When and How Did Evangelicals Become Zionists?: Thomas R. Getman

Delivered to The Israel Lobby and American Policy 2018 conference March 2, 2018 at the National Press Club

The Israel Lobby and American Policy conference was solely sponsored by the American Educational Trust, publisher of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy (IRmep). This is a rush transcript.

Dale Sprusansky: Our next speaker is discussing the topic of Christian Zionism. For those of you who don’t know, Christian Zionism is the belief that the establishment of the modern state of Israel in the Holy Land is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, and thus deserves unrelenting support from Christians. When President Donald Trump announced in December his intention to declare Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, many attributed his decision to the power of Christian Zionists, who are a key Trump constituency and have a powerful and devoted member in Vice President Mike Pence. But just how powerful the Christian Zionists are is up for debate, and we will address that today.

There are also theological questions about Christian Zionism and the extent to which it is a legitimate interpretation of scripture and the extent to which it is heretical. I like that word. Finally, questions as to how it started, where is it going, and who is challenging the evangelical community. 

To discuss this today, we have Thomas Getman. He is a partner in a private consulting group that specializes in international, United Nations, and nongovernmental organization affairs. He got his start in South Africa, in fighting for justice there, and later discovered the Palestine issue. He has worked primarily, as many of you know, for World Vision, where he worked continuously for Palestinian issues in the West Bank and Gaza.

With that, I would like to introduce him to discuss Christian Zionism.

Thomas Getman: Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks to the wonderful organization of our sponsoring groups and for your being here to discuss these important issues with us.

As the resident theologian today, I must tell you that, particularly this morning, I was reminded that we operate within a very secular climate – but we also operate in an aura of the creation ordinances. And sometimes that’s forgotten. I cut my eyeteeth on human rights in the Middle East because the likes of [Archbishop Desmond] Tutu and [Rev. Allan] Boesak and [Rev.] Beyers Naudé and people like that said to me, if I really wanted to prove my bona fides in terms of human rights, I should turn my eyes to the Palestinians. I really am grateful for that, because I was, truth be told, a complicit evangelical Zionist – like the polling data today showed – but unwittingly. I didn’t even know what it meant.

But living and working in the Middle East for 5 years to begin with, and now 20 years all told, we see that there is a breaking forth of history that is beyond our usual comprehension of things. It’s good to be reminded, as we seek reasons for hope, that those who lay traps get their own feet ensnared. Those that do things in the dark haven’t come into the light. And there are things happening on college campuses today, university campuses today, because of the suffering of our sister from San Francisco State. What man means for evil, the transcendent order understands for good.

So the topic today drives us to seek to understand. The question today is helpful to comprehend that American Christians, in particular, speak in two theological languages when it comes to Israel and Zionism. We are living in a troubling culture, with a culture war of darkness as a nation, and this may help us understand how we arrived here. 

The great majority of mainstream Christians – that would be Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox, and even more than 20 percent, now, of the 100 million evangelicals – are rooted in a 2,000-year orthodoxy that was quantified during the creedal debates of the third century. It’s not just religion we’re talking about. It’s not just creedal material we’re talking about. We’re talking about social justice.

On the other hand, Zionism, both Jewish and Christian, is rooted theologically in a 19th and early 20th century minority belief. In it, the Bible predicts seven dispensations of history – a real stretch to do this kind of cherry-picking – moving us toward the return of all Jews to Palestine – or, more appropriately, Jews to all of Palestine – in order to hasten the day of the end times.

You may have noticed recently there have been some predictions about when it was coming, and I hope you got your stuff stored away. It’s been popularized by the Left Behind fictional series. This view purports Christians suddenly disappear, presumably to heaven. A final apocalyptic war, Armageddon, occurs against the evil anti-Christ, and a thousand-year peaceful reign of the Messiah begins. Everyone is judged as to their faithfulness to God’s plan – but, ironically, two-thirds of all Jews are killed and the rest become Christians.

