[home][about][contact] [getting involved] [Educational][Academic] [Media Watch][Views]
Rapture and Apocalypse: How Real is the Evangelical Hold on U.S. Foreign Policy?
That religion plays a prominent role in American politics is undeniable. The pollsters at the Pew Research Center have found that 85% of Americans regard religion as an important part of their lives. Moreover, the separation of religion from the political sphere doesn’t feature highly on their list of priorities. In the same set of polls, 70% of Americans stated they desire their President to be a person of faith.
Several presidents have been unabashed in their use of religious nomenclature, symbolism and allusion. Edifying homilies, packed with open professions of faith by Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and more recently George W. Bush were inveterate features of their respective presidencies. Though the separation of church and state remains the writ of the land, recent decades have seen a resurgence in religiosity and, to use a somewhat oxymoronic phrase, “postmodern-revival” of the role of religion in public life, whereby ancient symbols are refashioned and packaged to suit contemporary needs and agendas. An unrepresentative, but powerful coalition of groups have since the eighties been aggressively pursuing their politico-theological program with a hitherto unparalleled vigor. Though the situation is hardly as alarming as some commentators would have us believe, there is little doubt that the Christian Evangelical movement has emerged as a powerful and highly influential group with a wish-list they expect their political representatives to translate into policy.
Leaders of this movement include the late Jerry Falwell, Gary Bauer, Pat Robertson and John Hagee, and politicians such as former House Majority Leaders Tom DeLay (R-TX) and Richard Armey (R-TX), and Senator James Inhofe (R-K). The growing pervasiveness and political tenor of televangelism, e-vangelism (internet-vangelism) and religious activism have been part and parcel of the aforementioned trend and its recent buoyancy. The pervasive influence of the Christian Right is by no means a figment of “liberal America’s” imagination. In fact it’s very real, with some experts contending the provenance of American exceptionalism and unilateralism is to be found in Evangelism and its political cognates. For example, Professor Duane Oldfield of Knox College has argued that:
“Although the Christian right's unilateralism is not new, its proximity to power is. Three developments have helped make the Christian right a significant player in U.S. foreign policy: the election of a president with close ties to the movement, the growth of the Christian right's grassroots organizational strength, and the development of an alliance with neoconservatives, who have come to play a crucial role in the present administration.”
An important subset of the politically-minded Christian Right are the so-called Christian Zionists. The origins of Christian Zionism reside in the theology of dispensationalism which emerged in nineteenth century England, largely through the efforts of Anglican ministers Louis Way and John Nelson Darby. Dispensationalism constitutes a form of premillenarianism which asserts that the world will experience an era of turmoil, hardship and catastrophe before Christ returns.
The Evangelist community’s theological predilections have precipitated foreign policy preferences consisting in unerring support for Israel and a tendency to view the Bush administration’s “war on terror” as a war against Islam. Pastor John Hagee, for instance has unapologetically proclaimed that, “We support Israel because all other nations were created by an act of men, but Israel was created by an act of God!”
The Iraq War is seen as integral to a Manichean struggle of “good versus evil” and despite the precipitous decline in support for the war amongst the American public, Christian Zionists remain stalwart supporters of the Bush administration’s Babylonian adventure, viewing it through the prism of a cosmic and eschatological struggle. Attitudes toward other religions and Islam in particular have been characterized by prejudice, falsehood and misconception. Surveys taken by the Pew Forum (PDF), furthermore, show that of all Americans, Evangelicals have the most negative and derogatory views of Islam and Muslims. Reverend Franklin Graham, a leading Evangelist created a stir when after the 9/11 attacks he infamously claimed that Islam was a "very evil and a very wicked religion."
The Christian Zionists support for Israel is a curious and uneasy one. Evangelist support for Israel first really gathered pace after the Six Day War (1967), in which Israel single-handedly defeated the armies of Jordan, Egypt and Syria and occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. These events were interpreted as a sign that the realization of Old and New Testament prophecy was in the offing.
