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Christian Zionism, Christian Nationalism, and the Threat to Democracy

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Lithograph of the Beast from the Book of Revelations

Christian Zionism “claims the authority of religion in formulating a no-compromise position with respect to sharing land with the Palestinian people.” It feeds anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and “poses a challenge to the democratic process itself.”

At the Nov. 14  March for Israel, sponsored by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and others, one of the invited speakers was Pastor John Hagee, a right-wing televangelist who combines anti-Semitic speech with staunch support for Israel. Hagee runs Christians United for Israel, the largest Zionist organization in the US today, with more members and greater funding than the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Christian Zionists, whose unqualified support for Israel is rooted in their interpretation of biblical prophecy, see Islam as demonic, and Israeli Jews as pawns in God’s greater plan for the end times.

Christian Zionists support Israel’s war with Hamas and reject a cease-fire because they oppose outcomes that would recognize Palestinian rights and freedoms. They share this view with the right-wing religious fundamentalists in the current Israeli government, like National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who wants nothing less than the complete subjugation of Palestinians through endless war and expanded settlements. Both Christian and Jewish Zionists share Hamas leaders’ call for endless war, which they also justify using theocratic arguments. Hamas’ charter rejects a place for Jews in Palestine, which they see as a land “consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgment Day.” None of these forces are likely to support a true cease-fire, let alone a vision for a secular, democratic Israel/Palestine where Jews, Arabs, and various ethnic minorities can live together in peace with dignity.

The Israel/Hamas war has activated Christian Zionists in US politics and amplified the threat that MAGA forces pose now and in the 2024 elections. AIPAC, which is embracing the Republican Right, is expected to spend $100 million to defeat members of the Squad. Current Speaker of the House Mike Johnson is a Christian Zionist who supports the Israeli Right. AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) may believe it is expedient to align with religious leaders like Hagee. In doing so, they ignore the real danger to Jews in the US, which. comes from the mainstreaming of the Christian far Right.

To better understand the role that Christian Zionism plays today, in opposing a cease-fire and in promoting authoritarian rule in both Israel and the US, we are reprinting excerpts from Steven Gardiner’s 2020 article for Political Research Associates, “End-Times Anti-Semitism: Christian Zionism, Christian Nationalism, and the Threat to Democracy.” Gardiner serves as PRA’s research director and has been studying the Christian Right for decades.

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Christian Zionism refers to a movement among Christians, mostly Charismatic and evangelical, whose interpretation of the Bible mandates their political support not just for the modern state of Israel, but an expansionist version thereof. The movement believes that the entirety of Jerusalem—particularly the Temple Mount, where they expect to see the Temple rebuilt—the Gaza Strip, the West Bank of the Jordan River, and the Golan Heights, all rightfully belong to Israel: a biblical land-grant that doesn’t merely fulfill a scriptural promise to the Jewish people, but stands as the cornerstone of Christian prophecies and as a sign that the End Times are close upon us.

In other words, they claim the authority of religion in formulating a no-compromise position with respect to sharing land with the Palestinian people. Pastor Robert Jeffress, the Trump-aligned Baptist minister who blessed the relocation of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, put it like this: “Jerusalem has been the object of affection of both Jews and Christians down through history and the touchstone of prophecy. But most importantly, God gave Jerusalem—and the rest of the Holy Land—to the Jewish people.” [10]

Jeffress’s “touchstone of prophecy” comment is shorthand for the Christian Zionist belief that the establishment of Israel is a sign that prophecies are being fulfilled. It’s a common belief among U.S. evangelicals, some 63 to 80 percent of whom profess that the establishment of Israel in 1948 was the fulfillment of prophecy and an indication that the Second Coming is drawing near. [11] How near? According to one 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center, 58 percent of White evangelicals, and 41 percent of all Americans, believe that Jesus will “probably” or “definitely” return by 2050. [12]

Why it matters: antisemitism

Christian Zionism is both like and unlike more familiar Christian Right culture war targets. As with LGBTQ rights or reproductive choice, the interpretive contortions of movement leaders regarding Scripture are not the only reasons many Christian Zionists support Israel.

