Rethinking Christian Zionism
08/26/2010 - 12:04
James Besser

There's a modest buzz this week about Steven Weiss' panegyric to Christian Zionists in Slate with the provocative title “The Uncircumcised Israel Lobby.”

I've read a lot of defenses of these groups, but I have to say Weiss offers the most convincing argument that the motives of these lovers of Zion are pure, in a way, and not harmful and maybe helpful to the Jewish state.

But I also think he misses some key points.

He is correct, mostly, when he argues that their support has nothing to do with converting the Jews. That's an old objection, and it's probably no longer valid, at least for a majority of those who call themselves Christian Zionists.

He argues they don't push a right-wing agenda in Israel and that groups like Christians United for Israel (CUFI) support Israel, not any particular political faction there.

Maybe. CUFI has done a pretty good job in the last few years of not criticizing Israeli policies I suspect some of its leaders dislike. While John Hagee Ministries funded Im Tirtzu , it dropped the controversial Israeli group like a hot potato when confronted with some of the group's more radical actions and positions.

The question I have: what will their position be if Bibi Netanyahu inks a deal with the Palestinians that gives back most of the West Bank and finds a compromise formula on Jerusalem? That will be the real test; will they say, “great, that's what Israel's democratically elected government wants?” Or will they side with the Israeli groups that will vehemently oppose any new pullouts?

We simply don't know the answer to that. I'm not sure the leaders of Christian Zionist groups know what they'd do under that scenario.

Then Weiss gets into the issue of apocalyptic theology – the “biggie,” he calls it.

He dismisses arguments that “Christian Zionists [are] just looking to gather Jews in Israel to bring back Jesus, get the rapture rolling, and engage in mass slaughter of those who won't be saved.” Why aren't they? Because they are “dispensational premillenialists, who don't think there's single thing they can do to hasten or delay the Messiah.”

That's a simplification of an enormously complex set of beliefs.

I've been covering these guys for two decades; I've read countless of their books and watched their sermons. The more I get into it, the more I realize this is a gigantic tangle of different theories about a set of core beliefs – that the “Second Coming” is coming soon, that a restored Israel is part of the prophetic scenario, that there will be tremendous “end time” battles that won't be good for Israel or the Jews.

I used to think many of them wanted to use public policy to hasten the great battles of Armageddon. Today I'm not so sure; the Christian Zionist movement has evolved in many ways.

But isn't it also a problem if they see these horrible events as inevitable – and if they are thrusting themselves into the vortex of the debate over Middle East policy with that as their frame of reference?

How will they relate to an Israel that seems on the road to a comprehensive, negotiated peace – should that day ever come? I hear a lot of mixed messages from the Christian Zionists I've talked to, and I can't answer the question.

Finally, Weiss is all gaga about how Christians at these conferences greet him with sincere-seeming expressions of love.

I've experienced the same thing, but in talking to these great admirers, I hear a wide range of beliefs driving that love. I'm not suggesting it's insincere; I am suggesting it's more complex than these surface expressions suggest. Sometimes it comes with baggage (“I love you because you're part of this great end-times scenario, and oh yeah, you're probably going to fry in the last-days battles”), sometimes it's pretty simple (“I love you because the Bible commands it.”) Generalizations are dangerous in looking at these groups.

Mostly, what I'm getting at is that we have to have a clearheaded, open and informed debate about this recent development in the pro-Israel cosmos. I've talked to countless Jewish leaders and activists about the subject, and mostly their response is: “don't bother me with the details, they support Israel, that's all there is to it.”

To this day I haven't encountered a single Jewish leader who has read the books on prophecy written by some of these Christian Zionist leaders or listened to their religious teachings. I haven't found one who can speak intelligently about the wide variety of beliefs that exist under the broad umbrella of Christian Zionism.

That's probably a mistake, since the rise of Christian Zionism as a religious/political movement is already reshaping the pro-Israel world in myriad ways.

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