Evangelical Christians have overwhelmed the White House switchboard in recent weeks with phone calls urging President Bush to continue supporting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In early May, more than 250 Christian leaders attended a prayer breakfast at the Israeli embassy. Last week, former Christian Coalition chairman Ralph Reed announced the formation of a Christian "Stand for Israel" campaign.
There have been many recent media reports of this "strange bedfellows" relationship between Jews--here and in Israel--and the conservative Christians who love them, especially since the relationship seems to be influencing government policy. Some have explained it as a result of the declining dependence on Arab oil, which meant leaders here needn't be as allied with Arab countries. Others suggest that after Sept. 11, Americans felt an immediate, gut-wrenching identification with Israelis, who have lived with the Muslim militant threat for decades.
But the least understood, and probably most important, reason has been missed by most secular analysts. Evangelicals support Israel because of biblical prophecy, including passages that tie the survival of Israel to the Second Coming of Jesus.
According to their reading of the Bible, God established a covenant with Abraham in the Book of Genesis. Essentially, says Beliefnet columnist Richard Land, a Southern Baptist leader with close ties to the Bush Administration, evangelicals support Israel because they believe "God blesses those that bless the Jews and curses those who curse the Jews. Consequently, we believe America needs to bless the Jews and Israel, because if we bless the Jews and support Israel, God blesses us. And if we don't, God curses us."
But it goes beyond that. The establishment--and continuation--of the State of Israel is essential to set the stage for the imminent return of Jesus. At the time of the Second Coming, these Christians believe, Jesus will descend from heaven, subdue all of Israel's enemies and take believers to heaven in what is known as the Rapture--literally, they will ascend to the clouds to be in heaven. This series of events ushers in the end-times. According to conservative Christians' reading of the Book of Revelation, this won't happen unless Israel exists in the Holy Land.
The evangelical view of the Book of Revelation, meanwhile, has gained widespread support among the American public because of the wildly popular Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye (husband of Christian activist Beverly LaHaye) and Jerry Jenkins, which has sold more than 30 million copies in the seven years since it was launched.
This view--though not new--is having an effect. It very likely explains why President Bush hasn't pressured Israel to curb its crackdown on Palestinians in recent weeks.
According to Land, evangelicals' relationship with Jews and Israel intensified after World War II, partly because of the Holocaust but mostly because the establishment of Israel seemed to evangelicals to prove the Bible's prophecies. By the 1950s and 1960s, Land said, affinity with Israel was an "essential part" of the Southern Baptist churches he grew up in around Texas. In fact, the late W.A. Criswell, the great pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, traveled to Israel in the early 1950s and met with David Ben Gurion. Later, he often preached that Jews' return to their land was the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.
By the 1970s, Hal Lindsey wrote the best-selling book of the decade, The Late Great Planet Earth, which introduced this view of biblical prophecy to a wide audience. It was a kind of non-fiction forerunner of today's Left Behind series. Lindsey translated the "fire and brimstone" of the Book of Revelation into nuclear war and wrote that the 1960s upheaval showed the end was near.
So if evangelicals believe human history is following a predetermined divine script, and they and Israel are simply playing their assigned roles, why even bother to influence the outcome of Israel's fate?
As it turns out, evangelicals are somewhat opaque on this question.
According to Land--and most evangelical scholars--Israel's existence is critical. "We're one step closer to the end-times than we were before the Jews came back into their land because my understanding of biblical prophecy is that Israel is established in the land at the time that the events of the Second Coming take place," he says.
But he--and other evangelicals--nearly always add: "The Bible tells us no man knows the hour or the day of his coming."
So what happens if Israel is destroyed, perhaps in this latest round of conflict? First of all, Land says, that isn't likely. But if it happens? "My assumption would be that it means ... the Second Coming is coming later than some expected."
[In this interview, Richard Land details the evangelical view of Israel.]