American Christian Theopolitical Perspectives on U.S. Foreign Policy in Israel/Palestine
Throughout the Cold War era and into the present time, US censure of Israeli policies has been rare. When expressed, official criticisms are sparing and muted, the most recent examples of this phenomenon being the US responses to the targeted assassinations of HAMAS leaders Ahmed Yassin and Abdel-Aziz Rantissi. These targeted killings are only the latest twist in the US effort to establish peace in Israel/Palestine, the "Roadmap" for peace introduced by the Bush administration in April 2003. From its genesis, the Roadmap was threatened by Palestinian and Israeli violence, the latter undergirded by institutional noncompliance. In the US, the Roadmap has faced domestic difficulties as well. Evangelical leaders like Gary Bauer and Pat Robertson denounced the Roadmap as being doomed to failure since a) the Palestinians are incapable of coexistence, and b) the land of Greater Israel (stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River) cannot be divided since it has been promised by God to the Jews. The latter concern was of far greater importance. American evangelicals and their Jewish counterparts "American and Israeli" lobbied the administration to withdraw the plan. These efforts were widely reported as evidence of a coalescing theopolitical perspective known as "Christian Zionism."
In this paper, I will briefly explore the theological perspectives that inform the special relationship between the US and Israel. Attention will be given to Christian Zionism in relation to American Jewish perspectives, neoconservative policymakers, American Evangelicals and mainline Christian groups. Understanding Christian Zionism as neither merely theological nor political, but instead as theopolitical, I will close with a brief theopolitical critique and some reflections on the relation of religion to state power.
Explanations of the US willingness to support Israel range from thinly veiled anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish empowerment, to more salient investigations of Israel's strategic benefit to American interests. It is clear to any observer that Israel has thus far been able to convince the US that a strong Israeli presence in the Middle East is a Metzia (bargain) for its primary sponsor.
The support for Israel personified in the politically active and highly vocal American Jewish community has proven to be a crucial domestic component of US support for Israel. This support has been embodied in an array of political action committees, with the most important of these being the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The unanimity of the American Jewish community, however, ebbs and flows. In the period prior to the al-Aqsa Intifada, for instance, the state of Israel, long a unifying symbol, had become a potentially divisive issue that threatened to fragment the American Jewish community.
A new strategy for US-Israeli relations was needed. Nimrod Novik articulated in 1986 the "two-dimensional link between the US and Israel: first, the cultural-ideological-moral affinity; second, Israel's potential and actual contribution to American interests." As the Jewish community found itself able to focus only on the latter, the development of the "cultural-ideological-moral affinity" was left to American evangelical Christians. Thus, from the late 1970s, pro-Israel Jewish groups joined political forces with groups like Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority.
Donald Wagner has observed that "Christian fascination with 'Israel' and its prophetic role at the end of history has been an important but consistently minor theme in Christianity since the days of Jesus and the early Church." Questions regarding the character of this 'Israel' have long surrounded Christian eschatological investigations, with the most common Christian Zionist eschatologies centered on "dispensationalist premillennialsm." From Lord Shaftesbury and Lord Arthur Balfour to Jack Van Impe, this theology has proven its theopolitical endurance.
With Israel's independence, many evangelicals anticipated that Jesus would soon return. Still, there were problems. Many were concerned that the young state could not claim the whole of biblical Israel. Thus, the Six Day War of 1967 was a turning point in evangelical confidence in Israel; with its conquest of "Judea and Samaria," Israel had finally claimed its birthright, including Jerusalem. The next month, the editor of the evangelical magazine Christianity Today (CT) offered this reflection: "That for the first time in more than 2,000 years Jerusalem is now completely in the hands of the Jews gives a student of the Bible a thrill and a renewed faith in the accuracy and validity of the Bible." The pages of CT marveled at Israel's military prowess and assured the world that Israel's wars "defensive or offensive" were God's will.
