Misguided Theology Makes Bad Foreign Policy

by , June 17, 2006

Iraq is an unalloyed disaster. War with Iran would be even worse. Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution has empowered groups hostile to America. Where is the new democratic dawn in the Mideast that the administration promised?

It certainly isn’t represented in the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” The West Bank is still occupied and Gaza is nearing civil war. Whether peace is possible if the two peoples separate is unknowable. The only worse option is for Israel to maintain a system of militarized apartheid-like rule over millions of Palestinians.

Yet some of President George W. Bush’s domestic supporters oppose the slightest Israeli concession to the Palestinians. Before the 2004 election, Gary Bauer, one-time presidential candidate and head of American Values, lectured the president: “The land of Israel was originally owned by God. Since He was the owner, only He could give it away. And He gave it to the Jewish people.”

Actually, God still owns the land of Israel. And that of America, for that matter. But that isn’t a reason to oppose the Bush administration’s peace plan.

Washington’s fulsome embrace of Israel has long generated controversy – consider the fevered reaction to the famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) paper by John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard on domestic support for Israel. One can argue whether or not there is an “Israel Lobby,” but there obviously are lobbies for Israel. That’s unexceptional: interest groups have long attempted to influence American foreign policy. Eastern European ethnic groups pushed for NATO expansion, African-Americans lobbied to invade Haiti, ethnic Albanians pushed Washington to attack Serbia. (Sadly, such groups rarely seek peace; most often they want Washington to back their side in war.)

What makes support for Israel unique is the fact that part of it, at least, rests on theology. But not primarily Judaism. Even the vast majority of American Jews who support Israel do so more on cultural and ethnic than on religious grounds. It is some American Christians who are attempting to turn the U.S. government into a de facto arm of the church.

Most of those who hold such views are evangelicals. Neither Catholics nor mainline Protestants have so heavily rested their spiritual faith on the machinations of a secular state identified with another religion, whose residents largely see themselves in ethnic rather than religious terms. Non-evangelicals are far more likely to perceive the harm to Americans and injustice to others resulting from turning Mideast policy into an aberrant variant of Christian theology.

Developing an intelligent solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is insanely difficult. Moreover, sympathy toward Israel is understandable: there is no excuse for suicide bombings that slaughter and maim.

But Washington needs to develop a Mideast policy that advances America’s national interests by reducing the likelihood of war involving the U.S. and attacks on Americans – basically staying out. Yet a number of Israel advocates appear to see their support as an outgrowth of their Christian faith. For instance, former Christian Coalition head and candidate for Georgia lieutenant governor Ralph Reed wrote, “[T]here is an undeniable and powerful spiritual connection between Israel and the Christian faith. It is where Jesus was born and where he conducted his ministry.” True, but so what? This has nothing to do with the formulation of foreign policy for the secular nation of America, which represents non-Christians as well as Christians.

Columnist Maggie Gallagher writes, “[M]y support is based on an inchoate sense that if put into words would be something like this: As Christians, we just cannot sit by and let Islamic nations exterminate the Jewish people.” Not that the Arab nations have that capability, but never mind. Should Christians care less about the killing of Christians by Muslims in Kosovo, Indonesia, and Nigeria? Or the killing of Christians and Muslims by Hindus in India?

Another contention is that the U.S. should back whatever the Israeli government wants to do because God gave Israel to the Jews. As Bauer explains, “The Bible is pretty clear that the land is what is called covenant land, that God made a covenant with the Jews that that would be their land forever.”

Bill Wilson of Koenig International News argued that Bush’s “peace efforts and personal commitments on the surface sound good but they are biblically wrong.” After all, the president’s position means the “he will be responsible for the forceful evacuation of Jews by Jews off the land God gave to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their descendants.”

Equally fervent is activist Ed McAteer: “I believe without any reservation whatsoever that every grain of sand on that piece of property called Israel belongs to the Jewish people. It’s not because I happen to think that. It’s not because history gives a picture of them being in and out of there. It’s because God gave it to them.”

Oklahoma Baptist minister Jim Vineyard ran a full page ad in The Washington Times last year denouncing the “deportation” of Jews from Gaza. He complained about “Prime Minister Sharon’s ‘disengagement’ giveaway to Gentiles.” Apparently a Christian can be so pro-Israel as to become a self-hating Christian. (Indeed, Israel is notably frosty toward Christians who are more interested in promoting Christianity than Greater Israel.)