The millennial reign, according to Zionists, began with 1948 and 1967. Zionism becomes dangerous when it aligns with empire and ethnic religious nationalism. Ethical guidance takes a backseat, especially with exceptionalism. This highly imaginative view is considered heresy in most of the theological circles. It’s no longer widely embraced by evangelicals, certainly not by rabbinic Jews or by main-denomination Christians, unless it’s without thought, without really knowing the issues. That’s where our responsibility comes in. Even Billy Graham said he was agnostic about the end times when he declared it will all pan out in the end.

But silence in the mainstream church has allowed Palestine to be defined by Zionists. It is the basis of Christian Zionism, about which a straightforward definition is offered by Dr. Don Wagner – a Presbyterian, a former Zionist himself – when he states it is a movement within Protestant, now Catholic, fundamentalism that understands the modern state of Israel as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy and thus deserving of political, financial and religious support.

Christian Zionism preceded by 50 years, and even influenced the emergence of, Jewish Zionism – surprised? When the British literalists cherry-picked biblical references to apply to a physical state for diaspora Jews, ultimately they helped to bring about what their adherents promoted, and now believe, is that state brought through an act of God in 1948. This nationalistic perspective can be seen as a key to understanding the troubling geopolitical field fire fanned by the Jerusalem announcement by the U.S. president, and the fawning and fumbling visit by the vice president. It explains the division of the House in Israel, which resulted in the damaging replacement of rabbinic social justice Judaism with secular Jewish Zionism. Recent history shows the resulting marriage of convenience for joint image protection by the Jewish-Christian lobby. 

So how did we arrive here, especially at this crucial juncture? It’s important to understand it. The 200-year progression of this history is at once instructive and frightening. We can see the consequences of rationalizing colonization and partisan politics influenced by religion. To exclude the rights of one group over another, the law of love is replaced by violence.

South Africa’s former director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Georgetown professor Charles Villa-Vicencio, explained it’s the fault line running through Western civilization. In the first century of the Common Era the church was born, and the synagogue was transformed in the midst of this issue…[about] religions separating groups, with the right of one group to dominate the other, or whether they bring humankind to the realization of our unity and connectedness as children of the Father, Abraham, and recipients of his promise to establish many nations.

This is the central issue. The lobby, writ large, is the questionable combining of forces between the Israeli government and American Christian Zionists. Our government and our church people are complicit in this furtive enterprise, sometimes unwittingly. AIPAC is successful as an agent of minority Gentile sentiment, not just Jewish support. Sadly, the majority, as you heard from me early, has been silent. We must stir them up. I propose it is bad for Israel, as well as America’s place in the free world. It’s destined for failure.

It is important to see the progression of Christian Zionism’s development. It has roots at least as far back as the 16th century European Reformation. The early literal readership of the local language translations like the King James Bible, later in Scofield Reference editions, had footnotes and commentary that promoted dispensational Zionism. It led to several centuries of anti-Semite Jewish persecution, ultimately the Holocaust, and all the way to the mid-20th century best-selling fictional works of The Late Great Planet Earth and Left Behind.

The modern movement can be traced to the early 19th century, with a group of eccentric British Christian restorationists lacking formal theological training. They began to lobby for Jewish return to Palestine and the necessary precondition for the second coming of Christ – or the first coming of the Messiah, as you wish. John Darby was their leader. The Darbyists gained traction from the middle of the 19th century, when Palestine became strategic to Britain, France and Germany, and their colonial interests in the Middle East.

These Christian Zionists who preceded Jewish Zionism were some of Theodor Herzl’s strongest advocates and, ironically, were both clergy and lay people who embraced the anti-Semitic theology and genocidal images around racial nationalism. Herzl’s appeal to the British leadership was in part an understandable anger for what had happened to Jews in the previous centuries, but also undergirded by misinterpreted scriptures.

