Onward, Christian Soldiers
A certain love affair has been playing out on the international stage. Because love affairs do not get covered unless celebrities are involved, this one has gone mostly unnoticed. It involves two nations: Israel and the diehard community of born-again Christians, the two red-headed stepchildren of bodies politic. Generally, they get covered in the mainstream press when they’re in trouble (an attack on Israel) or causing it (the right-to-life movement). Unbeknownst to many outside the evangelical population and the Israeli tourist industry, Israelis and born-again Christians — not all, but those who believe in the literal Second Coming of Christ — have been tangoing across the flaming desert sands since shortly after the inception of the Jewish state in 1948.
That moment in history is regarded by fundamentalist Christians as the fulfillment of two major Biblical prophecies: “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number” (Jeremiah 23:3-6) and “I will make rivers flow on barren heights and springs within the valleys. I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs” (Isaiah 41:18-20, which is said to refer to the flowering of Israel).
The Christian/Jewish tango became more intimate when Israel won the Six-Day War in 1967, reclaiming Jerusalem and thus fulfilling another relevant prophecy: “And many peoples and powerful nations will come to Jerusalem to seek God’s favor” (Zechariah 8:22). On the 50th anniversary of Israel in 1998, Benjamin Netanyahu addressed an American group in Washington DC called Voices United for Israel. Most of the 3000 in attendance were evangelicals, including Ralph Reed and other prominent members of the born-again community. Netanyahu said, “We have no greater friends and allies than the people sitting in this room.” Ralph Reed recently elaborated on this theme in the Washington Times: “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.”
Nowadays, the affair between Jews and born-again Christians is more passionate than ever, as events that seem to unfold almost daily in the Holy Land are interpreted by some evangelicals as pre-ordained indicators of the Second Coming of Christ. Trouble in Jerusalem? It’s in Zechariah 12:1-5. The advent of the Internet? That’s what it says in Matthew 24:14. According to scripture, Israel is the designated staging area for Christ’s return; it follows that if Israel goes, the Saviour will have no place to land. This is why born-again Christians see divine linkage between America (the only country that can save the Jewish state), Armageddon, getting inside those pearly gates, and the fate of Israel.
Not surprisingly, when speaking to the mainstream press about their beliefs, born-again Christians rarely cite their personal interest in meeting Christ as the actual reason they embrace Israel. In the Washington Post, Gary Bauer said recently that conservative Christians believe “America has an obligation to stand by Israel” based “on readings of the scriptures where evangelicals believe God has promised that land to the Jewish people.” (He didn’t mention that once Christ returns, Jews — at least those Jews who have not accepted Jesus as a personal saviour — get a one-way ticket to hell.) Such impassioned support for Israel among the GOP’s base of religious conservatives counters the Republican tradition of bowing lower than the Democrats when it comes to Mecca.
As both secular and religious types whisper about an approaching Armageddon, some born-again Christians are sounding more pro-Israel than a Hadassah sewing circle. Just the other day, an evangelist minister in Texas launched the Jerusalem Prayer Team. Pastor Michael Evans is trying to enlist one million people in America to pray daily and 100,000 American churches to pray weekly for peace in Jerusalem by reciting Psalm 122. Pat Robertson recently appeared on Hannity and Colmes, pointing out that “right now, it’s important to support Israel. There is no greater proof of the existence of God than the Jewish people.” He noted that he’s been broadcasting from Israel since 1982. Partly because of Robertson’s proselytizing for Israel, it became cool in some non- Jewish quarters to talk about Christ’s own Judaism. During the 1980s, there appeared the ubiquitous bumper sticker, “My boss is a Jewish carpenter,” a proclamation that the driver “worked for” Jesus Christ, who was Jewish and a carpenter. Robertson regards the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War as a “key moment in Biblical prophecy,” and has written that it moved the world that much closer to Christ’s return.
Elsewhere in the born-again community, on the Christian Broadcasting Network and on evangelical websites run by mega-pastors such as Billy Graham, Benny Hinn, and scores of others, there are daily prayer offerings for Israel, ongoing sign-ups for trips to the Holy Land led by markee-name ministers, examinations of the Jewish roots of Christianity, everything but news that the disciples sat shiva. According to the 2002 Spiritual State of the Nation Survey taken by Coral Ridge Ministries, 86 percent of pro-family evangelicals agree that the government should not “back away from America’s traditional pro-Israel stance in light of the hatred it engenders in the Islamic community.” And according to a recent poll taken by the popular pastor Hal Lindsey, 72.5 percent of the born-again population agrees with the statement “I believe we actually are seeing the start of the war that leads to antichrist and Armageddon.”
For these evangelicals — and for messianic Jews as well — the approaching doom is not about Saudi oil, the right of return for displaced Palestinians, the war against terrorism, Bush family interest in the Carlyle group, or Ariel Sharon and Yassir Arafat as old-school warriors who can’t disengage. For them, the fight for Israel boils down a particular shrine in Jerusalem called the Temple Mount where Christ is supposed to return. As it says in Micah 4:1, “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and people will stream to it.”
This is the heart of the matter, the holy of holies (yes, there are plenty of other holy of holies, but none as holy as this one, which is why Christians aren’t all that upset about what happened at the Church of the Nativity, where the thing that was supposed to happen There — the birth of Christ — already happened). This is the full-on schmeggeggy of religious weirdness, an ancient pile of rocks and amens and allahu akhbars, the place that sparked the intifada of the past 20 months. There’s a rock here that God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son on and Abraham said okay and then God said I’m only kidding, I just wanted to make sure you adored me. Then Abraham became the father of the Jews and to honor Abraham, a descendant of his named Solomon built a temple on top of the rock. Solomon’s enemies trashed the temple. The Romans re-built it and, not knowing from Abraham or Solomon, named it after Herod. Later, Mohammed came along and said Abraham was the father of the Muslims. One day, while standing on this same rock, Mohammed died and ascended to heaven. So the Muslims built the Dome of the Rock on top of what was once not one but two Jewish temples.