Christian Rightists who use Bible verses to justify anti-LGBTQ policies may also be motivated by homophobic bigotry; similarly, Christian Zionists who support Israeli state policies because of End Times prophecies might also be driven by anti-Muslim views. But Christian Zionism bridges foreign and domestic politics in some unique ways that exacerbate both antisemitism and anti-Muslim bigotry.

Often, the sort of antisemitism in Christian Zionism circles is obscured by the surface philosemitism of many in the movement and by the fallacy that what is nominally good for Israel is good for Jews. Since not all Jews are Israeli, and Jews have a wide range of political opinions about Israeli policies, the presumption that all U.S. Jews do, or should, support the current Israeli government is at base antisemitic. It follows the same political logic that led to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, flowing from fear of their prior or higher ethnic loyalty to Japan than the U.S. It is also, of course, the contemporary form of a long-standing antisemitic trope, that by a more-or-less immutable nature, Jews are incapable of loyalty to a non-Jewish state.

For most of the years between the defeat of the Third Reich in 1945 and the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the “dual loyalty” slander about Jews has been confined to an explicitly antisemitic periphery of White nationalists. With Trump’s election, however, this is no longer the case. President Trump has repeatedly called into question the loyalty of U.S. Jews who fail to support his policies toward Israel, claiming they “don’t love Israel enough.” [28] Going further, in speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition in April 2019, Trump referred to Netanyahu as “your Prime Minister.” [29]

In an otherwise benign context, such statements might be taken as the partisan hyperbole of a President not known for his rhetorical constraint. Even when an average of 71 percent of U.S. Jews have voted for Democratic presidential candidates since 1968, if the only consequences were rhetorical, Trump’s statements could possibly be seen as mere excess.[30] But both U.S. policy in Israel/Palestine and on-the-ground violence against U.S. Jews suggest that Trump’s statements are both more than rhetoric and that his rhetoric is not only callous, but reckless.

Many of the most consequential Trump policies relating to Palestine/Israel are a continuation of long-standing, bipartisan U.S. support for Israel, which amounts to around $3 billion[31] in military and economic aid per year. There are, however, several Trump initiatives that have marked a significant departure from previous administrations. Key among these is the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the relocation of the U.S. embassy[32] there,  as well as recognition of Israel’s claim[33] to the Golan Heights. Then there is the administration’s decision to end U.S. contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), [34] the UN agency tasked with supporting Palestinian refugees.

On the domestic front, Trump issued an executive order[35] charging Title VI civil rights enforcement agencies in the federal bureaucracy to consider “the non-legally binding working definition of anti Semitism adopted on May 26, 2016, by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)” including “the ‘Contemporary Examples of Anti-Semitism[36] identified by the IHRA.” The “Contemporary Examples” include the controversial item “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

Ken Stern, one of the authors of the IHRA definition, has suggested that the Trump executive order turns their words to a purpose they never intended—the regulation of campus speech. Stern writes, “This order is an attack on academic freedom and free speech,[37] and will harm not only pro-Palestinian advocates, but also Jewish students and faculty, and the academy itself.” Civil liberties advocates[38] fear this definition will suppress any speech critical of Israel on campuses, forcing university administrations to act as censors of students and faculty.

These breaks with previous policy have been interpreted by prominent Christian Zionists as part of a divine plan to hasten the End Times, as when Robert Jeffress[39] declared of the embassy move, “We’re seeing prophecy unfold. I don’t know when the Lord is coming back, but I know today it got a little bit closer.” Or when John Hagee,[40] in October 2017, predicted that Trump’s campaign promise to relocate the embassy would likely happen that year “because God’s clock is ticking.”

In addition to discussing prophecies, Christian Zionists also understand U.S.-Israel through a transactional lens. Many point to Genesis 12:3, wherein God promises Abram, “I will bless those who bless you/And I will curse him who curses you.” For example, Hagee claims he told Trump[42] that, “the moment that he really began to bless Israel, God would bless him in a very, very special way.” The importance of such a blessing looms much larger in New Apostolic Reformation circles, which believe these blessings can manifest as increased supernatural spiritual potency—leading to highly performative displays of support for Israel. In the words of Christian anti-NAR activist Holly Pivec, [43] “NAR people often wear the Star of David on necklaces. They participate in Jewish religious feasts. They take pilgrimages to Israel, where they hold large prayer gatherings and blow shofars (a Jewish trumpet made of a ram’s horn). Some even move to Israel.”[

