May 30, 2006
Evangelicals and Israel: An Interview with David BrogBy Ed Lasky
David Brog is the author of the book Standing with Israel: Why Christians Support the Jewish State. He attended Princeton University and Harvard Law School, served as an executive at America Online, and practiced corporate law. He has recently been the Chief of Staff for Senator Arlen Specter (Pennsylvania).
Over the past few years, Mr. Brog has been intrigued by the outpouring of Christian (particularly evangelical Christian) support for Israel and spent four years researching this issue to help him understand the reasons for this affection. The result is his very fine new book. The American Thinker's Ed Lasky recently had the opportunity to discuss his findings and his book.
David, I first heard you speak a few months ago on a panel with two Evangelical Ministers and very much looked forward to reading your recently released book, "Standing with Israel: Why Christians Support the Jewish State." I think one of the most interesting dynamics occurring in American politics is the growth in support for Israel among 60 million (and growing) Evangelical Christians in America. This is particularly important given the demographic decline in the Jewish population in America and the increased dangers Jews face , not only in Israel, but in the growth of anti—Semitism in the world. To many Jews, this embrace by the Christian community is a perplexing phenomena since Christian anti—Semitism in Europe has led to such tragic consequences for the Jewish people. To me, your book served as a modern—day "Guide for the Perplexed", because it explained why Christians in America have charted a diametrically opposite course than many, though not all, European Christians when it comes to the Jewish people. Why has America been exceptional?
Thank you for the kind words about my book, Ed.
Your question is an interesting one. In my book, I argue that the main source of evangelical support for Israel is their theology towards the Jews. Unlike so many generations of Christians in Europe, evangelicals interpret the word 'Israel' in the Bible to mean 'the Jews' and not 'the Church.' This small change in interpretation has enormous theological ramifications. It means that the Jews are still the chosen people, that they are still in covenant with and beloved by God, and that they are still the rightful heirs of the land of Israel. Christians who read their Bible this way tend to reject anti—Semitism and embrace both the Jewish people and their national aspirations in Israel. This positive theology towards the Jews originated with some small Protestant sects in Europe. When the seeds of these ideas crossed the Atlantic, they took root and richly flourished to the point that they have become the dominant theology in America. How, indeed, can we explain such rapid growth?
I think that Americans were especially receptive to this theology for two reasons. First, this literal interpretation of the Bible (i.e. that 'Israel' means a physical people, the Jews, and not a spiritualized new Israel, the Church) has enormous appeal to the conservative and literalist theologians who built the American fundamentalist movement. In other words, this theology was very much in tune with the times. It was embraced by the early fundamentalists and grew along with the fundamentalist movement itself. When fundamentalists and their offspring, the evangelicals and the charismatics, emerged onto the political playing field in the 1980's, they did so with Israel as a central passion.
In addition, I think there is a second reason why this philo—Semitic theology flourished so richly in American soil. Unlike Europe, America did not have a history of popular anti—Semitism. True, many European immigrants brought anti—Semitic ideas with them to America. But from the start these ideas ran counter to the prevailing culture and never took root. The American Founding Fathers were free of this hatred, and instead had such reverence for the Bible and the Jews that they seriously considered making Hebrew the official language of the new nation. George Washington wrote his famous letter to the members of the Touro Synagogue warmly welcoming their civic participation and condemning bigotry in the strongest terms. Thus in America, the philo—Semitic theology of the evangelicals fit easily into the broader civic culture that surrounded them.
Many Jews are not as familiar with Christian theology as Christians are with Jewish theology since, for Christians, the Old Testament along with the New Testament forms the bedrock of the Christian Faith. Are there parts of the New Testament which form "the bedrock" of Christian support for the Jewish people. If so, what are they, what do they say, and where can they be found?
Actually, as mentioned above, Christian support for the Jews and Israel is solidly rooted in the Old Testament. It is based upon the many promises in Genesis that Israel will inherit the Land of Israel. And it is based upon the promise of Genesis 12:3 that, 'He who blesses Israel will be blessed, and he who curses Israel will be cursed.' To people who interpret 'Israel' to mean the Jews — such as evangelical Christians and the Jews themselves — Genesis thus becomes an exhortation to both Zionism and philo—Semitism.
