on every corner. It is very unlikely that Donald Trump believes the nonsense of the Christian Zionist position, but being their champion keeps him in the White House. (By contrast the very honourable John McCain refused to accept endorsement from this quarter). It is almost incomprehensible that Christians of any description could condone Trump’s deceitfulness, self-aggrandisement, and appalling behaviour, particularly to women, and yet none of this seems to matter to the Christian right, as long as he supports their agenda.
With numbers that might be upwards of 70 million, how has Christian Zionism become such a potent force in American politics? I do not feel competent to answer that question, but will venture a few observations. First, Christian Zionism with its genesis in 19th century millennialism, pre-dates Jewish Zionism by about 50 years. Second, it is misleading to infer that all Christian evangelicals are Zionists. The English evangelical vicar, Stephen Sizer, is a very well-known and articulate critic of Zionism. Third, Zionism was covertly spread through popular and ubiquitous publications such as the Scofield Bible. Fourth, it is almost certainly true that Christian Zionists are far more vocal and virulent in their uncritical advocacy for Israel than American Jews. While a significant proportion of evangelicals and an overwhelming number of Zionists vote Republican, it is reported that most Jews continue to vote Democrat and that there is a growing divide between Israeli Jews and American Jews.
So, what of Australia? How many Christians are motivated by a Zionist ideology is very hard to know. What motivates Eric Abetz to demonise Palestinians and unconditionally laud the state of Israel? Only he could answer. His public statements following the Labor Party motion to make the recognition of Palestine a priority indicate either he has callous disregard for Palestinian suffering at the hands of the occupation and settlement program, or that he chooses to block this reality from his mind. He continues to insist that Palestine refuses to accept the right of Israel to exist even though since the Oslo accord more than 20 years ago Palestinians have accepted a territorial divide based on 1967 borders. Further he refuses to acknowledge that the boot is on the other foot, most ministers in the Netanyahu government have said they will never allow a Palestinian state.
South African apartheid enjoyed the imprimatur of conservative Christians based on spurious interpretation and application of biblical text. To be doing the same in the land of Jesus who revealed that in God there are no boundaries, no divisions; common or shared humanity is more important than tribal, ethnic or religious identity; is to deny the very foundations of Christianity itself.
George Browning is the retired Anglican Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn