Meet the new Zionists

At first sight, the scene is familiar: one that happens in Washington DC and other American cities all the time. On the platform, an Israeli student is telling thousands of supporters how the horrors of the year have only reinforced his people’s determination. “Despite the terror attacks, they’ll never drive us away out of our God-given land.”

This is greeted with whoops and hollers and waving of Israeli flags and the blowing of the shofar, the Jewish ceremonial ram’s horn.
Then comes the mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, who is received even more rapturously. “God is with us. You are with us.” And there are more whoops and hollers and flag-waves and shofar-blows.

This support is not offered with any ifs or buts either. The placards round the hall insist that every inch of the Holy Land should belong to Israel and that there should never be a Palestinian state. These assertions are backed up by biblical quotations. It could be a rally in Jerusalem for those who think Ariel Sharon is a dangerous softie.

But something very strange is going on here. There are thousands of people cheering for Israel in the huge Washington Convention Centre. But not one of them appears to be Jewish. For this is the annual gathering of a very non-Jewish organisation indeed: the Christian Coalition of America.

And the strangest thing is not their support, which is an important development in American politics, but the thinking that lies behind it—which is altogether more chilling to Israel’s traditional supporters than all the cheers and flags would suggest.

In a country where weekly church attendance is normal for about 40% of the population, the relationship between religion and politics in the United States is intense. And there is little doubt that, earlier this year, when President George W Bush dithered and dallied over his Middle East policy before finally coming down on Israel’s side, he was influenced not by the Jewish vote, but by the opinion of Christian “religious conservatives”—between 15% and 18% of the electorate.

A decade ago, when the president’s father was in the White House, his eldest son’s election-time job was to act as unofficial ambassador to this group, offer assurances that they and the administration were at one on such matters as abortion and pornography and prayer in schools, the issues they like to group together as “family values”. US-Israel relations, which reached rock bottom when George Bush Snr was president and the obstreperous Yitzhak Shamir was Israeli prime minister, were never an issue.

What’s changed? Not the Book of Genesis, which is what Michael Brown, the coalition’s church liaison officer, quotes when you ask him to explain the support for Israel. “And I will make of thee a great nation,” the Lord told Abraham, “And I will bless them that bless thee and curse them that curse thee.”

On the conference floor, however, the explanation has more to do with the end of the world than the start of it. What has really changed is the emergence of the doctrine known as “dispensationalism”, popularised in the novels of the Reverend Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkin.

Central to the theory—based on a reading of scripture Brown would prefer not to discuss—is the Rapture, the second coming of Christ, which will presage the end of the world. A happy ending depends on the conversion of the Jews. And that, to cut a long story very short, can only happen if the Jews are in possession of all the lands given to them by God. In other words, these Christians are supporting the Jews in order to abolish them.

Oh yes, agreed Marion Pollard, a charming lady from Dallas. “God is the sovereign. He’ll do what he pleases. But based on the scripture, those are the guidelines.” She calls herself a fervent supporter of Israel, as does Lewis Hall of North Carolina. “I believe they do have to accept the Messiah.” And if they don’t? “I believe they will when they know who He is. It might take a third world war to do that.”

Meanwhile, outside the hall was Leanne Cariker from Oklahoma, carrying a placard saying “Just Say No! To A Palestinian State”. Her support of Israel is based on the same premise. “The Bible says there is no way to worship God except through the son,” she explained.

You might think these Christian activists represent the furthest shores of American politico-religious wackiness. The politicians don’t think so. This conference began with a videotaped benediction straight from the Oval Office. Some of the most influential Republicans in Congress addressed the gathering including Tom DeLay, who is majority leader of the House of Representatives, arguably the most powerful man on Capitol Hill.

Jews habitually do not stand up for Jesus. But most Jewish leaders have opted to shrug, accept the Christians’ support and let them whistle for their conversions. That certainly goes for Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, reportedly greeted “like a rock star” by Christian evangelicals in Jerusalem last month. More thoughtful leaders are at least concerned.