In the early 20th century, evangelists Billy Sunday, D.L. Moody and others promulgated the Scofield Bible dispensational point of view to convert people by employing end-of-the-world fear. As early as 1917, the British bartered away Palestine with the Balfour Declaration. And the 1919 American King-Crane report urged caution about the Zionist intention of dispossession. But the report’s attention to the local population was either ignored or buried by President [Woodrow] Wilson for several years. This was concurrent with the Arab false appreciation that they would gain Palestinian liberation by their alliance with the Allies.

Arthur Balfour and Lloyd George were predisposed toward Zionism in their support for a Jewish national home, but with mixed racist motives about white British superiority. Their primary goal was to advance British imperial interests with utilitarian politics. Zionism continued to reflect some of that strain into the middle of the last century and until today.

After World War II the more urbane Billy Graham avoided the label Zionist with his approach, which stirred millions. He did not, however, instruct about the dangers of Zionism in the churches to which he sent his converts. Even with his anti-Semitic misstep recorded with Richard Nixon, fortunately he founded Christianity Today magazine, a globally-minded modern evangelical publication that reflected his social justice abolitionist roots, and has had a series of progressive editors partnering with Anglican scholar anti-Zionist John Stott and the NGO-sponsored trips to the Holy Land. Sadly his son Franklin hasn’t taken the same path. 

The impact of the Holocaust in this era was a legitimate concern. Then, coupled with the guilt about U.S. capping Jewish asylum and turning away refugees, the U.N. partition resolution in November of 1947 was supported by Harry Truman. He was influenced, certainly, by his dispensational beliefs, but likely even more by the looming re-election campaign considerations and the financial infusion from pro-Israeli donors. The fact was ignored that the Palestinians, as the 66 percent majority, owned 90 percent of the land.

Christian Zionism was encouraged when, in ’48, Israel was assumed to be the sign of God and His personal intervention, with the anticipation of the end time battles of Armageddon, and was, as well, influenced by AIPAC’s predecessor, the American Zionist Council. It gained impetus after the return of Jews to what they call the eternal undivided capital in ’67, which encouraged the populous teaching of dispensational theology by Dallas seminarians and similar seminaries, especially throughout the South, in the Bible Belt.

The more secular Israeli Labor Party had few relationships with Christian Zionists prior to the election of Likud’s Menachem Begin in 1977. Begin, however, saw the necessity of the theo-political match made in heaven. Likud courted the relationship with leaders such as [Rev. Jerry] Falwell, [Pat] Robertson and other TV preachers who captured the TV time for most Christians, and from the booming fundamentalist Zionist churches in the South. In 1979, with great fanfare, Falwell was presented a private jet by Begin, purportedly to affirm the [televangelist’s support for] Israeli policies such as their impending 1981 bombing of Iraq’s nuclear site, but also to spread the Zionist action plan.

The election of Ronald Reagan, who was converted to Christian Zionist beliefs, helped solidify Christian Zionism up to the center of the Republican Party and the White House, along with several Speakers of the House. Opposition began to be more public by well-known liberal ministers and scholars, and even [Sen.] John McCain called Falwell and Robertson “agents of intolerance.”

Still, Jewish Zionists had few encounters with Christian Zionists before 2000. Even with the assumption by Christians that the ’67 war miracle was final proof to them for the return of Jesus, it took politics and necessity to drive the strange bedfellows together – helped, of course, by Jewish lack of faith in the Zionist Christian distasteful end-time creed. 9/11 sealed the marriage. The glue was that they both feared and hated Muslims. This hastened the growth of the so-called evangelical Zionism. 

In this present era, and especially with the election of Trump and the Republican Congress, encouraging movement in opposition to Christian Zionism has grown among mainstream political and religious entities. This has helped us to battle complicity. Those who lay the traps will have their own feet caught.

As the Zionist profile became more public through the pro-Israel lobby of Christians and Jews – especially through John Hagee’s CUFI, Christians United for Israel – three factors were apparent. First, the lobby served to undermine peace and increase, and even encourage, violence. Second, their utterly biased and one-sided utterings and massive funding have been opposed by Jews as well as Christians. Finally, third, the United States is seen increasingly to be a party to injustice, rather than an honest broker for a just settlement of the conflict.