TV broadcaster Pat Robertson also believes that all of the territory presently occupied by Israel is God’s. He contended that the State Department – as well as the UN, Russia, and Europeans – would incur the “wrath of God” for dividing God’s land.

Even Israelis are at risk of receiving God’s judgment, in his view. The inimitable Robertson suggested that God struck down Prime Minister Ariel Sharon because the latter disengaged from the Gaza Strip. Explained Robertson: “For any prime minister of Israel who decides he will carve [Israel] up and give it away, God said, ‘No, this is mine.’” Although Robertson apologized, he often has voiced similar sentiments. Last August he declared, “God says ‘I am going to judge the nations who have parted my land.’ He said ‘I am going to bring judgment against them.’”

But Robertson has pointed to something even more important than God’s supernatural judgment: evangelicals’ political judgment. He apparently believes this issue should trump any domestic concern. Before the 2004 election, he threatened that if Bush “touches Jerusalem and really gets serious about taking east Jerusalem and making it the capital of a Palestinian state, he’ll lose virtually all evangelical support.” Evangelicals would then form a third party, he predicted. Who cares about abortion, Social Security, taxes, the budget deficit, and war in Iraq when it comes to supporting Israel’s authority over Jerusalem?

If these views were expressed during an occasional Sunday school class, they wouldn’t matter. But this curious theology has reached the floor of the U.S. Congress. Recently retired Rep. Tom Delay (R-Texas) said while visiting Palestinian lands: “I don’t see occupied territory; I see Israel.” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) forthrightly declared that Israel had a right to the area “because God said so.” At least one leading politician understood the implications of his stand. Former Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-Texas) advocated “transporting” millions of Palestinians elsewhere. He didn’t specify voluntarily or involuntarily.

Yet the traditional premise of Christianity is that God’s covenant promises to the Jewish nation of Israel were voided by disobedience and disbelief, and thus now run to the body of Christian believers (as distinct from cultural Christians). Even if the covenant remains valid with religious Jews, why assume that nonreligious Jews who set up a secular state in the Mideast ruled by nonbelievers are entitled to the same land once held by religious Jews following in the line of Moses? As Marvin Olasky, editor of World Magazine, notes, “A biblical case can certainly be made that Israelis who are atheists have tossed away their inheritance just as Esau did.”

Moreover, if the land was to belong to Jews forever, why did they lose control of it? Why assume they are supposed to get it back at this moment? And with Washington’s help? In short, how do Christian Zionists know what God’s plan really is, especially in terms of both events and timing?

It’s one thing to claim, as does Pat Robertson, that “We believe God has a plan” for Israel. It’s quite another to suggest that God can’t implement his plan without the help of American politicians.

It is particularly strange to argue that God requires the assistance of the secular nation state of America to give the land back to the Jews. Imagine: the God of all creation, ruler of heaven and earth, who was before all and is beyond all, just hasn’t been able to get it right. So the federal government needs to lend a hand.

Finally, if those who say that God gave the land to Israel really believe their argument, then they shouldn’t stop at Israel’s borders. In Genesis 15, God says to Abraham, “I will give your descendants the land east of the Shihor River on the border of Egypt as far as the Euphrates River.” Which suggests ownership of Jordan and chunks of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Perhaps Washington should simply hand over Iraq to Israel. That would kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. Of course, it also would require war with three other Arab nations, two of them formally allies, but why sweat the small stuff?

A number of Christians, primarily fundamentalists and evangelicals, also back Israel because they hold a dispensationalist eschatology, or end-times theology. This minority view presumes a gathering of the Jewish people in the Mideast, conveniently achieved by the state of Israel, who will then be attacked by enemies; the battle of Armageddon and Christ’s Second Coming eventually will follow.

In short, backing Israel is supposed to accelerate Christ’s return. Says Ed McAteer: “When the nations gather against Israel, I believe at that time the Scriptures will be fulfilled.”

Arguments over eschatology rapidly become tedious, since it is impossible to prove what God actually intends. But the dispensationalist case is particularly strained. For example, for years some armchair prophets claimed that the old European Common Market was going to yield up the Antichrist when it hit 10 members. Current candidates for the Antichrist include the Pope, the European Union’s Romano Prodi, and England’s Prince Charles.

