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Evangelical Theology & American Politics in the Middle East (2)

Having ended part (1) with the influence of Cyrus Scofield, we’ll pick this up by looking at Arno C. Gaebelein.

By the way, I hope you’re finding this interesting. When first digging into most of this stuff a few years back, frankly I was amazed at how ignorant I was.


7. Arno C. Gaebelein: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion

Arno Gaebelein is probably the most complex and controversial of the early dispensationalists, principally for his views on prophecy, the Jews and Zionism. Gaebelein is distinguished for being the source of the prophetic notes in Scofield’s Reference Bible.[xxxii] He was also a regular speaker at the Niagara Prophecy Conferences, and lectured at Dallas Theological Seminary.[xxxiii] In 1893, Gaebelein began publishing a periodical in Yiddish, Tiqweth Israel – The Hope of Israel Monthly. A year later Stroeter came to work with him and edited an English version called Our Hope which was for Christians. The specific purpose of this periodical was to acquaint them with the Zionist movement and proclaim the imminent return of Christ.[xxxiv] Gaebelein’s prophetic interpretations, for example, led him to deduce that NATO was to become the ten kings of the revived Roman Empire.[xxxv]

Gaebelein has also at times been accused of anti-Semitism.[xxxvi] For example, in response to the publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a spurious work alleging to be the secret plans of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy to undermine civil authority, destroy Christianity and take over the international economy, Gaebelein wrote:

‘… they certainly laid out a path for the revolutionary Jews that has been strictly and literally followed. That the Jew has been a prominent factor in the revolutionary movements of the day, wherever they may have occurred, cannot truthfully be denied, any more than that it was a Jew who assassinated, with all his family, the former Autocrat of all the Russians; or than that a very large majority (said to be over 80%) of the present Bolshevist government in Moscow, are Jews: while along other lines, in the assembly of the League of Nations, the Jew’s voice is heard, and it is by no means a plaintive, timid, or uninfluential one—the Jew is the coming man!’[xxxvii]

Two months later Gaebelein wrote about the ‘Jewish Leadership in Russia.’ claiming that forty-four out of fifty of the Bolshevik leaders were of Jewish origin. Weber describes this apparent contradiction as ‘ironic ambivalence’, suggesting that premillennial prophetic views like those of Gaebelein, ‘enabled them to give credence to the Protocols (and thereby sound anti-Semitic) even though they had been and remained staunch opponents of anti-Semitism.’[xxxviii]

Gaebelein clearly had no illusions as to the origin or motives of the Zionist movement, which he regarded as ‘apostate’, yet he could also write about, ‘the return of the Jews to Palestine in unbelief is before us in modern Zionism, therefore it is the most startling sign of all the signs of our times.’ [xxxix] In the pages of Our Hope[xl] Gaebelein frequently reported with enthusiasm the development of the various Zionist colonization societies in Palestine, supported the efforts of Herzl and informed a still largely ignorant and complacent American Christian community how prophecy was indeed being fulfilled in Palestine. Although dispensationalists in the early 20th Century continued to see in such events as the rise of communism, the Balfour Declaration and rise of anti-Semitism, evidence of the imminent return of Christ, there was a gradual decline in the ‘intellectual prestige of Fundamentalism.’[xli]

8. Anti-Semitism and American Liberal Christian Zionism (1918-1967)

In the period from 1918 right up to 1948, increasingly secular arguments were made for the Zionist cause, with a ‘decreasing use of explicitly theological vocabulary.’[xlii] American foreign policy was increasingly determined by the need to maintain good relations with the strategic oil-rich Arab nations at the very same time America was engaged in a race to prevent Soviet hegemony. As the American political establishment began to show less enthusiasm for Blackstone’s Memorial, the Jewish Zionist movement discovered more influential friends among liberal church leaders who had greater leverage with the Presidency and were more interested in Jewish rights than converting them and fulfilling prophecy. Naim Ateek observes,

As the British Empire waned, the Zionist state cleverly and shrewdly connected itself with the rising American Empire and gradually was able to occupy strategic positions within all of its governing branches – the Congress, Pentagon, State Department, and the White House.

