At its celebration of Israel’s 70th birthday earlier this month in Washington, D.C., the Israeli embassy released a list of the 70 greatest American contributors to the friendship between the two countries. Surprisingly, only a sprinkling of U.S. Christian clergy members are on the list, and only two of them are still well known. Each represents a very different form of Zionism that reverberates today. One is the great mid-20th-century Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. The other was Texas Evangelical pastor John Hagee, head of Christians United for Israel, who last week gave a benediction prayer at the U.S. embassy’s opening in Jerusalem.
Hagee-style Christian Zionists are credited for the popular support that led to the move of the U.S. embassy. Christian Zionists are typically caricatured as myopically focused on Israel’s central role in their own end-times theology. But the reality is more complex. And the pro-Israel tradition of Niebuhr, a theological modernist and advocate of Christian realism, is largely forgotten. As Hagee’s version of Christian Zionism registers less with younger Christians than with their elders, Niebuhr’s insights might be helpful today.
A Washington Post article about the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem was headlined “Half of evangelicals support Israel because they believe it is important for fulfilling end-times prophecy.” But that’s not quite what the polling data cited by the author, Philip Bump, really indicated. Bump relied on a December 2017 poll by Lifeway Research, a branch of the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. Bump noted the poll’s finding that 80 percent of Evangelicals believe that Israel’s creation in 1948 was a “fulfillment of biblical prophecy that would bring about Christ’s return.” The actual poll question was whether events related to Israel were “fulfillment of Bible prophecy that show we are getting closer to the return of Jesus Christ.”
As Bump noted, 60 percent of Evangelical respondents to the Lifeway poll agreed when asked whether their support for Israel was based on the Bible’s saying that “God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people.” Just over half of respondents agreed that “Israel is important for fulfilling biblical prophecy.” Only 12 percent said that fulfillment of prophecy was the most important reason they support Israel. Not noted by Bump, only 45 percent said the Bible has most influenced their opinions about Israel, versus 15 percent citing the media or other sources. Eighty percent agreed that “God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants was for all time.” Forty-three percent said they support Israel because it is America’s “closest ally in an unstable region.”
None of the Lifeway poll questions, other than the brief reference to Christ’s return, was specifically about end times, despite the Post headline. In the popular association of Christian Zionism with detailed apocalyptic end-time beliefs, Christian Zionism is conflated with ardent Dispensationalism, which was founded by 19th-century British Bible teacher John Nelson Darby. In his interpretation of the Bible, he divided history into dispensations. The age of the church ends with true Christians raptured into heaven. That is followed by a great tribulation and then the Millennium, with the Jews’ return to their ancient homeland featuring prominently in his scheme.
Dispensationalism entered popular culture with Hal Lindsey’s 1970s mega-bestseller The Late Great Planet Earth, which became a movie narrated by Orson Welles, and later with novels and films in the Left Behind series. Rapture, apocalypse, and doomsday scenarios, ostensibly based on Biblical prophecy, all made for great entertainment, even for many non-Evangelicals. Such talk also fueled caricatures about Evangelical political activism and the politicians aligned with it. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and Casper Weinberger, among others, were accused of pursuing a military buildup because of their understanding of the Book of Revelation. Such accusations resurfaced again with George W. Bush, who himself was an Evangelical.
Despite the implication of Bump’s article in the Washington Post, it’s hard to gauge for how many Evangelicals today strict Dispensationalism or end-time ideas have shaped their attitudes toward Israel. Most Evangelicals believe that God’s promise of the land to the Jews is enduring, but belief in that covenant doesn’t automatically equate to preoccupation with end times. It is true that young Evangelicals seem to be less Zionist than their elders. The Lifeway poll shows 58 percent of evangelical Millennials to be favorable toward Israel, versus 76 percent of those over age 65. Decline in Dispensationalism’s popularity maybe a factor. So too may be exhaustion with an older form of conservative Evangelical political activism.
Here’s where Niebuhr can be helpful. He was a theological modernist who rejected Dispensationalism but was Augustinian, and hence a Christian realist, in appreciating humanity’s fallen nature. Even as a young pastor he embraced the cause of persecuted Jews and their need for a homeland in Palestine. His support for Zionism increased during the Nazi ascendancy in the 1930s, during which he also abandoned pacifism in favor of armed resistance to the fascist powers.
Niebuhr’s Zionism caused friction with many of his liberal friends, but he was unrelenting. In “Our Stake in the State of Israel” (1957), an article in The New Republic, he lamented the West’s dearth of support for Israel, which was the “only sure strategic anchor of the democratic world” in the Middle East. “I am a friend of the Jewish people and have never ceased to be favorable to the state of Israel,” he pledged in 1969, on receiving an honorary degree from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Perhaps Neibuhr’s Christian-realist approach can appeal to young Christians today who reject traditional Evangelical activism but do affirm social justice as integral to their faith.
Although not fully embracing notions of a binding Biblical covenant, Niebuhr in 1941 noted that “there is no spirit without a body, and there is no body without geography.” In his book The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense (1944), Niebuhr explained that “opposition to a Jewish Palestine is partly based on the opposition of Arabs to democracy, Western culture, education and economic freedom. To support Arab opposition is but supporting feudalism and Fascism in a world at the expense of democratic rights and justice.”
Niebuhr, a Protestant liberal of sorts, backed Zionism as a humanitarian, moral, and pragmatic necessity in defense of a long-persecuted people who were friends of democracy. That the Jews had a deep historic tie to the land, even if he declined to affirm an ongoing Biblical promise, only added to his commitment to their cause. So perhaps Neibuhr’s Christian-realist approach can appeal to young Christians today who reject traditional Evangelical activism but do affirm social justice as integral to their faith.
Another option exists for Christians and specifically for Evangelicals in search of a sturdy perspective on modern Israel. Gerald McDermott, an ordained Anglican who teaches at Beeson Divinity School, one of Evangelicalism’s most distinguished seminaries, has published two recent books and numerous articles on the “New Christian Zionism,” avoiding end-times Dispensationalism but stressing that early church fathers and other Christian thinkers across the centuries, including the Puritans, understood as ongoing the Biblical promises of the Promised Land to the Jews.
Israel’s 70th anniversary is a time for its American Christian supporters to reflect appreciatively on their central role in our nation’s friendship with the Jewish State. It’s also time for pro-Israel Christians, Evangelicals especially, if they are to influence young Christians, to creatively consider new or neglected Christian arguments for Israel. Niebuhr offers one tradition. McDermott is reviving another.