The late great planet Earth
The 1970s brought a major change in the evangelical-Israel relationship. The Israelis began to understand the importance of the American evangelical community. According to Paul Boyer, "As liberal Protestant support eroded, Israel played its fundamentalist card. Privately ridiculing premillennialist readings of prophecy…, they recognized an important political bloc and dealt with it accordingly." On the American side, evangelicals realized that they needed to become more hands-on in their support of the Jewish state due to the increasing pressure on Israel to make peace with its neighbors by giving up occupied territory. Often this support turned into strong political advocacy, with right-wing political connections.
An intense courtship began. In 1971 Carl Henry, former editor of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, announced a prophecy conference in Jerusalem. Fifteen hundred delegates from 32 nations showed up. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion greeted the delegates, and the Israeli government provided the meeting hall free of charge. That started a flood of favored treatment of American evangelicals from the Israeli government. The airport in Tel Aviv was quickly overrun by evangelical tour groups.
Entourages led by the likes of Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, or Hal Lindsey were treated to briefings by Israeli cabinet officers, such as Defense Minister Moshe Arens or Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Every televangelist worth his Nielsen Ratings scheduled his own tour; and the Israeli Ministry of Tourism brought evangelical pastors to Israel at little or no expense so that they could return later with their own tour groups. In January 1998, Israel brought at its own expense a large contingent of American evangelical seminary presidents and deans to the Holy Land.
The more this relationship developed, the more blatantly political evangelical support for Israel became. Hal Lindsey is a perfect case in point. In 1970 he published what became the best-selling book of the decade, The Late Great Planet Earth, which introduced dispensationalism to the widest audience ever. Lindsey jazzed up the standard dispensational scenario by showing its connection to current events. The Antichrist's revived Roman Empire was the European Common Market. The northern confederacy was the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. The southern confederacy was an Arab-African coalition headed by Egypt. The kings of the east were the Chinese Communists. He translated "fire and brimstone" into nuclear explosions and showed the chaos of the sixties as signs of the times. He predicted that before Antichrist is revealed and end-times events accelerate, the United States will decline into a second-rate power, done in by materialism, immorality, addiction to drugs, and false religion—or possibly destroyed by a surprise nuclear attack.
It was scary stuff, and Lindsey said exactly what he wanted his readers to do about it: accept Jesus as Lord and Savior and escape the wrath to come. For all its prophetic razzle-dazzle, The Late Great Planet Earth was essentially an evangelistic exercise.
When Lindsey took another look at world conditions ten years later, his perspective had changed considerably. Though still interested in evangelism, The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon contained a full-blown political agenda. He maintained his prediction that "the U.S. must fade from its place of leadership for the west and its former supreme superpower status," but now he believed that if American Christians acted quickly, it might not happen until after the Rapture. His suggestions for slowing America's downward slide sounded like a page from the political Right's playbook. He blamed America's ills on a group of conspirators (the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, and other political liberals) who had dismantled the military and undercut free enterprise. "…I believe that the Bible supports building a powerful military force. And the Bible is telling the U.S. to become strong again." "We need to clean house in Washington, and elect a Congress and a President who believe in the capitalist system." Only then could America give Israel the help it needed.
The politics of loving Israel
By the time Lindsey wrote The 1980s, conservative American evangelicals were finding their political voice. Concerned about what was happening to their country, they formed groups like the Moral Majority and the Religious Roundtable to help elect Ronald Reagan President in 1980. For the first time ever, premillennialists were becoming political insiders, and they liked it. In The 1980s Lindsey reported that the success of The Late Great Planet Earth had opened many doors for him. He had been invited to speak about Bible prophecy to Jamaican government officials, military planners at the American Air War College and the Pentagon, and to Israeli government officials.
It was becoming obvious to everybody that believing in Bible prophecy could have profound political consequences. Shortly after the Six-Day War, evangelicals organized Christians Concerned for Israel, which later changed its name to the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel. The NCLCI's goal was to "educate the American public, and especially the Christians, in the political and religious significance of the close relationship between the United States and Israel." The NCLCI opposed any attempt to internationalize Jerusalem or trade West Bank land for peace. It defended Israel's invasion of Lebanon by putting on a pro-Israel rally at the White House and running a large ad in the New York Times.
No Israeli prime minister since Menachem Begin would think of making a trip to the United States without checking in with leaders of the New Christian Right in both public and private meetings. In April 1998, Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to a National Unity Coalition for Israel gathering, which included Kay Arthur of Precept Ministries, the 700 Club's Terry Meeuwsen, Paige Patterson (now president of the Southern Baptist Convention), columnist Cal Thomas, and a host of politicians such as Senators Trent Lott and Sam Brownbach and Representatives Dick Armey, Dick Gephardt, and Tom DeLay. Jerry Falwell was there, too, and gave a speech against the internationalization of Jerusalem.
Falwell is a major player in the evangelical-Israel connection. When Netanyahu visited the United States in January 1998, Falwell helped arrange a meeting between the prime minister and a number of other evangelical leaders, including John Hagee and Southern Baptists Morris Chapman and Richard Land. Falwell and the others pledged to mobilize the evangelical community against the Clinton administration's pressure on Israel to give up more land to the Palestinians. "There are about 200,000 evangelical pastors in America, and we're asking them all through e-mail, faxes, letters, telephone, to go into their pulpits and use their influence in support of the state of Israel and the prime minister."