In the early 20th Century, following the devastating toll of the First World War and then the Great Depression, Fundamentalism in America became more and more preoccupied with refuting liberal theology, the social gospel and Darwinian evolution than with prophetic speculation. In a detailed history of the rise of 20th Century American Fundamentalism prior to 1970, Erling Jorstad traces the rise of the Christian right with its anti-Communist and xenophobic agenda, yet without a single reference to Israel.[xliii] Similarly, in George Marsden’s historical overview of the rise of Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism in America, he observes that despite some evidence of anti-Semitism, in the early 20th Century there seemed little interest in contemporary Israel among conservative evangelicals.[xliv] Others such as David Rausch have traced in more detail the rise of anti-Semitism within early 20th century Christian Fundamentalism.[xlv]

For example, in 1919, aware that the British and French were undermining his goal of self-determination in Syria, Woodrow Wilson sent Charles Crane, a wealthy American Arabist as head of the King-Crane Commission to investigate the wishes of the indigenous people. Reservations expressed by Arab leaders and expatriate Americans led Crane’s Commission to recommend the abandonment of American support for a Jewish homeland, that further Jewish immigration be severely restricted and America or Britain govern Palestine.

While Crane went on to help finance the first explorations for oil in Saudi Arabia and the Yemen, his admiration for Hitler’s Germany ‘the real political bulwark of Christian culture’, and of Stalin’s anti-Jewish purges in Soviet Russia, led his biographer to describe his later life as dominated by, ‘a most pronounced prejudice … [and] … unbridled dislike of Jews.’ Crane tried to persuade President Franklin D. Roosevelt to shun the counsels of Felix Frankfurter and to avoid appointing other Jews to government posts. Crane ‘envisioned a world-wide attempt on the part of the Jews to stamp out all religious life and felt that only a coalition of Muslims and Roman Catholics would be strong enough to defeat such designs.’

In 1933, he even proposed to Haj Amin Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, that the Mufti open talks with the Vatican to plan an anti-Jewish campaign.[xlvi] The reasoning behind opposition by American missionaries to the founding of the State of Israel is a complex one. In 1948, weeks before the State of Israel was declared, Bayard Dodge who had founded the American University in Beirut, retired to Princeton in New Jersey. In April 1948, he wrote a watershed article in The Readers Digest entitled, ‘Must There Be War in the Middle East?’ Kaplan describes it as the ‘definitive statement’ of American Arabists on the birth of the State of Israel.

‘Though he cautioned, “Not all Jews are Zionist and not all Zionists are extremists”, for Dodge the Zionist movement was a tragedy of which little good could come… Dodge’s argument against Zionism rests, not on the politics of the movement, but on the Arabs’ opposition to it, which in Dodge’s view made the Zionist program unrealistic and therefore dangerous. Years and decades of strife would, Dodge knew, follow the birth of the Jewish State. As a result, wrote Dodge,

“All the work done by our philanthropic non-profit American agencies in the Arab world – our Near East Foundation, our missions, our YMCA and YWCA, our Boston Jesuit college in Baghdad, our colleges in Cairo, Beirut, Damascus – would be threatened with complete frustration and collapse … so would our oil concessions”,

a scenario that Dodge said would help Communist Russia. Dodge then quoted a fellow “American Middle East expert” as saying that “they [the Russians] intend to get many thousands of Russian Communist Jews into the Palestinian Jewish State.”’[xlvii]

Kaplan argues that Dodge’s views were representative of the wider expatriate and missionary community who believed the US, British and Russians morally and politically wrong to railroad the partition of Palestine through the United Nations.

Richard Crossman who was a member of the Anglo-American team investigating the Palestine crisis in 1947, observed that the American Protestant missionaries, ‘challenged the Zionist case with all the arguments of the most violently pro-Arab British Middle Eastern officials.’[xlviii] Kaplan concludes, ‘the American community in Lebanon was almost, to a man, psychologically opposed to the State of Israel.’[xlix]

In his memoirs, Harry Truman also claims his post-war State Department specialists were opposed to the idea of a Jewish State because they either wanted to appease the Arabs or because they were anti-Semitic.[l] During the 1930s and 1940s, both prior to and after the founding of the State of Israel, the principal allies of Zionism were liberal Protestant Christians such as Paul Tillich, William F. Albright and Reinhold Niebuhr who founded the Christian Council on Palestine in 1942.[li] Niebuhr, who was Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, defended his Zionism on pragmatic rather than religious grounds. Jewish persecution in Europe combined with restrictive immigration laws in America led Niebuhr to recognise the ‘moral right’ of the Jews to Palestine in order for them to survive as a nation.[lii] In 1946, he testified before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry in Washington on behalf of the Christian Council on Palestine. While acknowledging the conflicting rights of Arabs and Jews in Palestine, he argued:

