The Roots of Christian Zionism.
Robert O. Smith.
Foreword by Martin E. Marty.
Oxford University Press. 2013,
$29.95, pp. 273
Jehovah’s Witnesses, regarded as an idiosyncratic sect by most other Christian groups, are millenarians who read the Bible literally, and believe that we are currently living in the End Times as described in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation. Christian millenarians differ, often in bewildering ways, on exactly how the End Times will play out. Many believe Christ will return to earth and rule for 1,000 years before finally confronting and vanquishing the Devil’s henchman, the Antichrist. Others believe Christ will return at the end of that 1,000-year period of righteousness. Suffice it to say, tens of millions of evangelical and fundamentalist American Christians identify themselves as believers in this sort of biblical prophecy. Christian Zionists see, in the 1948 re-establishment of the State of Israel and in Israel’s 1967 triumph in the Six-Day War, sure signs that the apocalyptic battle between Satan and Christ is drawing near or has already begun. These groups, as Robert O. Smith notes in More Desired Than Our Owne Salvation, identify passionately with the besieged Jewish state for reasons both eschatological and nativistic. They are uncompromising supporters of the U.S.-Israel alliance, many opposing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Texas televangelist John Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel, is a proponent of a preemptive strike against Iran, for instance. He sees the Israel-Arab conflict as “a battle between good and evil” and Islam as a historical enemy of Christianity and the United States. U.S. support for Israel is simply “God’s foreign policy,” according to Hagee and other Christian Zionists.
Doubtless more liberal and secular observers have difficulty understanding how the obscurities of the Book of Revelation should guide modern U.S. foreign policy. To them, conservative Christian support for Israel seems more likely the result of culture war politics, or the influence of well-funded and effective lobbying efforts by pro-Israel groups. Smith thinks such views are myopic and woefully ignorant of Evangelical Protestantism’s continuing hold on the American character. “Rather than manifesting a manipulation of American interests from any external source,” he writes, “popular American affinity for the State of Israel draws from the taproot of Puritan apocalyptic hope embedded within American identity and national vocation from the pre-revolutionary period to the present.”
That thesis is amply documented in the book, where Smith traces the roots of Protestantism’s literal, historical and philo-Judeo interpretations of the Bible’s prophetic literature back to Martin Luther and John Calvin. Both looked to the reestablishment of the Jewish state in Palestine as a sign of God’s rejection of an idolatrous and heretical Catholicism as well as a heathen Islam and cast the “Turko-Catholic threat” as the Antichrist. These apocalyptic speculations were especially influential among English Protestant reformers in the 16th and 17th centuries. Puritan colonists brought that prophetic faith to America. The Puritans very much identified with the Jews, seeing themselves as a New Israel, a chosen people, and the success of the American experiment as a visible sign of God’s favor and a vindication of Protestantism’s claims to be the true faith. According to Smith, “Adaptations of this Judeo-centric tradition helped prepare the seedbed for independent American nationalism.” With the American Revolution, “apocalyptic hope was transferred from the ecclesial sphere and invested fully in civil institutions. Through this adaptation, the emergent United States of America…was established as an agent of apocalyptic hope.”
This powerful cultural tradition, Smith argues, has long shaped popular notions of American exceptionalism, allowing us to see ourselves as a “redeemer nation,” a people destined to first conquer a continent and eventually extend our influence across the globe ultimately for God’s purposes.
A division exists among Christian Zionists between those who believe it is a religious duty to work politically to secure Israel’s security and those who think such matters are best left in God’s hands. But however Christian Zionists parse the Bible’s language about the End Times and the role of the State of Israel in God’s plan, Smith cautions that “the theopolitical stream in which they stand represents a tradition that constructs Jews for explicitly Christian purposes.” In other words, support for Israel is based on Christian understandings of Jews and Judaism, not Jewish self-understanding. Moreover, the Christian Zionist sees in U.S. support for Israel a confirmation of America’s unique providential role as a nation set apart by God and thereby as a further justification of American power and empire.
U.S. foreign policy usually seems driven by security and economic interests, and in defense of an essentially secular understanding of democracy. It will give many readers pause to learn that Protestant apocalyptic expectation plays such a large role in sustaining support for one of our most important allies. There is considerable evidence, however, that religious affiliation and influence is declining rapidly in the United States, especially among the young. Will an “affinity” for Israel persist as Americans drift away from Christian churches, and especially as firsthand knowledge of the Bible wanes? Smith is a scholar, not a prophet, so the answer to that question will not be found in this book. It’s something to think about, though.
Paul Baumann is editor of Commonweal, an independent journal of religion, politics and culture edited by lay Catholics.