The world of television preachers and colloquial Christianity "while seemingly quite far from the hallowed halls of Congress" is dominated by what Paul Merkley has labeled "patriotic conservatism." As he states, "It is a fact of great significance that the television evangelists are, at the same time, strong on patriotic national assertion, suspicious of internationalism and especially of UN-sponsored efforts, and faithful towards Israel." A matter of public display since the 1980s, this theopolitical perspective took root in American culture during a period of declining political influence among mainline Christians and provided a foundation for the alliance between Israel and America's most visible evangelical leaders. After roughly 25 years of evangelical reassertion in the American political landscape, its most conspicuous contribution to American public life (at least in the amount of money appropriated to the cause) has been unwavering support for the state of Israel.
With the American experiences of 11 September 2001, Israel was afforded an opportunity to reassert its strategic importance to US interests, quite independent of the "cultural-ideological-moral affinity" established between the two states. As Israel recast itself as an expert combatant vis-à-vis Islamist terrorism, practitioners of patriotic conservatism were provided with a new threat against which to preach.
Through the adoption of ideologically neoconservative national security perspectives, strategic and theopolitical concerns shaped both policymaking initiatives and politics-making speeches. With the new National Security Strategy doctrine released one year after 9/11, the US articulated a policy of preemptive strike, thus adopting an Israeli policy criticized by previous US administrations.
The partnership of neoconservatives and evangelicals in the post-9/11 climate was most evident in congressional politicking surrounding the matter of US support for Israel. A December 2001 speech on the Senate floor by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is surprising in its theopolitical candor. As part of his explanation of the 9/11 attacks, Inhofe states "We are Israel's best friend in the world because of the character we have as a nation. We came under attack [because] we are Israel's best friend." He then went on to discuss seven points he considers "indisputable and incontrovertible evidence & to Israel's right to the land. You have heard this before, but it has never been in the RECORD." In a commentary on Genesis 13, from the Senate floor, Inhofe concludes with this observation: "God appeared to Abram and said, 'I am giving you this land,' the West Bank. This is not a political battle at all. It is a contest over whether or not the word of God is true."
In a July 2003 speech in the Knesset building, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) echoed many elements of Inhofe's speech in the Senate. His speech, beginning with DeLay's self-identification as "an Israeli of the heart," is summed up with this one sentence: "Freedom and terrorism will struggle "good and evil" until the battle is resolved&. Israel's liberation from Palestinian terror is an essential component of that victory."
The presumptions of Israeli innocence and Palestinian transgression inherent to these perspectives encourages policymakers and others to approach Israeli-Palestinian conflict as what Kathleen Christison has described as "a zero-sum equation in which support for Israel preclude[s] support for any aspect of the Palestinian position."
Christians in America are not of one mind regarding preferred US foreign policy toward Israel/Palestine. While solidifying Jewish and American evangelical fervor for the state of Israel, the 1967 war, its resulting occupations, and other actions, diminished American mainline Christian support. Generally, while American mainline proposals are closer to those of the Middle East Council of Churches, evangelical and Christian Zionist preferences are closer to the realities of US policy in the region.
Through high-profile leaders like Jack Van Impe and Pat Robertson, along with a variety of organizations such as Bridges for Peace and the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, evangelicals have been highly successful in marshalling US support for the state of Israel. Still, many Jews are wary of wedding themselves to this theopolitical power. As Robert Freedman has noted, "Once you get in bed with them you are, to a certain extent, subscribing to their view of what America ought to be. And that, in my view, is not in the best interests of the Jewish people." Still, this special relationship has long been understood as a marriage of convenience. As former AIPAC researcher Lenny Davis once stated: "Sure, these guys give me the heebie-jeebies. But until I see Jesus coming over the hill, I'm in favor of all the friends Israel can get."
That Christian Zionists and their pro-Zionist evangelical constituency are not dedicated to establishing an equitable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a liability. While predictably drawing condemnation from Palestinian Christians and their mainline sympathizers, criticism is flowing also from evangelical wells. As Richard Mouw has stated, "Evangelicals who are Christian Zionists want to see events unfold, but they aren't so concerned about justice." Merkley "while accusing liberal Christians of theopolitical gullibility and Palestinian Christians like Naim Ateek, Elias Chacour, Mitri Raheb and Munib Younan, of neo-Marcionite heresy" places the restoration of Jews to the land of Israel/Palestine upon a firmer ground than mere justice: "namely, that it was predicted and ordained by Scripture. To have resisted it would have been sin, and in any case would be futile."