Even among the NAR, however, some of the most popular preachers remain committed to prophetic apocalypticism. For example, Mike Bickle, [44] one of the most prominent Christian Zionists linked directly to the movement, is known for his assertion that, as a prelude to the End Times, a great many Jews will be rounded up and placed in “prison camps[45] and “death camps”—not in reference to the Holocaust, but to future actions that will be taken by followers of the Anti-Christ. As horrific as Bickle’s prediction sounds, he takes an activist stance concerning the End Times, asserting, “The Tribulation is not something that happens to us. The Tribulation is something that happens through us.” [46]

Similarly, in an infamous 2005 sermon, Hagee declared that Hitler and the Holocaust were predicted in Scripture and part of the divine plan [47]  to coerce Jews to move to Israel. While video of the sermon has since been scrubbed from the internet, in a transcript made by researcher-activist Bruce Wilson, Hagee preaches the distinction between “fishers,” who lure their prey, and “hunters,” who kill them outright. In this parable, Hagee suggested that diasporic Jews insufficiently enthusiastic about moving to Israel led directly to the Holocaust. [48] That is, their failure to respond to the fisher, Hagee said, meant that, “Then God sent a hunter. A hunter is someone who comes with a gun and he forces you. Hitler was a hunter.”

This quote, which Hagee has protested was “intentionally mischaracterized,” [49]  is often seen as the smoking gun for Christian Zionist antisemitism. Like the Bickle discussion of hastening the Tribulation and Jews in death camps, these quotations help highlight just how bigoted Christian Zionist beliefs can be. But they also draw us so much into the trees that we miss the forest of antisemitic power, often presented in the guise of supposedly philosemitic policy—such as the embassy move or recognition of Golan Heights as part of Israel.

Here we see explicitly Christian Zionist organizations such as CUFI, and megachurch pastors like Bickle and Jeffress, working with high administration officials such as Mike Pompeo, to justify expanding support for a right-wing, authoritarian Israeli government as the fulfillment of prophecy. [50] The closeness of this relationship should give us pause, leading as it has to condemning the majority of U.S. Jews as disloyal, allying our country with the most authoritarian and reactionary elements in Israeli politics, and justifying further escalation of tensions in the wider Middle East.

Why it matters: anti-Muslim bigotry

The Christian Zionist logic that calls on the U.S. to unconditionally support Israeli policies simultaneously reinforces the adversarial stance toward the Muslim world that has been on display since 9/11. Some Christian Zionist leaders have long supported war with Iran and general belligerence toward the Islamic world. Here the language is often much less guarded, with Hagee referring to Iran as the “head of the snake[51] with “a theology based on suicide and mass murder,” and NAR “prophet” Chuck Pierce declaring that Islam “is controlled by satanic principalities and powers.” [52] Within the NAR, such claims aren’t rhetorical devices, but accusations of actual demonic possession. [53] And Christian Right leader Pat Robertson, also a Christian Zionist, has made similar accusations, holding that “Militant Islam is motivated by the devil.”[54] In fact, journalism professor Eric Gormly found in an analysis of Robertson’s flagship 700 Club program that references to satanic and demonic influence in Islam[55] were commonplace in the post-9/11 era.

As with antisemitism, anti-Islamic bigotry is a fluid construct, adaptable as a technique of power. During the Obama administration—alongside aspersions about the president’s citizenship and Christian faith—anti-Muslim groups like ACT for America focused on the threat of terrorism and on the supposed spread of Sharia law in the United States. [56] According to Steven Fink, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire professor of philosophy and religious studies, “American Christian Zionist leaders connect Islam categorically with violence.” For example, John Hagee has written that [57] “Islam not only condones violence; it commands it.”

It is usually White Nationalists and their ideologically adjacent friends in the Trump administration who are associated with conspiracy-tainted claims about invading foreigners and the hidden forces that egg them on.[59] These claims are usually grounded in antisemitism. Sometimes this is explicit, as for the Pittsburgh and Poway synagogue shooters. More often, flowing from the administration staff or Fox News, the antisemitism is ever-so-slightly veiled, taking the form of accusations against Jewish philanthropist George Soros or unnamed “globalists.[60] In the case of Christian Zionism, antisemitism and anti-Muslim bigotry go hand-in-hand. American Jews who criticize Israeli policy or see themselves primarily as U.S. citizens are accused of disloyalty. According to Christian Zionist thought, they promote the cosmopolitan, anti-nationalist ideas of Soros, supporting the mass entry of culture-destroying immigrants, including Muslim immigrants intent on undermining White Christian civilization….

