Israel and the Evangelicals
by James M. Wall
James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century. This article appeared in the Christian Century November 23, 1977, p. 1083. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
A recent full-page advertisement appearing in major U.S. newspapers argues for support of the State of Israel and voices concern over “the recent direction of American foreign policy” in the Middle East. The signers of the statement “are particularly troubled by the erosion of American governmental support for Israel evident” in the U.S. decision to include the U.S.S.R. in planning for the Geneva talks.
Israel has many supporters in this country, and ads of this sort are frequently carried in major newspapers. But this one is different. It comes from persons describing themselves as “evangelical Christians,” including W. A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas; entertainer Pat Boone; Harold Lindsell, present editor of Christianity Today; Kenneth Kantzer, editor-elect of that journal; Hudson Armerding, a past president of the National Association of Evangelicals; and Arnold Olson, coordinator and president emeritus of the Evangelical Free Church of America. This overt evangelical support for Israel aligns a branch of American Protestantism that traditionally has frowned upon religious involvement in political matters with the traditionally liberal U.S. Jewish community. These ads and this evangelical involvement in a complex political issue are a welcome addition to the dialogue, an indication that prominent evangelical Christians believe that the Christian faith has a word to say regarding secular decision-making. The newspaper ads -- under the heading “Evangelicals’ Concern for Israel” -- oppose the joint U.S.-U.S.S.R. statement on the Geneva Conference assert that “most evangelicals understand the Jewish homeland generally to include the territory west of the Jordan River,” and oppose the creation of “another nation or political entity” within the historic Jewish homeland.
Since so many evangelicals have traditionally resisted involvement in secular politics -- most notably in recent years during the Vietnam war and in the civil rights struggle -- it is a reassuring sign to see this development in the Middle East discussion. While we do not think the solutions to the three points raised in the ad are as simple as those proposed, we are encouraged that prominent evangelicals are joining the discussion, acknowledging that religious people have something to say to secular decision-makers.
The approach taken in the advertisement, however, is not a positive contribution to the discussion. The statement makes a strong case for evangelical empathy with the State of Israel, linking the Old and New Testament traditions, and reminding the public that the people of Israel have a very special place in Christian thought. But the signers overlook an important difference between evangelical empathy evoked by the biblical tradition and the assertion of a specific territorial claim based on religious Scriptures. The use of religious validation to settle secular conflicts is a misuse of religion and a disservice to politics. Ours is a multireligious world, filled with a rich variety of tribal, institutional and national beliefs, all yearning toward an understanding of ultimacy. Israel, surrounded by Arab nations that interpret Scripture in quite a different fashion from Jews or Christians, would lean on the weakest possible support if its claim to its 1967 border were to rest even partially on Scripture.
The Israeli Labor Party, which governed Israel from its beginning as a state in 1946 until Prime Minister Menachem Begin took power in June, had avoided cultivating the kind of American evangelical support expressed in the recent newspaper ads because it knew that to engage in religious arguments over national boundaries would be self-defeating. While Mr. Begin, on the other hand, has been more willing to employ biblical history to validate Israel’s borders, even his government hints at a willingness to negotiate within modern political realities.
Mr. Begin wants peace in the Middle East, and he wants security for his nation. Those are goals shared by most Americans. There is strong indication that these goals are also increasingly shared by most Arab leaders, many of whom have been sending signals to the Carter administration that Israel’s right to exist is a foregone conclusion and that negotiations should be conducted with that fact of history in mind. Even as Begin stakes out his strong beginning position of biblical sanction for Israel’s borders, it is reasonable to assume that his quest for peace and security will lead him finally to accept an agreement that involves borders determined on the basis of secular considerations.
Along with many others who talked to Mr. Begin during his highly successful U.S. trip this past summer, I noted the gleam of the politician in his eye when he said that while he would not permit the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) to be represented at Geneva, Israel would not be “checking credentials” of Arabs who come from other countries. This is a clear invitation which permits Arab participants to provide PLO representation through some face-saving procedural device. In short, Begin, despite his rhetoric, appears nonetheless to be a sensitive political leader who wants peace and security for Israel.
Ironically, then, Israel’s prime minister is being harmed rather than helped by this employing of biblical proof-texts on the part of Christian evangelicals to answer political questions in the Middle East. The Christian faith, as communicated through tradition, Scripture and history, is a proper foundation for approaching all contemporary secular issues. But the Bible is not a document that sets forth an international game plan. Rather, as viewed from a Christian perspective, it embodies the faith of a people, who began with Abraham in their quest for God and who believe that they find God in Jesus Christ. We share with the deepest possible empathy the feeling the people of Israel have for the land they now occupy between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. President Jimmy Carter, who learned his Middle East geography in a Southern Baptist Sunday school class, shares that empathy. But as President of the United States, and as a world leader, he dares not utilize religious texts for pluralistic secular solutions.
The American Jewish community is understandably anxious over the welfare of Israel. But its present campaign -- through the so-called Jewish lobby -- to influence Congress and the president to settle into a rigidly pro-Israel position before the convening of the Geneva Conference will, in the long run, be contrary to the best interests of both the State of Israel and American Jews. The number of evangelical Christians who have empathy for Israel is large, but the number who would want to see political differences settled via biblical citations is relatively small.
There is, therefore, no long-range political advantage to be gained by an effort to wrap Israel’s security in a blanket of evangelical biblical literalism. With a Southern Baptist layman as president, the American Jewish community has a better friend in the White House than it apparently realizes. U.S. supporters of Israel generally assume that the State Department “tilts” toward a pro-Arab bias. This is a familiar charge, often leveled at the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. There is truth in these allegations, in part because Middle East experience among Christians and among State Department staff members has involved exposure to Arab as well as Israeli nations. But the understandable anxiety of American Jews over the future of Israel -- especially when they hear of rocket attacks by terrorists against villages in northern Israel (and of Israel’s massive retaliation) -- should not lead American Jews to think that unceasing pressure against the president, the Congress and public opinion in this country represents the best means of ensuring Israel’s future security. Only a negotiated settlement involving all parties in the Middle East can produce the peace we seek.
American Jews are going to argue their case in every possible forum of decision-making. But we would caution them to remember the important distinction between the strong empathy Christians feel with Israel and the realistic awareness that political decision-making must be shaped by political and not religious guidelines. Biblical prophecy anticipates a future of hope for humankind; it does not, however, provide an atlas for establishing the geographical boundaries of the countries that seek that hope.