This theopolitical rationality was demonstrated by John Hagee in February 1998. When asked if he was uncomfortable that the $1 million gift his congregation was making to Israel's effort of resettle Russian Jews in the West Bank could possibly transgress American policy, he replied, "I am a Bible scholar and theologian and from my perspective, the law of God transcends the law of the United States government and the US State Department." More recent gifts have been even larger.
Over the past decades, it has come to be assumed that American evangelicals automatically, uncritically and monolithically accept the Christian Zionist version of America's "cultural-ideological-moral affinity" with Israel. The reckless theopolitical reasoning this affinity has engendered has led many American evangelicals to distance themselves from Christian Zionist perspectives, thus challenging the calculated exploitation of their community by Likud politicians and those who have become their friends. Just as American Jewish unanimity regarding Israeli policies had waned prior to the second Intifada (lit. "shaking off"), the evangelical community.represented by scholars like Don Wagner, Colin Chapman and Gary Burge and even now in the pages of Christianity Today "seems now to realize the implications of being associated with an ideological theology that, in the name of God, despises efforts at peacemaking; this long-time association must itself be "shaken off" in what may yet become an intra-evangelical intifada.
Despite this movement within the American evangelical community, access to the Bush Administration is still granted to its most stridently Christian Zionist representatives. This access reached a climax on 14 July 2003, with a meeting called by the White House Office of Public Liaison "at the request of a close friend of [Ariel] Sharon, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein of Chicago," founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. The meeting, attended by about 40 evangelical leaders, featured a briefing by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
If the perception of evangelical unanimity regarding Israel/Palestine begins to erode, the US may be freed to unreservedly pursue the possibilities of an equitable and just peace. In the meantime, however, the Palestinian catastrophe experienced in 1948 (al-Nakba) and further consolidated in 1967 is now complete. That we are no longer discussing the contours of peace but instead whether or not there will be a Palestinian state at all, demonstrates the extent of this defeat. This shift in conversation "from pondering at least an illusion of peaceful possibility to rejecting even the illusion of that possibility" has been undergirded not only by strategic arguments but by Christian theology.
The theopolitical outlook of Christian Zionism can be understood as a manifestation of western Christianity's worst tendency: its systematic application of presumably objective theological principles for the purpose of conserving political power. For instance, the claim of (modern) objectivity ultimately allows Christian Zionists to be indifferent to the human suffering supported by their theology. While the defining characteristic of American popular religion in the last two decades has been its close affinity with state power, compliance with power leaches from religious communities any prophetic possibility. In the context of American evangelical and Christian Zionist support for Israel, this American religion has even received the special attention of Israeli politicians and lobbying groups. I submit that this is not the appropriate role for religion in the public sphere, especially in relation to a region and people "Israel/Palestine, Israelis and Palestinians" that embody such profound and fundamental religious ramifications.
The cynical use of religion is defeated by the prophetic critique of state power. Prophetic critique identifies religious rhetoric that seeks to preserve ideologies rather than express concern for human beings. It identifies and rejects religious perspectives that have no concern for justice "political, material justice" as they pursue an apocalyptic program.
If we are to engage in a prophetic critique of state policy that takes into account the sufferings of our fellow human beings "in this case, both Palestinian and Israeli" we must develop a hermeneutic with values other than success and power. To develop an American theology that responds to the needs of Israel/Palestine in a manner concerned with justice, it is necessary to work within the systems of thought already current among American evangelicals. Mainline theologians can engage as both interlocutors and guides with evangelical counterparts such as Donald Wagner and Gary Burge. It is equally necessary to engage faithfully with contextual theologians operating from both Jewish and Palestinian perspectives, whether they be politically conservative or liberal, radical or moderate.
A theopolitical perspective is inept if it fails to take into account the perspectives of those most directly affected by its implications. It is necessary to be biblical, to faithfully define a canon within the canon that provides a reasonable guide to praxis in this theopolitical matter. For Christians, perhaps we already possess a possible hermeneutical key:
"Blessed are the peacemakers…"