This presents a major problem for Christians: how can Jesus make his scheduled landing at the Temple Mount if it’s beneath a mosque that happens to be under Muslim control? (Such is the politics of Israel that Jews can control a city while Arabs can control a building in it, although Jews control a wall of said building-which happens to be the one-and-only Western wall). Solution: build a third temple on the mount. After all, the Bible — Old and New Testament — says there’s supposed to be a third temple. Which is why Jerusalem cannot be divided in half, as Palestinians have suggested, because the half that they want — the one with the Dome of the Rock — would be part of their side. For fundamentalist Christians (and Jews) it’s bad enough that Muslims already control it. When Sharon visited the excavations there last year, the place went off because Palestinians took it as a sign that the Israelis were getting ready to dismantle the mosque and restore the Temple Mount, which Christians saw as proof that Christ was around the corner. (Politically, Christ’s imminent return is bad for Yasser Arafat: he knows that he needs support among evangelical Christians who are powerful in the Republican Party. As he said recently, “We will defend the holy Christian and Muslim sites,” attempting to win Christians over by suggesting that Jews are a threat to both groups. “We will fight to the death.”)
The problem posed by this triple-header power vortex is explored by Robert Stone in his recent novel Damascus Gate. Several characters are afflicted with “Jerusalem Syndrome,” a term used by Israeli psychiatrists to describe people who believe they must hasten the Saviour’s return. They embrace a world view which causes them to act as agents of chaos in the service of Biblical prophecy. For instance, some time before Y2K celebrations, the Israeli government deported an American end-times cult called Concerned Christians. This obsessive little band had set up shop in the Holy Land in order to wrest the Temple Mount from Muslim control and return it to the Jews. In the culmination of “Damascus Gate,” Stone explores this final Bible prophecy. Some of his characters have been called to build the third temple, to rip out the Dome of the Rock and roll back the terrain to its original, God-intended state. This would start “The Battle for Jerusalem” — the signal for Armageddon (or “Megiddo,” as it’s known in the Bible, a region outside Jerusalem). In both Stone’s novel and the world of many born-again Christians, the Temple Mount must be saved to set the stage for Christ’s return. The urgent need for the Temple Mount fuels evangelical support for Israel as well as the unspoken view that Palestinians are blocking a divine plan. And so here Jews find themselves: temporarily in lockstep with the conservative Christian world, the same one that stood by and watched them march to the ovens.
When it comes to the Holy Land, whither our born-again President? While he does not hide his religious views, he does not speak of them Explicitly — “wouldn’t be prudent,” in the words of Bush Sr. But a look at the record provides enough information to suggest that Bush may (reluctantly and with great difficulty) regard himself as an usher of the Second Coming as mandated in the Bible, albeit in an even-handed, Presidential way. Those who would attempt to decode Bush’s daily moves according to shifting political sands are missing the point. To many evangelical Christians, what’s playing out in the Mideast is all part of God’s plan. The only thing a born-again President can do is stand at the helm and occasionally turn the rudder, making sure that Israel survives, knowing that the seas and wind are out of his control. According to his autobiography, A Charge to Keep, written by his former communication advisor Karen Hughes, Bush’s “walk with Jesus” began in 1985 when Billy Graham visited him in Kennebunkport and he had an awakening. Christianity Today Magazine reports that during White House meetings, Bush frequently shows visitors a painting inspired by the hymn that suggested his book’s title. “I still have a charge to keep,” Bush reportedly tells guests. “Indeed, a verse from the hymn seems to fit Bush’s convictions,” the magazine observes: “To serve the present age, my calling to fulfill. / Oh may it all my powers engage, to do my Master’s will.” It would appear that Bush’s awakening was authentic: in 1993, he told a reporter from the Austin-American Statesman that “Jews are going to hell,” a view that he later “clarified” to the satisfaction of Jewish Republicans. (One of his key spiritual advisors in fact is the Texas-based Marvin Olasky, a former Orthodox Jew turned fundamentalist preacher). In 1998, Bush traveled to Jerusalem with a group of pro-Israel Republicans and was reportedly moved to tears as he read from the Beatitudes at the Temple Mount. In 1999, having walked with Jesus for 14 years, Bush heard a sermon about God convincing Moses to lead the Jews out of Egypt. “That means you,” his mother told him. He cites the moment as instrumental in helping him decide to seek the Presidency. One of his last acts as governor was to proclaim April 17th, 2000 as “Jesus Day,” an unwitting moment of kitsch to which only the most guile-free devotee could affix his signature. The very words, “Jesus Day” — as if Christmas or Easter did not cover the subject — smack of George Bush at his most sincere.
Recently, Pat Robertson remarked that George Bush is “torn,” referring to his demand for Israel to withdraw troops from Palestinian refugee camps, an act that evangelical Christians regard as anti-scripture. They are puzzled that it was ordered by brother Bush. “He’s being pressured by people who want to cozy up to the Arabs,” Robertson said, alluding to a perceived team Bush rift between Rice/Powell (pro-Arab) and Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz (pro-Israel). Yet it would appear that Bush is not the only born-again Christian who may be having second thoughts about the Second Coming. In the wake of ongoing violence in the Middle East, Christian tour groups have cancelled their trips to Israel. Those who would hasten the apocalypse may now prefer to avoid it, which means that maybe it’s not such a great idea after all. But make no mistake: evangelicals will tango with Israel till the end, long after everyone else has left the stage.
Originally published in The Nation, June 3, 2002