Why do so many of America's most fundamentalist Christians support Israeli expansionism? asks Matt Cherry
'The Bible says that Abraham removed his tent, and came and dwelt in the plain of Mamre, which is in Hebron, and built there an altar before the Lord. Hebron is in the West Bank. It is at this place where God appeared to Abraham and said, 'I am giving you this land' ... This is not a political battle at all. It is a contest over whether or not the word of God is true." Biblical interpretations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are preached every weekend in fundamentalist churches across the United States. The above example just happened to be preached in the United States Senate, by senator James Inhofe (Republican, Oklahoma).
Fundamentalist Christianity plays an important role in US policy towards the Middle East. Yet this role is little noticed in the US and often incomprehensible to America's allies. More disturbingly, the fundamentalist Christian vision of the Middle East is potentially fatal to Israel itself.
Over the past two decades, conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists have become one of the most powerful political forces in American politics. First through the Moral Majority and then through the Christian Coalition, the religious right has gained control of much of the Republican Party's domestic agenda. Increasingly, the religious right is taking an interest in US foreign policy, most especially as it affects 'The Holy Land'.
Several ideological strands inform fundamentalist support for Israel. There is general Christian support for Judaism over Islam. Christian fundamentalists are steeped in the Old Testament and see the Jews as the parents of Christianity. Although Muslims also regard themselves as 'People of the Book' and children of Abraham, the vast majority of fundamentalist Christians see no spiritual kinship between Christianity and Islam.
Fundamentalist hostility to Islam has become more blatant since September 11. On June 10, 2002, the Rev Jerry Vines, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest Protestant denomination in the US), told the Southern Baptists' annual conference that "Christianity was founded by the virgin-born son of God, Jesus Christ. Islam was founded by Muhammad, a demon-possessed paedophile who had twelve wives, the last one of which was a 9-year-old girl." In case there was any doubt left about evangelical views of Islam, Billy Graham's son, the Rev Franklin Graham, stated that Islam "is a very evil and wicked religion."
There is a second strand to the fundamentalist support for Israel: the belief that the Jewish people have a God-given right to the land. According to this biblical interpretation, God gave the Jews "all the land from the river to the sea" which is understood to mean from the river Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea.
Fundamentalist Christians therefore support Israeli expansionism. Like many Orthodox Jews they believe that Israel has a God-given rightand obligationto occupy the West Bank. This biblical belief in 'covenant land' helps explain a comment, in May 2002, by Dick Armey, leader of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives and a self-proclaimed evangelical. "I am not content to give up any part of Israel for the purpose of that Palestinian state," Armey told MSNBC's Chris Matthews. "I happen to believe that the Palestinians should leave."
Fundamentalist groups have raised millions of dollars to help diaspora Jews settle in Israel and the West Bank. The biblical basis for supporting Israeli settlements is also revealed by the use of the Old Testament names believed to refer to the West Bank: "I don't believe there is a West Bank; there's Judea and Samaria," says Jerry Falwell, the televangelist who founded the Moral Majority.
THE END IS NIGH
A third, more alarming element in fundamentalist Christian support for Israel is the belief that events in the Middle East are leading up to the return of Jesus Christ. These 'end times' beliefs are principally derived from the Bible's final book, Revelations. For example, Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, believes that when Israel gained military control of Jerusalem during the Six Day War in June 1967, it fulfilled a biblical prophecy. "When that event took place a clock began to tick that signalled the downfall of the great Gentile powers, the last and greatest of which is the United States," he wrote in his 1990 book The New Millennium. "It also began the rise of Israel. What we would like to learn now is, very simply, how long will the clock be ticking."
Fundamentalists believe that the return of the Jews to Israel, and the restoration of Jewish control of the Temple Mount, is a precondition for the Rapture, the Apocalypse, and the second coming of Jesus Christ.
For those unfamiliar with Christian eschatology, the 'Rapture' is the bodily transportation of Christians to heaven. Evangelical Christians believe that in the near future all devout, born-again Christians will be whisked off to heaven, leaving behind piles of clothes and jewelleryand a lot of bemused unbelievers and sinners who will endure the 'Tribulation', a period marked by war, massive death and destruction, and the rise of the Anti-Christ. Finally, Christ will return, vanquishing the Anti-Christ and ushering in the thousand-year reign of Christ on Earth.
These millennialist beliefs about the end of the world are widespread in the United States. A Gallup poll taken in March 2002 revealed that "46 per cent of Americans describe themselves as 'born-again' or evangelical." In a 1999 Newsweek poll 71 per cent of evangelicals said they believed the world would end in a battle between Jesus and the Anti-Christ at 'Armageddon'.
The belief that Rapture is imminent is widespread in the US. The Left Behind series of novels about the end timesco-authored by religious right leader Tim LaHayehas sold 50 million copies since 1995 (see below). Bumper stickers that say "Warning! In case of Rapture, this vehicle will be unmanned", or more simply "Today could be the day", are a common sight on American roads.
The belief that we may be living in the 'end times' spreads to the highest levels of US government. The Majority Whip in the House of Representatives, Tom DeLay, has a plaque on his office wall that reads: "This could be the day."