The lobby’s goal to stand shoulder to shoulder for significant influence in Washington by portraying Israel in a positive light in public discourse is proving more difficult and counterproductive. The Israeli lobby is being seen as an agent of the foreign power, in part because of Mr. [Binyamin] Netanyahu’s demands and decline, thank God, and Mr. Trump’s ignorance and intrusion. A more open debate is happening on university campuses, as we’ve just heard, especially as BDS has caused panic efforts in Congress and the Knesset to limit First Amendment freedoms, and print and broadcast media’s pro-Israeli editorial and news bias shows real signs of change. Greater understanding is occurring about faulty oppressive theology and excesses and American Christian complicity in illegal neo-colonial activity.

There is an increasing awareness of severe demonization of Palestinians, Muslims and Christians. Treatment of other minorities within Israel and the region is stirring opposition, especially because of the horrors of Gaza, the expulsion of African refugees, and the church tax bank issues. Many more people, including the young, are traveling with alternative social justice agencies to the traditional Holy Land holy sites, but they’re spending a lot more time than has been traditionally the way in the West Bank talking to the Living Stones who are demanding liberation. The arc of history is being bent toward justice by young people.

Polling and experience indicate that evangelicals, especially millennials, are more pro-immigrant and less Islamophobic, and increasingly concerned about the negative impact of occupation annexation. Appreciation is growing for and in solidarity with influential progressive and modern Zionists, for instance, +972, Lara Friedman, Rabbis for Human Rights, and mainstream Israeli combatants for human rights as they seek help on their PTSD. Pilgrims even now, amazingly, some enlightened progressive dispensationalists, are embracing more of the true prophetic biblical declarations about responsibility toward the marginalized poor, blind and oppressed, the strangers in the land.

Genesis 12 has been the basis of much of Zionist propaganda that God would bless those who bless you – to Abraham – and, above all, the people you curse, He will curse. The fact is that promise wasn’t made to Israel. It was made to Abraham, the father of all of us. They forget that. There is a changing sensitivity. Increasingly people are understood to be chosen, as in the old children’s song, all the children of the world – red, yellow, black and white. My evangelical colleagues now say “Jews, Christians and Muslims are precious in His sight.”

The more liberal and progressive social justice denominations and believers, including many Jews, align themselves with the 2006 statement on Christian Zionism by the Jerusalem patriarchs of the traditional faiths. They declared: “We categorically reject Christian Zionist doctrine as false teaching that corrupts the Bible’s message of love, justice and reconciliation.” The American National Council of Churches adds: “The theological stance of Christian Zionism adversely affects justice and peace in the Middle East.”

Unusually, on Feb. 22nd, just past, in response to U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, 25 well-known senior evangelical leaders expressed concern – albeit too timidly, in my view – about unprecedented actions that may – may – jeopardize lives and future security of the people of the Holy Land. I hope they can be more concerned about current Palestinian suffering, but it opens the door for more White House dialogue. Therefore, it is questionable how much contemporary American theology and electoral politicking and legislating are being driven extensively by heretical dispensational understanding of Eretz Israel.

Further evidence of it being challenged is because of actions by evangelical organizations such as Sojourners, Evangelicals for Social Action, and faith-based operational agencies who have some of their staff people in prison. These and other faiths groups are partnering with J Street, Jewish Voice for Peace, New Israel Fund, operational agencies, as well as the think tanks such as the Middle East Institute and the Foundation for Middle East Peace. Also great films – “With God on Our Side,” “Road to Apartheid,” “Occupation of the American Mind,”  Noura’s film, “Gaza: A Gaping Wound,” “Gaza in Context,” et cetera.

