As the body-count of Palestinian children in Gaza continues to climb, American Christians seem to be becoming more and more confused. Hasn’t America supported Israel from the beginning? Aren’t the Israeli’s the good guys? With civilians making up 75% of the casualties in this war, over 3,600 homes destroyed, and roughly 1.8 million now without access to water or sanitation, a serious humanitarian crisis has developed in Gaza. Ignoring the economic and psychological costs of Israel’s seven year blockade of Gaza, compounded by the destruction of homes, detention without trial, environmental contamination and restriction of movement, many Evangelicals continue to emphasize that God loves the Israeli nation-state. Even the fact that Israel is testing banned weapons on civilian populations does not seem to faze them. Israel is morally right to use extreme force, they argue, because Hamas uses children as human shields. Moreover, they remind us, “there is no God in all the world except in Israel.” (2 Kings 5:15). What could prevent honest, compassionate, and Bible-believing Christians from seeing the ethnic cleansing taking place on their television screens and make them so quick to distort scripture in support of a genocidal military offensive?
In The Fervent Embrace (2012), Cailtin Carenen explores how American Protestants have felt about Israel and the Jewish people from 1933 until 2008. They weren’t always so sympathetic towards Zionism. Carenen begins by reminding us that antisemitism was alive and strong in interwar America. Prominent Protestant voices such as Charles C. Morrison, editor of The Christian Century, argued in May 1933 that the Jews did not crucify Jesus because they were evil, but “because he threatened by his teaching to upset their cherished ambition to make Israel and Israel’s God the dominant power of the world.” Magazines such as the Moody Bible Institute Monthly reported that “lies about Germany are being circulated abroad” and that there was not a “single case to sustain these reports” that Jews were being mistreated in Hitler’s Germany. In 1943, at the height of the Holocaust, the Moody Monthly suggested that “Warsaw was wrecked and the Jews scattered” precisely so that Jewish refugee children might be converted. “The terrible persecutions in Europe, the troubles in Palestine, and the ever-increasing antisemitism throughout the world,” it wrote, “have softened their hearts and make them long for security and rest of soul.” Even as late as 1947, when the Federal Council of Churches sponsored a speaking tour by Martin Niemöller, who it heralded as a heroic anti-Nazi pastor, many Americans did not seem to care that Niemöller had never spoken out in support of the Jews.
The first to be moved by Hitler’s attempt to annihilate the Jewish people were liberal theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr, whose magazine Christianity and Crisis waged a sustained campaign against Protestant antisemitism and strongly supported the establishment of a Jewish state. When his opponents asked why he wasn’t afraid that Jewish nationalism would itself become egoistic, he replied: “The will to power develops out of the survival impulse, but I don’t think that a group that is established can very well say to a culture which lives in a very precarious position, that is, a nation without a base, it is very difficult to say to them, “It is a selfish thing to you to want to be established.” Niebuhr worked hard alongside Protestant Zionist groups such as the American Christian Palestine Commission (ACPC) to convince Christians that the Jews did indeed need a homeland, and that Israel was the best place for it.
Fundamentalist Protestants were more skeptical, and in the immediate aftermath of the war they worried that Zionism was too secular. The Biblical prophecies suggested that Jews would convert to Christianity before returning to the Holy Land, they insisted, and so there was no reason to support a secular Israeli nation-state. Such details fell by the wayside over the course of the next decade. “A million Jews are on the move,” the Pentecostal Evangel wrote in April 1949. “The world is witnessing the fulfillment of the ancient promise in Jeremiah 31:10: ‘He that scattereth Israel will regather them.'” But American Protestants were split on the question of Israel, and groups such as the American Friends of the Middle East (AFME) fought a losing battle to limit the ACPC’s influence in the public sphere. It is difficult to know from The Fervent Embrace how successful any of these groups actually were, because Carenen is not writing a history of US foreign relations. Nor is she interested in American lived religion. The book focuses on prominent voices and publications, and her sources do not tell us whether most Protestants were swayed one way or another or, prior to Jimmy Carter, to what extent these religious arguments influenced policy-makers. What is clear is that over time a deep-seated Zionism did develop within American Protestantism, whether it was motivated by premillenial dispensationalism or guilt over Christian ambivalence towards, and complicity in, the Holocaust.
One thing that was particularly slow to change was Protestant theology. Supersessionism, or the idea that Christians had replaced Jews as the “true Israel” and that Biblical prophecies about the Jews now applied only to Christians, had been a central Christian belief for centuries. Especially in Europe, it was increasingly rejected by leading Protestant and Catholic theologians after the war. In light of the Holocaust, it was no longer acceptable to try and convert Jews, or to talk about Jews burning in hell. From 1961 onwards, a Jewish doctor from Virginia began writing to thousands of Christian leaders, asking them to formally reject the doctrine of supersessionism. Most liberal Protestants had already given up converting Jews by this time, and the dean of Harvard’s Divinity School admitted to Newman than he was “deeply and profoundly embarrassed” that there were still supersessionist Protestants in America. Others were more intransigent, such as John H. Gerstner of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, who replied that “the historic teaching of the general Christian Church is that no one can be saved apart from faith in Christ.” Holocaust or no, Jews did not have some special exemption from this rule, Gerstner reminded Newman.
A major shift took place in American religion during the 1960s, as believers abandoned liberal churches in droves. Evangelicalism grew both in terms of political power and as bums on seats. Thus when liberal Christians bickered over whether to support Israeli expansionism after the Six Day War of 1967, few people cared what they thought. Evangelicals celebrated the Israeli victories with enthusiasm, hoping for an “early erection of a temple by the victorious state of Israel” that would usher in the end times. The political influence Evangelical Christians grew significantly over the next decade, and Jimmy Carter was not alone when he said in 1976 that “I have a feeling, coincidentally, that the foundation of the nation of Israel in 1948 is a fulfillment of biblical prophecies.” By 1980, Jerry Falwell could claim that “To stand against Israel is to stand against God,” and few American Christians had the theological sophistication or the political clout to try and refute him.
What is most interesting about the pro-Israeli shift among Evangelicals is that it was not accompanied by philosemitism. Most were still supersessionists, and few had any real sympathy for Judaism. “The most pro-Israeli group in American Christianity is also the most anti-Semitic,” commented Tom Driver of Union Theological Seminary in 1980. “Israel is viewed by them as an instrument of America’s manifest destiny. By this sort of Christian realpolitik the Jews are to be kept in their place and used for an end not of their own but that of a zealous, fanatical and self-righteous Christian mission which cannot tell the difference between Jesus Christ and the American nation.” As liberal Protestants became increasingly pro-Palestinian during the 1990s and beyond, Evangelicals dug their heels in and supported Israel regardless of the cost.