Most Israelis believe that the extent of Israel's territory should be determined by the goals of peace and security. Its borders are therefore considered more or less negotiable.
But many Orthodox Jews share the Christian fundamentalist belief that the West Bank is ordained to the Jews by God. This territory is absolutely non-negotiable. These devout Jews and other hard-line proponents of 'Greater Israel' benefit financially and politically from fundamentalist Christian support.
Yet the millennialist Christian beliefs and goals differ not only from those of mainstream Israelis, they also differ starkly from the goals of even the most militant Israeli expansionists. Fundamentalist Christians believe that the Jews will either convert to Christianity or perish in the end times. Hence the Middle East peace plan suggested by Rev Franklin Graham, Billy's son: Muslims and Jews alike should try "surrendering their lives to the Lord Jesus Christ and having their hearts changed by the Holy Spirit."
This peace plan might indeed unite Muslim and Jewsin horror and opposition! But in the fundamentalist worldview the only alternative to conversion is misery and death in the Tribulation at the end of the world.
Many fundamentalists are excited by the deepening conflict in the Middle East. As Dwight Gibson, director of the secretariat of the World Evangelical Alliance, notes, the violence "has people thinking, 'Is Christ coming back?'"
For them, Arab-Israeli conflict is a necessary step towards the second coming of Christ. Unfortunately for Israel, there is an intermediate step, which is called 'Apocalypse' and will take place just outside Jerusalem at 'Armageddon' (a corrupted translation of the Israeli town Megiddo). A biblical reference to 'rivers of fire' is seen as prophecy of the nuclear annihilation of Israel.
Israeli leaders, who are currently benefiting from unstinting American support, may want to question whether their most zealous allies are really acting in the best interests of Israel's long-term future.
One illustration of the widespread interest in 'the end of times' is the phenomenal success of the Left Behind series of novels. Co-written by Tim LaHaye, a long-time leader of the religious right in America, the books tell the story of a group of Christians left behind when the Rapture removes their more faithful brethren. The books have sold more than fifty million copies since 1995. The series begins with a ferocious military assault on Israel. Later on, aided by wicked officials at the United Nations, the Anti-Christ comes to power and establishes a godless one-world government. One of the Anti-Christ's first acts is to forge a cynical peace with Israel. Meanwhile, the 'left behind' Christians, shamed by the weakness of faith that prevented their Rapture, band together to form a 'Tribulation Force' to overthrow the godless world government.
Another popular end-times novel, Hal Lindsey's 1996 Blood Moon, features a heroic Israeli prime minister who launches pre-emptive nuclear strikes against major cities of the Arab world.
Billy Graham is surely the most famous evangelist in the world today. He has also been a 'spiritual counsellor' to almost every US president from Eisenhower to Clinton. Newly released audiotapes reveal the true spirit of some of his counselling. The comments, recorded on Nixon's secret White House recording system, came after a prayer breakfast both men attended in February 1972.
Nixon starts off with a stream of invective and innuendo about Jewish influence in American life. America's most celebrated preacher doesn't disagree with Nixon's bigotry. Instead, Graham enthusiastically endorses the President's view, declaring, "This stranglehold has got to be broken or the country's going down the drain."
"You believe that?" Nixon asks.
"Yes, sir," replies Graham.
"Oh, boy," says Nixon. "So do I. I can't ever say that, but I believe it."
"No, but if you get elected a second time, then we might be able to do something," counsels Graham.
Later on in the conversation, Graham confides to Nixon that he hides his anti-Semitism in order to cultivate Jewish 'friends' in the media: "I have to lean a little bit, you know. I go and keep friends with Mr. Rosenthal at the New York Times, and people of that sort. And all, not all the Jews, but a lot of the Jews, are great friends of mine. They swarm around me and are friendly to me. Because they know I am friendly to Israel and so forth. They don't know how I really feel about what they're doing to this country."
Billy Graham's anti-Semitic comments were first reported in the Watergate diaries of Nixon's Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman, published in 1994. After mentioning the Oval Office discussion of "the terrible problem arising from the total Jewish domination of the media," Haldeman continues, "Graham has the strong feeling that the Bible says there are satanic Jews and there's where our problem arises."
No comments about "Satanic Jews" are found on the newly released tape. But Chicago Tribune reporter James Warren ("Nixon, Graham anti-Semitism on tape; President, pastor recorded views in 1972 meeting", Chicago Tribune, 1 March 2002), who broke the story about the tape, says that because the tape "contains several long deletions, it's believed such remarks were excised."
Haldeman's allegations of Billy Graham's anti-Semitism were brushed off when first published. But Graham has found it difficult to rebut the 'smoking gun' of the White House tapes. In a rather pathetic apology, Graham, now 83, said, "Although I have no memory of the occasion, I deeply regret comments I apparently made in an Oval Office conversation with President Nixon."
But perhaps the final comment on this episode of religious right bigotry should be left to the late unlamented President Nixon. After Graham leaves the meeting, Nixon feels the need to clarify his position, and tells Haldeman, "it's also, the Jews are an irreligious, atheistic, immoral bunch of bastards."