Finally! A civil, rational discussion about the rise of Christian Zionism as a potent political and cultural force! I can hardly believe it.
Weiss said he disagreed with my assertion that the passionate support for Israel that is evident at gatherings of groups like Christians United for Israel (CUFI) may be wrapped up – in complex ways, I believe – in Christian “end times” prophecies.
“I agree that all of those beliefs are held by a great many Christian Zionists, but think the difference between you and I here is on whether we think that matters. There’s nothing inherent in the combination of those three statements that suggests advocacy for Israel is tied to End Times theology. I know from covering the Jewish world that a great many distinct beliefs and assumptions can be maintained in one person’s mind without there necessarily being any practical connection between them.
“In my experience covering the Christian world, I’ve found very similar delineations. For most of the Christian Zionists, that delineation seems to keep the “End Times” and “Israel advocacy” ideas segregated. Neither is necessary or influenced by the other, though both beliefs are maintained simultaneously.
That, it seems to me, gets to the meat of the debate over Christian Zionism.
Leaders of this movement claim there is no connection at all between their theological belief in an imminent Second Coming that includes terrible new tribulations for Israel and the Jewish people and their support for Israel.
But that's not the impression one gets talking to many participants in this movement. At Christian Zionist conferences, I have spoken to many delegates who openly discussed their belief that Bible prophecy is playing out in the Middle East today – and that prophecy is a major factor in both the urgency and the content of their activism on behalf of Israel.
I admit it: I am a compulsive listener to Christian radio, where prophecy, politics and support for Israel are bound up in myriad ways. There, too, it's easy to get the impression a lot of evangelical support for Israel is prophecy-based.
I also find it hard to reconcile the claim by leaders like CUFI's John Hagee that prophecy has nothing to do with the political movement they've created – and the fact Hagee and others continue to write and preach about prophecy as if it is the determining factor in today's world (see Hagee's new book, Can America Survive?: 10 Prophetic Signs That We Are The Terminal Generation).
Can men and women of deep faith believe so strongly in religious tenets like the imminence of the apocalypse and Israel's role in it – and not have their political views affected by by those beliefs?
I dare say most Christian Zionist leaders would bristle at any suggestion their religious faith is somehow segregated from their involvement in other areas of public policy, such as abortion and gay rights; why should we believe that the issue of Israel is somehow different?
Weiss writes that the statements of Christian Zionist leaders suggest they have successfully “segregated” their religious beliefs on prophecy and their political views. I say, the jury is out; maybe they have, and maybe this is just effective PR intended to smooth over relations with Jews who – understandably – would be spooked by the idea that activists on behalf of Israel believe in their hearts that new Holocausts for the Jewish state are inevitable precursors to the longed-for coming of their Messiah.
In 2004, a leading Christian Zionist then associated with CUFI who now leads an independent Christian Zionist group told me this:
"There's no such thing in Scripture as 'land for peace' arrangements. “The commitment isn't to a party, or to any particular agreements; the commitment is to an end-time solution that is in keeping with what the Scripture says."
Does that reflect CUFI's views? I don't think so. Does it reflect a majority view in the Christian Zionist world? I don't know, but I sure haven't seen any evidence it doesn't.
Weiss also questions my assertion that we don't know how these groups will “relate to an Israel that seems on the road to a comprehensive, negotiated peace – should that day ever come.”
In his experience, “all the Christian Zionists I speak to aren’t seeking to meddle in Israel’s internal decisions or democratic systems. And the negative evidence for that — no intervention during any peace talks, agreements, or significant adjustments, from Oslo to Gaza withdrawal, to Camp David, to now — is significant.”
I'm not so sure.
CUFI itself has been admirably forthright about saying it will support Israel without regard to government policy – but, as I wrote, it hasn't been put to the test. And I've talked to plenty of Christian Zionists who say that if Israel ever decides to work out a compromise solution on Jerusalem, or withdraw from religiously significant areas like Hebron, they'd ally themselves with American Jewish groups that will actively oppose those actions.
I don't think the major Christian Zionist groups are likely to abandon Israel if its government pursues policies these groups believe are unbiblical. But my reading and my interviews with Christian Zionist activists suggest it's far from certain they won't actively work to oppose such policies.
It gets down to this: do motives matter when it comes to support for Israel?
Does it matter if some of its most ardent supporters also have a theology that sees ever-more bloodshed in the Middle East until their prophecies are fulfilled? Does it matter that those grim views may color their activism in the realm of public policy?
Increasingly, the answer in the pro-Israel world is that it doesn't.
What I'm wondering: is that growing acceptance a matter of informed decision making, or is it simply an emotional reaction to Israel's growing isolation? Does it matter that a growing force in pro-Israel activism may be driven by a theological belief that peace - at least in a real-world, here-and-now sense - is impossible?
Worth discussing, I think.
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