Social justice evangelicals are working to rehabilitate their brand – or, frankly, just desert it if necessary – in order to differentiate further from the Hagees and Pences and [Judge Roy] Moores of the world, which has potential for impacting the fall elections. Members of Congress who have expressed quiet opposition to Israeli policies are being more vocal regarding treatment of children – Betty McCollum’s (D-MN) bill on child prisoners – [David] Price (D-NC) and [Peter] Welch (D-VT) – and a hundred members’ action on UNRWA, which is a questionable pursuit.

In conclusion, many prominent progressive leaders are helping to sharpen our thinking regarding Christian Zionists, for the god they portray looks to be militaristic, xenophobic, genocidist and would not sufficiently be moral enough to conform to the Fourth Geneva Convention. So has God turned from love and grace to be a great ethnic cleanser? Martin Buber, the great ethicist, said in his declaration of opposition to Zionism: “hatred is bound to ruin us. Guilt and complicity are twins hard to separate. Those who pull the trigger and those who pay for the guns are inextricably bound.”

Anglican theologian Naim Ateek states: “we must oppose Christian Zionism by asserting one clear principle. Any religion that does not promote justice, truth, peace, love, forgiveness and reconciliation among people has lost its rudder and is undeserving of respect. Their religion and their teachings are destructive, rather than a liberating force in the world. I would place Christian Zionists in this group,” he says. Having seen their impact personally while living in Jerusalem and in other places in the world. I do, too. Thanks very much.

Questions and Answers

Dale Sprusansky: Thank you very much. We have three minutes for questions, so I’ll shoot maybe two of them to you. If you can respond relatively quickly, that would be appreciated. 

One person asked, “Can you say something about Israel’s treatment of Palestinian Christians and Western Christian NGOs, such as World Vision, where you previously worked?” Another person asks, “What does it say about Christians United for Israel, the largest Christian Zionist lobby, that their executive director is Ehud Barak’s cousin and is not actually a Christian?”

Thomas Getman: That says a lot. I don’t need to answer that. It shows – can I dare use the word evil? – of the kind of collaboration that happens around a political issue rather than moral and ethical issues.

On the first question, I believe the NGOs are being stifled. They’re being shut up. They’re being arrested as a cooling effort to scare our people. I think the NGOs generally are in the target, big time. Some of our staff people are arrested for trumped-up charges that are just so counterintuitive as to be ridiculous. In talking to the lawyers about what happens to these people, he – an Israeli Jew – says, we all together must speak out more about this atrocity, because these folks are innocent as the day is long. But the Israeli government finds them an easy target, and it can be used to stifle advocacy. When marketing plays such an important role for operational agencies – or for churches, for that matter – this has a huge impact. Enough said. Thanks.

May I just add that if you want to see some of these films that I’ve mentioned, the lists are in the room. These are really worth going out of your way to see, or you can order them on Netflix. Thank you. 

Dale Sprusansky: Thank you very much. 

4 thoughts on “When and How Did Evangelicals Become Zionists?: Thomas R. Getman”

  1. Evangelical covers a lot of territory. I’ve been to an Independent Pentecost church where the pastor said Baptists (and didn’t get past that to more “Papist” churches like Methodist and don’t get them started about Catholics) were going to Hell because they baptized using the words “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” instead of “Holy Ghost”, Went to an independent Baptist church who said the Southern Baptists were too “liberal” and going to Hell, mind you, the Southern Baptists broke away from the General Council because there was a debate on whether Baptist missionaries could take their slaves to other countries in their Missions. Baptist General Council broke from the Episcopalian Church of England over immersion baptism as opposed to sprinkling like Methodists who seceded from Episcopalian Church over Calvinism and the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches seceded from Roman Catholicism over national sovereignty and they promptly seceded from each other over (among petty shit) Church controlling the Monarch or the Monarch ruling the Church. Confused? Don’t need to be. It comes down to a lot of Evangelists hating of course Catholics but also other Evangelists. Toss them an issue, any issue, and somebody will start a fight.

    Nothing to see, keep moving, nothing to see…

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