“I’m going to take the support because Israel needs it,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, vice-president of the US’s conservative (in this context middle-of-the-road) Jewish organisation, the United Synagogue. “Their theology is in a different world. We can cope with it. If I convince them not to support Israel, are they going to give up their attempt to convert Jews? No.”

Not everyone accepts this. “They don’t love the real Jewish people,” the author Gershom Gorenberg told the CBS programme 60 Minutes. “They love us as characters in their story and that’s not who we are. If you listen to the drama that they are describing, essentially it’s a five-act play in which the Jews disappear in the fourth act.”

This is not something speakers at the rally were anxious to emphasise. DeLay was followed by Pat Robertson, the coalition’s founder, sometime presidential candidate and the very personification of the successful American TV evangelist: blow-dried hair, stick-on smile, expensive suit, honeyed voice and certainty of tone.

Robertson prefers to dwell on Arab plans to drive Israel into the sea and the iniquity of Yasser Arafat. But he also cites the stories of Joshua and David to prove Israel’s ownership of Jerusalem “long before anyone had heard of Mohammed”.

Robertson has now retired from the coalition, leaving it in the hands of Roberta Combs, a grandmother from South Carolina. In an interview, her most vigorous point is in support of Bush. “I think he’s a great president. I think he’s a caring person. First of all, he’s a Christian, which I identify with. He’s pro-family, he’s pro-life, he’s a friend of mine.”

Combs is not in the Robertson league as a communicator. And when I shifted the conversation to Israel, she discovered an urgent need to attend to her grandson, leaving me with her aide. The prevailing view is that the coalition, a powerful voice in the early 1990s, is not the force it was.

This is partly held to be due to her failings, and partly to the rhetorical excesses of Robertson and his ally Jerry Falwell, leader of the Moral Majority, especially in September last year when Falwell, on Robertson’s TV show, blamed the September 11 attacks on, among others, “the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians”.

The other week Falwell called Mohammed a terrorist, which might have accounted for his unexplained non-appearance at the conference. But even the coalition’s most tireless opponent does not sense any kind of victory. Reverend Barry Lynn, himself an ordained minister and head of the pressure group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, likes to start his speeches by saying: “The good news is that the Christian Coalition is fundamentally collapsing. The bad news is that the people who ran it are all in the government.”

The linkage between the Christian right and the Republican Party is getting stronger, especially in the states of the south and west. And Lynn is alarmed at the implications of the mid-term elections. The Republicans have regained control of the Senate, removing the roadblock that stopped the president from appointing conservative judges to lower courts and, when the vacancies arise, to the Supreme Court. This will give the right, particularly the religious right, unprecedented influence over all three branches of government.

“Karl Rove [Bush’s political guru] has said publicly you cannot alienate your base. You cannot alienate that 18% of religious conservatives. You don’t mess with these people,” said Lynn. “They want you to be just as they are. And Bush is just as they are. He may waffle on one or two issues, such as stem-cell research. But fundamentally he comes down on their side.”

In the short term this might not alter American life all that much. It might take a generation for the Supreme Court to roll back the restrictions that, for instance, forbid prayer in school. Neither the churches nor the government show any sign of imposing teenage sexual abstinence any time soon. Not before, say, the conversion of the Jews.

One of the points Robertson likes to emphasise is to reject accusations that the coalition’s support of Israel is a “Johnny come lately experience”. “We’ve been with them through thick and thin,” he said This is a point made by several of his supporters, one of whom pressed on me a little booklet with quotes from Christian theologians on the subject. He especially recommends the one from Jonathan Edwards, the 18th-century Puritan divine. “The Jews in all their dispersions shall cast away their old infidelity,” said Edwards, “and shall have their hearts wonderfully changed, and abhor themselves for their past unbelief and obstinacy. They shall flow together to the blessed Jesus.”—(c) Guardian Newspapers 2002

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