‘The fact however that the Arabs have a vast hinterland in the Middle East, and the fact that the Jews have nowhere to go, establishes the relative justice of their claims and of their cause … Arab sovereignty over a portion of the debated territory must undoubtedly be sacrificed for the sake of establishing a world Jewish homeland.’[liii]

In 1958, by which time he was at odds with most other liberal Protestant leaders, Niebuhr continued to insist on a wider definition of Christian Zionism. In, ‘The Relation of Christians and Jews in Western Civilization’ he wrote,

‘Many Christians are pro-Zionist in the sense that they believe that a homeless people require a homeland; but we feel as embarrassed as anti-Zionist religious Jews when messianic claims are used to substantiate the right of the Jews to the particular homeland in Palestine.’[liv]

Apart from wishing to see Arabs ‘compensated’, Niebuhr did not appear to support the view that Palestinians also require a homeland.

9. The Rebirth of American Evangelical Christian Zionism.

For Evangelicals, the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 came to be seen as the most significant fulfilment of biblical prophecy,[lv] and ‘the greatest piece of prophetic news that we have had in the 20th Century.’[lvi]

The 1967 ‘Six Day War’ marked a further significant watershed for evangelical Christian interest in Israel and Zionism. Billy Graham’s father-in-law Nelson Bell, then editor of Christianity Today, expressed the sentiments of many evangelicals when, in an editorial for the magazine he wrote, ‘for the first time in more than 2,000 years Jerusalem is now completely in the hands of the Jews gives a student of the Bible a thrill and a renewed faith in the accuracy and validity of the Bible.’[lvii]

In 1976 a series of events brought Christian Zionism to the forefront of US mainstream politics. Jimmy Carter was elected as the ‘born again’ President drawing the support of the evangelical right. In Israel, Menachem Begin and the right wing Likud Party came to power the following year. A tripartite coalition slowly emerged between the political Right, evangelicals and the Jewish lobby. In 1978, Jimmy Carter acknowledged how his own pro-Zionist beliefs had influenced his Middle East policy.[lviii] In a speech, he described the State of Israel as,

‘a return at last, to the biblical land from which the Jews were driven so many hundreds of years ago … The establishment of the nation of Israel is the fulfilment of biblical prophecy and the very essence of its fulfilment.’[lix]

However, when Carter vacillated over the aggressive Likud settlement programme and proposed the creation of a Palestinian homeland, he alienated the pro-Israeli coalition of Jews and evangelicals who switched their support to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 elections. Reagan’s election as President gave a considerable boost to the Christian Zionist cause. His election:

‘…ushered in not only the most pro-Israel administration in history but gave several Christian Zionists prominent political posts. In addition to the President, those who subscribed to a futurist premillennial theology and Christian Zionism included Attorney General Ed Meese, Secretary of Defence Casper Weinberger, and Secretary of the Interior James Watt.’[lx]

White House Seminars’ became a regular feature of Reagan’s administration bringing leading Christian Zionists like Jerry Falwell, Mike Evans and Hal Lindsey into direct personal contact with national and Congressional leaders. In 1982, Reagan invited Falwell to give a briefing to the National Security Council on the possibility of a nuclear war with Russia.[lxi] In a personal conversation reported in the Washington Post in April 1984, Reagan shared his personal convictions to Tom Dine, one of Israel’s chief lobbyists working for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC):

‘You know, I turn back to the ancient prophets in the Old Testament and the signs foretelling Armageddon, and I find myself wondering if – if we’re the generation that is going to see that come about. I don’t know if you’ve noted any of these prophecies lately, but believe me they certainly describe the times we’re going through.’[lxii]

While subsequent Presidents have not shared the same dispensational presuppositions of either Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan, they nevertheless have maintained, however reluctantly, the strong pro-Zionist position of their predecessors.[lxiii]

10. The Significance of Contemporary Christian Zionism

Like Elisha, Pastor John Hagee appears to have assumed the mantle of Jerry Falwell who died in 2007. Hagee is the Founder and Senior Pastor of Cornerstone Church, an 19,000 member evangelical church in San Antonio in Texas. He is also CEO of Global Evangelism Television which broadcasts his programmes on 160 T.V. stations, 50 radio stations and eight networks into an estimated 99 million homes in 200 countries worldwide on a weekly basis. In 2006 he founded Christians United for Israel with the support of 400 other Christian leaders. Last year he admitted:

“For 25 almost 26 years now, I have been pounding the evangelical community over television. The bible is a very pro-Israel book. If a Christian admits “I believe the Bible,” I can make him a pro-Israel supporter or they will have to denounce their faith. So I have the Christians over a barrel, you might say.”[lxiv]

