Countries frequently define themselves by what they believe to be true. When reality and belief conflict that definition might well be referred to as a “national myth.” In the United States many believe that there exists a constitutionally mandated strict separation between religion and government. In practice, however, that separation has never really existed except insofar as Americans are free to practice whatever religion they choose or even none at all. The nation’s dominant religion Christianity has in fact shaped government policy in many important areas since the founding of the republic. Tax exemption for the churches would be one example of legislation favoring organized religion while in the nineteenth century the governments of a number of American states had religious clauses written into their constitutions and also collected special tithe taxes to support the locally dominant Christian denomination. The practice only ended with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868.
Christian Zionism is not a religion per se, but rather a set of beliefs based on interpretations of specific parts of the Bible – notably the book of Revelations and parts of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Isaiah – that has made the return of the Jews to the Holy Land a precondition for the Second Coming of Christ. The belief that Israel is essential to the process has led to the fusion of Christianity with Zionism, hence the name of the movement.
The political significance of this viewpoint is enormous, meaning that a large block of Christians promotes a non-reality based foreign policy based on a controversial interpretation of the Bible that it embraces with considerable passion. Christian Zionism by definition consists of Christians (normally Protestant evangelicals) who believe that once the conditions are met for the second coming of Jesus Christ all true believers will be raptured up into heaven, though details of the sequence of events and timing are disputed. Many Christian Zionists believe that the Second Coming will happen soon, within one generation of the return of the Jews to the Holy Land, so they support the government and people of Israel completely and unconditionally in all that they do, to include fulfilling the prophecy through encouraging the expansion by force into all of historic Judea, which would include what remains of the Palestinian West Bank.
One other aspect of Christian Zionism is the belief by some that the end times, as they refer to it, will be preceded by world government (conveniently seen as the United Nations) and years of war and turmoil with a final enormous battle pitting the forces of good against the forces of evil in which all the evildoers will be destroyed and the righteous will be triumphant. The battle is supposed to take place at Armageddon, an undisclosed location in the Middle East that some believe is derived from the name of the ancient Hittite capital Megiddo.
That Christian Zionists believe the return of Christ is imminent and that there will be major wars and a final battle in the Middle East preceding it would appear to be irrelevant to most of us, but it has in this case real world consequences because of their involvement in American politics and most particularly in some aspects of US foreign policy. Evangelical Christians began to mobilize and became a potent political force in the late 1970s and 1980s in reaction to moves by the Jimmy Carter White House to challenge the tax status of independent Christian schools.
Many of the issues Christian Zionists initially supported were sectarian, reflected in their antipathy towards Catholicism which they describe as the “whore of Babylon” and their belief that the Pope is the Antichrist, or social, such as being anti-abortion and hostile to homosexual rights, but there was also from the start an abhorrence of “Godless Communism” and an identification with Israel. It was widely held that Israel should be protected above and beyond the normal American foreign policy interests in the Middle East region. Through the creation of organizations like the two million strong Christians United for Israel (CUFI), headed by Pastor John Hagee, this focus on Israel has obtained a mechanism for uniting evangelicals and providing them with the means and direction to lobby congress to continue high levels of aid for Israel and also to resist any attempts to challenge support for Israeli policies. This mechanism was most recently observed in action on January 28th when 200 CUFI leaders were flown to Washington all expenses paid by an “anonymous donor” to lobby their Senators against the confirmation of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, Hagel having been criticized as being less than completely supportive of Israel and hesitant to go to war with Iran on Israel’s behalf.
Though it is an organization that defines itself as Christian, CUFI supports war against Iran as a precursor to total global conflict. Hagee explains “The United States must join Israel in a pre-emptive military strike against Iran to fulfill God’s plan for both Israel and the West… a biblically prophesied end-time confrontation with Iran, which will lead to the Rapture, Tribulation, and Second Coming of Christ.”
Most evangelicals, even if they do not share all of the detailed CUFI agenda, favor Israel and have made Israel’s enemies their own. This focus on Israel coming from possibly as many as 60 million evangelicals is seen most powerfully in the Republican Party, which caters to their views, but it also has a certain appeal among Democrats. It is concentrated in a number of southern and border states, the Bible belt, which has meant that few congressmen from those states feel it to be in their interests to question what Israel does. In fact, they find it in their interests to do the contrary and frequently express loud and long their love for Israel, which may or may not be genuine. Some congressmen, including former Speaker of the House Dick Armey of Texas, embrace the full Armageddonist agenda, leading one to wonder why anyone would vote for a politician who fervently desires to bring about the end of the world.
This powerful block of pro-Israel sentiment provides a free pass to the illegal Israeli settlements and also to Tel Aviv’s brutal foreign policy vis-à-vis its neighbors, which has damaged other American interests in the region. It also means that any consideration of Arabs as aggrieved parties in the Middle Eastern fandango is seldom expressed, even though many of the Arabs being victimized by the Israel-centric policies are in fact Christian.
John Hagee has stated falsely that the Quran calls on all Muslims to kills Christians and Jews. The persistent identification of Muslims as enemies of Israel and also as supporters of terrorism by evangelicals in general and Christian Zionists in particular has led to a quite natural growth in Islamophobia in the United States. This prejudice arises from the perception that Islam is integral to the problems with the Arab world, leading to an unfortunate surge in those Americans, including congressmen like Peter King and Michelle Bachmann, who believe that Islam is an evil religion and that Muslims should be monitored by the authorities and even denied some basic civil rights or deported because they cannot be trusted. Because the Armageddonists believe that there will be a final confrontation with the forces of evil it has been necessary to identify the enemy and that enemy is, all too often, characterized as Muslims. Hagee has construed this conflict against the Muslim world as ongoing resistance to satanic proxies opposing the end time.
Neoconservatives, who most often might best be described as non-religious, were quick to identify the advantages derived from linking their cause with the evangelicals and established strong ties during the Reagan administration. Israel also recognized the benefits to be derived from a close and continuing relationship with the Christian Zionists even though Israel’s leaders almost certainly hold their noses while doing so, finding the return of Christ eschatology invidious as all Jews but those who convert will also die and go to hell when the world ends. When groups like CUFI organize their mass pilgrimages to visit Israel they spend all their time in Israel, often refusing to visit major Christian holy sites in Arab areas and never meeting with Palestinian Christians, whom they do not recognize as coreligionists. When the Christian Zionists gather in Jerusalem, they are often feted by Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who frequently speak to them.
Some evangelical leaders to include John Hagee have also benefited from the relationship directly in other ways. The Israeli government has presented Hagee with a Lear executive jet, complete with crew, to make his evangelizing more comfortable. It has, of course, been suggested that American aid and tax free charitable contributions to Israel are thus recycled to support those groups that inevitably are willing to provide still more aid until the well in Washington finally runs dry.
So the bottom line is that the Christian Zionist involvement in American politics on behalf of the Washington’s relationship with Israel does not serve any conceivable U.S. national interests unless one assumes that Israel and the United States are essentially the same polity, which is unsustainable. On the contrary, the Christian Zionist politicizing has been a major element in supporting the generally obtuse U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East region and vis-à-vis other Muslim countries, a policy that has contributed to at least four wars while making the world a more dangerous place for all Americans. Christian Zionist promoted foreign policy serves a particularly narrowly construed parochial interest that, ironically, is intended to do whatever it takes to bring about the end of the world, possibly a victory for gentlemen like Pastor John Hagee if his interpretation of the bible is correct, but undeniably a disaster for the rest of us.