Was there an event that made this alliance stronger? Has it always been under the radar?
Evangelical Christians largely shunned politics until the late 1970s, when Jerry Falwell created the Moral Majority and led them back onto the political playing field. Israel was among the priorities of the Christian Right from the start. In fact, when Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority he made support for Israel one of the group’s four organizing principles along with the issue of abortion, traditional marriage, and a strong U.S. defense.
While Israel was always important to evangelicals, a recent event did make Israel even more of a priority. On September 11, 2001, evangelicals recognized along with many other Americans that radical Islam was the greatest threat facing our country and that we were in a war with its proponents. And in this war, Israel is seen as an ally and as the first line of defense of Judeo-Christian civilization. Support for this embattled ally has moved to center stage.
Evangelicals who support Israel really don't want to convert people?
Evangelicals who support Israel most certainly do want to convert people. Evangelicals who don’t support Israel also want to convert people. The mission of sharing the “good news” of Jesus Christ is central to being an evangelical. But it is important to note that this is not about converting just the Jews—Christians want to share their faith with Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and their Christian friends and neighbors who have yet to be born again.
The important question is this: Is evangelical support for Israel merely a tool in the effort to convert the Jews? Is this merely some scheme to soften the Jews up so that they can better sell Jesus to them? And the answer to this question is absolutely not.
If anything, the opposite it true. I and others who have worked with Christians in support of Israel all report that no one has ever tried to convert us. In fact, Christians who support Israel tend to know more Jews and to understand their sensitivities better than Christians who do not. Thus, they have learned that Jews find “Jesus talk” offensive, and they tend to leave it out of the dialogue.
For most of Christian history, the dominant Christian theology towards the Jews was “replacement theology,” which held that when the Jews rejected Jesus as their messiah, God rejected the Jews as his chosen people. The Church replaced the Jews as the “Israel” to whom so much is promised in the Bible. Once the Jews were thus removed from God’s love, the door was opened to man’s hate. And this was a door through which generation after generation of Christians walked.
But ever since the Reformation, there have been some small groups of Protestants who have rejected replacement theology and who believe—as Jews do—that the word “Israel” in the Bible means the Jews. Under this reading, the Jews continue to be the beneficiaries of God’s love and promises, and the Bible becomes an exhortation to Zionism and philo-Semitism. In early 20th-century America, the nascent fundamentalist movement embraced this minority view and rejected replacement theology. As this movement grew and spread throughout America, the number of Christians who adhered to this theology grew as well, to the point that it is the ascendant strain of American Christianity today. Thus fundamentalist/evangelical support for Israel is not a trend, fad, or public relations ploy—it is a bedrock religious belief.
It is also important to add that, after the Holocaust, the Roman Catholic Church and most mainline Protestant denominations recognized the danger of replacement theology and formally rejected it. But replacement theology under new names and guises is still out there, and it still does theological combat with the more Judeo-centric interpretation that drives the Christian Zionists.