The Christian Zionist stance toward Muslims is not nearly so nuanced. Muslims are constructed largely as an undifferentiated enemy, not just through the blurring of right-wing Israeli interests with those of all Jews and all Americans, but as cultural invaders bent on undermining U.S. culture and society. This is largely in-line with positions taken by the U.S. Right more generally, including the anti-Muslim group ACT for America.[62] Christian Zionists add their signature apocalyptic voice. In an article titled “The Coming Fourth Reich,” Hagee writes:

America has been invaded by an invisible army of millions who intend to destroy this nation. They aren’t coming to America; they’re already here. This army of radical Islamic extremists have poured across our open borders and are waiting patiently for the hour of their unified attack, designed to bring chaos and governmental collapse.[63]

Corrosive to democracy

Christian Zionism is politically opportunistic, mobilizing both antisemitism and anti-Muslim bigotry in ways calculated to capitalize on the fears of the moment. This opportunism is wedded to shifting interpretations of prophecy. In his book Beginning of the End: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Coming Antichrist (1996), Hagee interprets the prophetic significance of the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin’s role in the Oslo Accords, in Hagee’s interpretation, led to the possibility of his assassination being used as an excuse to double-down on peace. He wrote, “based on the words of the prophets of Israel, I believe this peace process will lead to the most devastating war Israel has ever known. After that war, the longed-for Messiah will come.”[64]

By 2016, of course, it wasn’t an imminent war that was signaling the close arrival of the Messiah, but rather Trump’s relocation of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.[65] Such convenient interpretive moves must not be reduced to a penchant for charlatanism. Between Rabin’s assassination and the embassy move, Hagee built CUFI into a juggernaut with millions of members and staunch allies in the Trump administration, including Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo. So, when CUFI takes credit for the embassy relocation, it’s more than boasting. Through one-on-one meetings with both Trump and Pence, Hagee stressed the move was important to his constituency—a claim backed up by 137,000 supportive emails from CUFI members to the White House.[66]

Christian Zionist organizations are thus in a feedback loop relationship with the Trump administration, watching their allies get appointed as insiders who are then validated by constituent activism. Pence has not only spoken at CUFI events, his public statements put him firmly in the camp of Christian Zionism.[67] Pompeo is similarly committed to Christian Zionist principles and has aligned himself with CUFI.[68] While there is no religious test for holding high office in the United States, such public support for a cause so openly biased, by the very people responsible for guiding U.S. foreign policy, is cause for the gravest concern. At the very least, such positioning undermines the capacity for the U.S. to engage in peace-making not just in Israel/Palestine, but more broadly.

At a deeper level, the influence of the Christian Zionist movement on both foreign and domestic policy poses a challenge to the democratic process itself. Democracy, in the best sense, is not merely the will of the majority, or competition between constituencies, but the temperance of such competition by fundamental rights. These include religious freedom, but not the freedom to impose religious belief or practice on others. The apocalyptic rhetoric of Christian Zionists and their exaggerated claims of prophetic certainty—recall Hagee’s claim about “millions” of Muslim invaders bent on destroying the United States—demonstrate how they hide behind democratic claims (like freedom of speech or religion) even as they shamelessly attack the rights of others. They wield the democratic process of constituent mobilization in causes shot through with bigotry.

Moreover, democracy only functions inclusively when decision-making criteria are transparent. Practices of prophetic interpretation, orientation to the End Times, and the transactional chasing after supernatural blessings are anything but clear to the vast majority of people in the United States. With Trump in the White House and Christian Zionists as core members of his policy team, this is an ignorance the rest of us can no longer afford to sustain. 

A longer version of this article first appeared on the Political Research Associates website. The notes in this excerpt link back to that version; Convergence has also provided hyperlinks to the sources, where possible.

Featured image: “A beast with seven heads &c., Revelation cap 13, Mortier’s Bible.” Phillip Medhurst, Licensed CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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