This past June, the Israeli Embassy in Washington held a reception for several high-powered leaders of the Christian right. Among those attending the so-called Israel Solidarity Event were former presidential candidate Gary Bauer; Rev. Ted Haggard, head of the National Association of Evangelicals; Rev. Glenn Plummer of the Fellowship of Israel and Black America; and Rev. John Hagee, chairman of Christians United for Israel (Washington Times, June 12, 2006).
That the Israeli government would go out of its way to court U.S. Christian leaders is hardly surprising. Over the past dozen years, as the Christian right has taken a leading role in the Republican Party, some Christian Zionists have grabbed a seat at the foreign policy table, with many of its leaders forging relationships with other factions of America’s right-wing political spectrum. One of the most potent partnerships has been that between rightist Christian and Jewish leaders, who since the turn of the 21st century have jointly launched several organizations to support Israel. Christian support for Israel is not only growing-it is also becoming an influential political factor.
Two such partnerings include: Bauer, former head of the Family Research Council who now runs a group called American Values, joined with Rabbi Daniel Lapin, head of the conservative organization Toward Tradition, to form the American Alliance of Jews and Christians; and Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, teamed with Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, to launch “Stand for Israel,” which, according to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, wants to be a “Christian version of the pro-Israel lobby on Capitol Hill, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.”
These and other like-minded organizations have provided millions of dollars to Israeli charities, lobbied on behalf of Israel and against Bush’s so-called Road Map to peace in the Middle East, and have helped defray the costs of the immigration of Russian Jews to Israel, among other activities.
Today, Christian Zionists are playing a significant role in the political debate over U.S. Mideast policy. The recent founding of Christians United for Israel (CUFI) by John Hagee, pastor of the 18,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, drew a great deal of media attention.
In a remark reminiscent of the hopes of the Stand for Israel founders, Hagee told the Jerusalem Post: “Think of CUFI as a Christian version of American Israel Public Affairs Committee.” Hagee said, “We need to be able to respond instantly to Washington with our concerns about Israel. We must join forces to speak as one group and move as one body to [respond to] the crisis Israel will be facing in the near future” (Jerusalem Post, February 2, 2006). Speakers for an upcoming “Middle East Intelligence Briefing” to be held at Hagee’s Texas church include former CIA Director James Woolsey and former Israel Defense Force Chief of General Staff Moshe Yaalon.
Although the group was founded recently, CUFI leaders have already been involved in “a series of meetings” with White House officials, journalist Max Blumenthal recently reported. “CUFI’s Washington lobbyist, David Brog, told me that during the meetings, CUFI representatives pressed White House officials to adopt a more confrontational posture toward Iran, refuse aid to the Palestinians, and give Israel a free hand as it ramped up its military conflict with Hezbollah,” Blumenthal wrote (“Birth Pangs of a New Christian Zionism,” TheNation.com, August 8, 2006).
Hagee, who has a radio and television ministry with a global reach and is the author of more than 20 books, views the Israel-Hezbollah conflict as a warm-up to a confrontation with Iran. On Sunday, September 3, in a talk at evangelical Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, Hagee accused Iran of being behind the recent war between Hezbollah and Israel. “They gave Syria 14,000 missiles and $100 million,” he claimed. “Those missiles were given to Hezbollah.” Hagee asserted that Iran had started the war to shift global attention away from its nuclear program. “What’s happening with Hezbollah is nothing more than Iran’s long arm reaching out in the Middle East,” he said. “What is happening in Iraq is nothing more than Iran’s long arm reaching out and sticking a finger in the eye of the United States of America. If freedom wins in Iraq, radical Islam is finished. I’m proud of our troops in Iraq.”
Earlier, during the lead up to a July “Washington-Israel summit” that included Israeli government figures and several Christian right leaders, Hagee told the Washington Times: “There’s a new Hitler in the Middle East. He’s talking about killing Jews. He will have the ability to do so with nuclear weapons. I believe that the president of Iran fully intends there to be a nuclear holocaust. The only way he will be stopped will be by a pre-emptive military strike in Iran” (Washington Times, July 13, 2006).
Another popular pro-Israel voice is Joel C. Rosenberg, bestselling Christian author of such novels as The Copper Scroll, The Ezekiel Option, and The Last Jihad. But Rosenberg’s most recent book is a work of nonfiction entitled Epicenter: Why the Current Rumblings in the Middle East Will Change Your Future. A lesser-known figure, Rosenberg is a well-connected conservative political operative who converted to Christianity from Judaism more than 30 years ago. Rosenberg has worked for former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli politician Natan Sharansky, right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh, and William Bennett, America’s self-appointed morality maven. He is also a former Heritage Foundation staffer. In a recent blog entry, Rosenberg suggested that Russia should be added to the Bush administration’s “axis of evil.”