Ever since, a slew of Christian Zionist groups have been extremely vocal in their support of the Jewish state and the settlement enterprise, even raising funds to expedite settlement expansion. Their belief that God has promised Israel to the Jews, and the Jews alone has meant that they are fundamentally at odds with the international consensus which advocates a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The reason why such an alliance might be deemed uneasy and fraught with contradictions is because dispensationalist theology doesn’t envisage a pleasant fate for the Jews. Dispensationalist theology assures us that when the end-of-times are upon us that the Jews, who are crudely typecast in the Evangelicals’ literalist Biblical narrative, will either convert to Christianity or die! Hence, despite their staunch and unreserved support for Israel, critics suggest that such support only thinly veils a deep-seated brand of anti-Semitism.
This rather strange marriage of convenience is perhaps best exemplified in the person of Pastor John Hagee, whose endorsement was wholeheartedly embraced by Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, earlier this year. Despite being founder of lobbying organization Christians United for Israel (CUFI), he has been widely accused of anti-Semitism. In his 2006 book Jerusalem Countdown Hagee argues that:
"It was the disobedience and rebellion of the Jews, God's chosen people, to their covenantal responsibility to serve only the one true God, Jehovah, that gave rise to the opposition and persecution that they experienced beginning in Canaan and continuing to this very day..."
Hagee effectively puts down thousands of years of persecution, which culminated in the Judaeocide and near-destruction of European Jewry, to what he perceives as the Jews disobedience and deviance from the anointed path of Hagee’s infinitely vengeful God. Despite such utterances, prominent figures in the American-Jewish community such as Abraham Foxman, chairman of the Anti-Demfamation League (ADL), have been quick to jump to Hagee and the equally offensive pronouncements of other Evangelical leaders’ defense. In the words of Foxman, “There is a role for him…because of his support for Israel.”
The Evangelicals have also been jockeying for broadening the present conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to Iran. Hagee’s CUFI has been zealously pushing the message of “support-Israel-bomb-Iran”, urging Congress to follow suit and has told his followers that a US strike on Tehran may initiate the sequence of apocalyptic events related in Ezekiel 38 and 39. In Jerusalem Countdown he goes so far as to argue that “The coming nuclear showdown with Iran is a certainty”.
Such dogma obviously leaves no room for negotiation or painstaking diplomacy. It’s not merely the belief that the end-of-days is upon us which must been seen off, but that dangerous fantasy that Armageddon must be instigated and provoked via a series of explosive and catastrophic events. Apart from being dangerous in and of themselves, such ideas, even in infinitesimal quantities can act as an damning impediments in the pursuit of peaceful solutions to what are after all mundane geopolitical issues.
There is however consensus amongst experts that the Christian Evangelical movement cannot be viewed as a monolith. Though there are of course ideological and philosophical commonalities which bind them together, there are also issues which divide them such as global warming and HIV/AIDS.
There is also the trenchant counterargument that despite appearances, the American policy elite’s support for Israel and the neocon agenda in pursuit of American hegemony exist independently of Evangelical lobbying efforts, and on the contrary remain entirely contingent on geo-strategic considerations. Well-known advocates of a position somewhat analogous to this are Noam Chomsky of MIT and Norman G. Finkelstein, both of whom take issue with the thesis proposed in John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s, The Israel Lobby i.e. that it is the lobby and its activities on Capitol Hill which are the key factor capable of explaining American policy toward Israel and the broader Middle East. To oversimplify somewhat, they argue that when all is said and done, it is America’s geo-strategic interests which take precedence over all else and thereby go on to determine policy, with ideology, theology and the lobby in the final instance falling by the wayside, playing only the most negligible of roles. Evangelicals rather have been cast in the role of “useful idiots” mobilizing their followers on the basis of hollow campaign promises, dutifully shepherding their flocks to the ballot box.
There is little doubt however that those politically-active Evangelicals whose world-view and activities we have here briefly attempted to explicate, will be a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future; further confirmed by the fact that the first general-election meeting between Obama and McCain will not be taking place in a university auditorium, with news anchors as moderators, but in the unorthodox locale of an Evangelical mega-church, overseen by a southern Baptist pastor. The presidential hopefuls may well find themselves compelled to indulge in catechism as opposed to the usual interrogatory welter of questions. Thus despite various mitigating factors worthy of greater exploration, there is little doubt that analysts and observers of American foreign policy will be struggling to assess the role of Christian Evangelicals for some time to come.
© Sadegh Kabeer
If possible try and check out the short documentary, Pastor John Hagee: A Preoccupation with the Jews, by jewsonfirst.org...