In fact, the book of Revelation is best understood in the context of the Roman Empire, when it was written. Its predictions foreshadow an apocalyptic end of mankind; they do not provide an exact timeline of detailed events.

Equally problematic, as noted earlier, this view arrogantly suggests that God needs man’s help to achieve his ends. (To his credit, the Rev. Jerry Falwell says that “I am not one who believes, as some Christian Zionists do, that we are here to help usher in the Kingdom.”) The God who reconciled mankind through the sacrifice of his son requires the assistance of Washington to get the end right? Christ can’t return to fulfill his prophecy unless the U.S. gives Israel a boost?

This lack of faith in God’s ability to act has resulted in other curious behavior. For instance, a few years ago a Texas Pentecostal minister and rancher named Clyde Lott decided to try to breed a red heifer, which must be sacrificed before Jews can rebuild the third temple. (Where would God be if he didn’t have an American cattleman to come up with an appropriate breeding program?) Of course, this requires the destruction of the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosques on Islam’s third-most holy site, Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

Such an event certainly would trigger all sorts of, er, interesting events, including, some Christians hope, a biblical Armageddon. This is why Jon Utley has written of the “Armageddon Lobby.” Yet how can Christians believe they are able to accelerate God’s timing? Indeed, a number of Orthodox Jews are hostile to Zionism precisely because they view it as hubris for man to try to supplant God’s timetable in reestablishing a Jewish state.

(Other Jews are understandably uncomfortable about working with Christians whose fondest desire, lovingly advanced, of course –”nothing personal, it’s just theology” – is for Israel to be destroyed. “I am not enthusiastic about this cooperation because I have no desire to be cannon fodder for the evangelists,” explained former Knesset member Yossi Sarid.)

Another argument of some Christian Zionists is that only by supporting Israel will America be blessed and protected from terrorism. For example, McAteer cites the promise that “I will bless them who bless you and curse them who curse you.” Two decades ago, the Rev. Falwell declared that God had been kind to America only because “America has been kind to the Jews.”

In fact, the Bible nowhere explains that to bless the Jewish people or to be kind to them requires that a secular state run by nominal Christians do whatever a secular government run by ethnic Jews wants done several thousand years later. This is junk theology at its worst.

Or almost worst. Sen. Inhofe said in a speech after Sept. 11 that “One of the reasons I believe the spiritual door was opened for an attack against the United States of America is that the policy of our government has been to ask the Israelis, and demand it with pressure, not to retaliate in a significant way against the terrorist strikes that have been launched against them.”

Eh? God was punishing the American people because their government, which long supported Israel more firmly than any other, was insufficiently pro-Israel? Wow, it’s good to know that Sen. Inhofe has a special line to heaven.

There are lots of perfectly sensible arguments to make for supporting Israel, and Christian leaders like Olasky and Reed do so. Even then there is reason to exercise judgment and balance, however.

Friendship does not require blind support. Indeed, the best way to bless Jews in Israel today would be to help them make peace with the Palestinians. Nor does wishing Israel well require adopting policies that make the U.S. more vulnerable to terrorist attack.

But the worst reason to support Israel is for reasons of religion. Warns a statement organized by faculty members of the Knox Theological Seminary, an evangelical Christian institution:

“Lamentably, bad Christian theology is today attributing to secular Israel a divine mandate to conquer and hold Palestine, with the consequence that the Palestinian people are marginalized and regarded as virtual ‘Canaanites.’ This doctrine is both contrary to the teaching of the New Testament and a violation of the Gospel mandate. In addition, this theology puts those Christian who are urging the violent seizure and occupation of Palestinian land in moral jeopardy of their own bloodguiltiness. Are we as Christians not called to pray for and work for peace, warning both parties to this conflict that those who live by the sword will die by the sword? Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can bring both temporal reconciliation and the hope of an eternal and heavenly inheritance to the Israeli and the Palestinian. Only through Jesus Christ can anyone know peace on earth.”

American Christians should be concerned about American foreign policy, as should all citizens. If the former want to support Israel irrespective of its conduct or U.S. interests, they are entitled to do so. But they should remember that they are making public policy for a secular republic. Crackpot theology is no substitute for thoughtful analysis in developing foreign policy.

Read more by Doug Bandow