“Under [Vladimir] Putin’s leadership,” Rosenberg wrote, “Russia has also joined the ‘axis of evil.’ It is selling billions of dollars worth of missiles and high-tech weaponry to Iran, Syria, Algeria, and other radical Islamic and Arab regimes. It is building nuclear facilities for Iran, training Iranian nuclear scientists, and running political interference for Iran at the UN to prevent the West from imposing sanctions despite the fact that Iran’s leader has called for the United States and Israel to be wiped ‘off the map'” (JoelRosenberg.blogspot.com, “September 23, 2006).
According to Helen Gray, religion editor for the Kansas City Star, Rosenberg anticipates that the fight in the Middle East will involve what he called “a military alliance between Russia, Iran, and a group of other Mideast countries who try to wipe Israel off the map. Russia and Iran have never had a military alliance in the 2,500 years since the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel wrote that prophecy, but they are forming one today” (Kansas City Star, September 23, 2006).
For Hagee, Rosenberg, and Falwell, Israel plays the critical role in End Time scenarios. For these men, it is more than the random cries of “the world is coming to an end.” Their books, commentaries, and public statements reflect their beliefs that serial conflicts in the Middle East are a sign of the biblical prophesy presaging Armageddon, the return of Jesus Christ, and the final battle for the souls of mankind.
While Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s popularity has plummeted since the end of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict, from which Hezbollah appears to have emerged stronger both politically and militarily, Christian Zionists in the United States view the outcome not only as a defeat for Israel, but also as a prelude to a much wider war. In fact, they think the conflict might be a sign of impending Armageddon.
“The end of the world as we know it is rapidly approaching,” Hagee wrote in his most recent book, Jerusalem Countdown: A Warning to the World. “Just before us is a nuclear countdown with Iran,” he wrote, “followed by Ezekiel’s war (as described in Ezekiel, chapters 38 and 39), and then the final battle-the battle of Armageddon.”
When televangelist Pat Robertson visited Israel during the Israel-Hezbollah conflict, he met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and according to press reports, they prayed together for a victory in Lebanon. (Robertson, a longtime supporter of Israel who a few months earlier had been chastised by Israeli officials for suggesting that former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s stroke was an act of retribution by God for the transfer of land in the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians, appeared to be back in the good graces of the country’s top officials.) At the outbreak of violence in summer 2006, some evangelical leaders such as Janet Parshall, an evangelical radio host, were reportedly pleased; Blumenthal reported that Parshall was “ecstatic,” telling listeners, “‘These are the times we’ve been waiting for . This is straight out of a Sunday school lesson.'”
Other Christian evangelical leaders were more circumspect. The National Association of Evangelicals, made up of 45,000 churches with nearly 30 million believers, “refused to officially support Israel in its conflict with Hezbollah,” the Associated Press reported. Rev. Ted Haggard, who presides over the association, said that despite being asked by Israeli officials to issue a public statement in support of Israel, he refused. “‘Our silence is not a rejection of Israel or even a hesitation about Israel. Our silence is to try to protect people,’ said Haggard, pastor of New Life Church, in Colorado Springs, CO. ‘There’s a rapidly growing evangelical population in virtually every Islamic country. Much of it is underground in the countries that are more radicalized, and many of the Christians survive based on their neighbors just ignoring the fact that they don’t go to mosque,'” Rachel Zoll reported (Associated Press, August 11, 2006).
One Christian group stood out for its stance. A month after the fighting began, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson sided definitively with Israel: “While we are praying without ceasing for the innocent victims in Lebanon, we stand firmly with Israel and the Jews” (AP, August 11, 2006).
Although the Israel-Hezbollah conflict has ended, Hagee made it clear in his remarks at Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church that he believes the current ceasefire will not hold. “In a matter of weeks or months, the war will start again,” he said. “We as a nation are at war with a determined enemy. It is time for America to realize that we must win this war at all costs.”
With the Bush administration in disarray over continuing revelations about its mishandling of the Iraq War, it is difficult to get a handle on how influential the neoconservative architects of the war remain. But it does seem clear that leading Christian Zionists like Pastor Hagee and his Christians United for Israel are trying to step into the breach.
Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering right-wing groups and movements and a contributor to Right Web (rightweb.irc-online.org).