The assumption Hagee makes, that Bible-believing Christians will be pro-Israel, is now the dominant view among contemporary evangelicals. In March 2007, Hagee was a guest speaker at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference. He began with these words:

“The sleeping giant of Christian Zionism has awakened. There are 50 million Christians standing up and applauding the State of Israel…”

As the Jerusalem Post pointed out, his speech did not lack clarity. He went on to warn:

“It is 1938. Iran is Germany, and Ahmadinejad is the new Hitler. We must stop Iran’s nuclear threat and stand boldly with Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East… Think of our potential future together: 50 million evangelicals joining in common cause with 5 million Jewish people in America on behalf of Israel is a match made in heaven.”[lxv]

At the July 19th, 2006 Washington DC inaugural event for Christians United for Israel, after recorded greeting from George W. Bush, and in the presence of four US Senators as well as the Israeli ambassador to the US, Hagee stated :

”The United States must join Israel in a pre-emptive military strike against Iran to fulfill God’s plan for both Israel and the West… a biblically prophesied end-time confrontation with Iran, which will lead to the Rapture, Tribulation, and Second Coming of Christ.”[lxvi]

Are we therefore surprised when Muslims wrongly assume that such views reflect Christianity as a whole? So how significant is this movement in America?

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life estimates there are 20-40 million Christian Zionists in America. The Unity Coalition for Israel draws together over 200 different organizations and claims 40 million active members. Other influential Christian Zionist organisations include the International Christian Embassy, Jerusalem (ICEJ), Bridges for Peace (BFP) and Christian Friends of Israel (CFI. Together with Christians United for Israel (CUFI) and the Unity Coalition for Israel (UCI), these organisations make up a broad coalition which is shaping not only the Christian Zionist agenda but also influencing US foreign policy in the Middle East today. Their political agenda is multifaceted. They are actively engaged in:

  • Lobbying the White House and Congress on behalf of Israel.
  • Funding the emigration of Russian Jews to Israel through organisations such as Exobus and ICEJ.
  • Twinning evangelical churches with illegal Jewish settlements through organisations like Christian Friends of Israeli Communities (COIFC).
  • Campaigning to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to ensure it is recognised as the exclusive, undivided eternal capital of the Jewish people.
  • Denigrating the democratically elected Palestinian leadership and thwarting their aspirations to statehood.
  • Vilifying pro-justice Christian leaders who challenge Zionism and demonising peace and justice networks and NGOs within the mainline churches.

11. Conclusions

Is there any sign that the re-election of President Barak Obama on Tuesday will result in any change in US Middle East policy or will we simply try harder to impose our definition of peace and our version of democracy? Bacevich observes that our mistake is in, “viewing history as ultimately a good-news story. If the good news appears mingled with bad, the imperative of the faithful is to try harder. Forget about Baghdad and Kabul: onward to Damascus and Tehran.”

Naim Ateek insists, there is no such thing as “benevolent empire”.[lxvii] Because of the special relationship, Israel has become an integral part of the American Empire. The economic, military and political bonds are so intertwined they are unbreakable, regardless of whether the Democratic or Republican party are in power. It is therefore impossible at present for the US to be an honest broker in the peace process. Are we therefore surprised at the violence and antipathy directed toward the United States in the Middle East? Secretary Clinton rightly observed that Ambassador Stevens along with other US diplomats, put their lives at risk “because they believe that the United States must be a force for peace and progress.” Bacevich asks,

“But in the face of decade upon decade of contrary experience, what could possibly convince Libyans or Egyptians, Iraqis or Iranians, Afghans or Pakistanis that such faith in America’s idealism has any basis in fact?… The United States has aligned itself all too often with the forces of despotism and oppression… And this tendency has persisted even on Secretary Clinton’s watch; just look at the response to the Arab Awakening’s appearance in Bahrain.”

He concludes with a challenge that we must take seriously if we are to avoid being held responsible, for the extinction of the indigenous Christian community right across the Middle East.

“If we Americans think we have something to teach others, lets do it as exemplars – that is, assuming we are willing to close the yawning gap between the values we loudly profess and the way we actually behave.”[lxviii]

Surely this must be our primary task if we as Evangelicals are ever to have a significant impact in the Middle East again for the sake of the gospel and the extension of Christ’s kingdom.

Evangelical Theology & American Politics in the Middle East by Stephen Sizer;  9 November 2012 (notes and further links can be accessed by following the link)


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