Pat Robertson likewise uses his vast connections and his Christian Broadcasting Network to promote Israel. He regularly features news stories about the Holy Land on his 700 Club and invites Israeli officials to appear. During a January 1998 interview with Netanyahu, Robertson asked him, "What would you like our audience to do?" He replied, "I think they are already doing it…, letters to the editor, communications with representatives … to support Israel."
The pro-Israel network
Examples of this kind of public advocacy by evangelical leaders are endless. But the real story in the last 20 years is the founding of scores of small, grassroots, pro-Israel organizations that rarely get into the headlines. They exist to educate and mobilize their local evangelical community to support Israel in the current crisis.
Some have rather specialized missions. Many help Israel by teaching Christians about the Jewish roots of their own faith. The Restoration Foundation of Atlanta puts on seminars, colloquia, and retreats to promote "the restoration of all believers to their rightful heritage in the Judaism of the first century church" and love for Israel and its people. The Arkansas Institute of Holy Land Studies in Sherwood, Arkansas, advertises itself as a "specialty college" and offers unaccredited bachelor's and master's degrees in "Middle East History."
Some of these groups promote Messianic Judaism as the truest form of Christianity. Hebraic Heritage Ministries of Houston wants Christians to worship on the Sabbath (Sunday worship is a product of paganism) and observe the Jewish festivals. First Fruits of Zion Ministries is based in Jerusalem but tries to get American Christians to live like Jews: to keep kosher, study Hebrew, keep the Sabbath and the festivals, and learn messianic Jewish dances (see CT, Sept. 7, 1998, p. 62).
Some of the pro-Israel evangelical groups are more humanitarian than educational. The Tulsa-based Bridges for Peace is a charitable organization working in Israel. Its "Operation Ezra" provides food, blankets, kitchen and school supplies, home-repair items, and the like to new immigrants and others in need. It claims its food bank is the only one currently operating in Israel. Its pitch for support says, "Don't just read about prophecy when you can be part of it!"
One of the most innovative humanitarian organizations is Christian Friends for Israeli Communities, which was founded in 1995 by Ted Beckett, a commercial real estate developer from Colorado Springs. He organized the CFIC to provide "solidarity, comfort, and aid" to Jewish settlements in Judea, Samaria, and the regions of Gaza by linking them with evangelical congregations in the United States.
At present 35 congregations are part of the program. Beckett's goal is to provide an evangelical partner for every Jewish settlement that wants one, which he estimates to be 100 to 110 out of 150 settlements. Each congregation is taught how to "link" with its assigned community by identifying pen pals, making e-mail connections, helping with fundraising, sending books or other supplies. Churches are also expected to promote awareness of Israel in their own communities. Beckett knows that his work is also political because, he says, God is sending Jesus back to Israel to set up his kingdom. There is nothing more political than that.
In short, there is an enormous network of pro-Israel and Christian Zionist organizations. Most of them have their own Web pages on the Internet, and they usually have links to one another. Unlike many other evangelical groups, they understand the virtues of cooperation. An umbrella organization that tries to bring them together from time to time is the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem. Founded in 1980, the embassy, which has no real diplomatic standing, opposes internationalizing Jerusalem and establishing a Palestinian state. It has offices in over 50 countries and does what it can to encourage and facilitate Christian Zionism. Over 1,500 people from 40 countries attended its Third International Christian Zionist Congress in Jerusalem in 1996.
Israel has needed all the friends it can get, and evangelicals have been loyal, productive supporters. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, no one defended it more strenuously in the U.S. than evangelicals. At one time, Israeli prime ministers could count on the strong support of both the U.S. President and the American Jewish community. But the present prime minister has neither. Netanyahu's relationship with President Clinton is strained, and the Jewish community is deeply divided over some policies of Israel's present government. Netanyahu was correct when he said that American evangelicals are the best friends Israel (i.e., his government) has.
But friendship comes at a cost. Supporting Israel has often meant that evangelicals must not be as evangelistic as they would like to be. Cooperation is difficult when one side is trying to convert the other. This does not mean that evangelicals stop believing that Jews need to be saved, only that evangelism must always be the first priority in their relationship. Evangelicals probably learned how to do this when they re-entered the world of politics in the late seventies. The Moral Majority welcomed Jews, Catholics, Mormons, and anybody else who shared common concerns. Falwell often said that since the organization was political, not religious, everybody could get along. Ted Beckett tells participating churches that people are always free to share their faith if asked, but they are not permitted to engage in any kind of overt proselytism. He says that he will "yank the charter" of any congregation in his project that tries to make a direct religious appeal to Jews in Israel. But old habits die hard.
For their part, Jews must learn to ignore what evangelicals believe about Bible prophecy and the need for all Jews to come to Jesus. Just as it is difficult for evangelicals to lay evangelism aside, so some Jews find it hard to ignore the motives behind evangelical support.
Rabbi James Rudin, interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee, complains that "some of the very same people who are most supportive of the state of Israel and its security and well-being don't see Judaism as a full and valid religion. It's like 'Israel si, Jews no.' " Rudin is also critical of Jews who turn a deaf ear to such teachings in order to gain more allies for Israel. "Many American Jews will say: 'Any port in a storm. If they support Israel,…don't worry too much about the apocalypse.' "
[END PART 4]
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Timothy Weber is professor of church history and dean at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Lombard, Illinois.
October 5, 1998 Vol. 42, No. 11, Page 38