Many Jews fear the motives of Christian support for Israel.
a): to what extent do Christians expect a quid pro quo when it comes to efforts Jews might make on the domestic politics to help with their agendas?
b): Are Christians partnering with Jewish groups in order to convert them?
c): Of course, the reluctance of many Jews to engage with evangelical Christians involves the end of days scenario. Many feel that the reason Christians support Israel and the emigration of Jews from Russia and other places, is that a return of Jews to Israel is one of the signs that the end of days is coming. You do a wonderful service in disabusing people of this notion in your book. I was wondering if you could give us in a nutshell why this view is incorrect? I thought your discussion about the efforts of Christians to make a more moral society were particularly pertinent since immorality is supposed to be rife before the end of days.
I'll answer your questions in order:
a) Christians who support Israel do not expect any kind of quid pro quo from the Jewish community. No less a critic of evangelical politics than the ADL's Abraham Foxman has agreed that, 'at no point have we heard them [Christian Zionists] place any conditions on their support [for Israel]. There is no quid pro quo.'
Evangelical support for Israel is a genuine expression of Christian love for the Jews and respect for God's promises to them, and it comes with no strings attached. I and other Jews who have worked closely with evangelicals are unanimous in asserting that we've simply never been asked for something in return.
That being said, it is important to note that Christians are human beings with normal human emotions. When they spend a great deal of time supporting Israel and fighting anti—Semitism, they are disappointed when these efforts are ignored by the Jewish community, and when the only time they hear from representatives of the Jewish community is to attack them because of their positions on social issues. This cold reception doesn't sway evangelicals from their course of support for Israel. But it does cause a certain disappointment, a certain feeling of rejection, that I think is unfortunate. We in the Jewish community should try to express greater appreciation for what our Christian friends are doing on our behalf.
b) No, Christians are not partnering with Jewish groups in order to convert them. I and others who have worked with Christians in support of Israel all report that no one has ever tired to convert us. Do Christians think that Jews should accept Jesus as their savior? Of course they do. But they also think that Hindus, Muslims, and their Christian neighbors who have yet to be born again should also accept Jesus. And Christians believe this whether or not they support Israel. The only difference is that 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.
c) Yes, there is a great tendency to confuse Christian beliefs with Christian motives.
Christians do believe that the return of Jews to their ancestral land is a 'sign of the times,' i.e. a sign that the Second Coming may be drawing near. Yet this does not mean that Christians believe that they can speed the Second Coming by accelerating the pace of this return. Christian theology is clear that man cannot speed the Second Coming. Even Jesus said, 'But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.' If one cannot speed the Second Coming, then Christian beliefs about the end times cannot serve as a motive for supporting Israel — there would be no cause and effect. One has to look elsewhere for Christian motives, namely to the many clear promises in Genesis.
This point is easily demonstrated through the analogy you reference above. Christians believe that another 'sign of the times' is the growing moral decay of society. In other words, society's abandonment of traditional morality and embrace vice and sin it is a sign that the Second Coming is drawing near. If Christians truly believed that they could speed the Second Coming by encouraging the various signs of the times, then Christians would be out there accelerating America's moral decay by opening brothels and casinos. Instead (and to the chagrin of many liberals), evangelicals are actively fighting all aspects of what they view as the moral decay in society, from pornography to abortion to gay marriage. This evangelical moral activism simply doesn't make sense if their action in the world is motivated by the desire to incubate the various signs of the times.
I also thought it of interest that many Christians offer charitable support for individual Jews regardless of whether they live or intend to move to Israel — which was to me, a strong indication that the end of days scenario is not a motivating factor in their charity. Can you perhaps elaborate the reasons why this support is so forthcoming? You touch upon a sense of gratitude many Christians feel towards the Jewish people — why might this be the case and, again, are there theological reasons to offer succor to Jews in particular?
Ed, you've seized upon a particularly powerful demonstration of why the end—of—days scenario simply cannot explain Christian support for Israel. As you note, many Christians give a great deal of money to support Jews living in the former Soviet Union and other poor countries. These Jews are old, and they are never going to move to Israel. There is nothing in Christian end—of—days theology that speaks of feeding elderly Jews in Kiev and Minsk. Yet Christians give to this cause because they love the Jewish people and want to help ease the suffering of Jews who have survived both Hitler and Stalin. There is simply no other motive.
As you point out, there is biblical scripture that encourages this support. First of all, there is Genesis 12:3, 'He who blesses Israel will be blessed.' Feeding elderly Jews is seen as a way of blessing the Jewish people. Secondly, the apostle Paul makes the following statement in Romans 15:27: 'If the Gentiles have shared in the Jews' spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.' In other words, the New Testament recognizes that the Jews have given spiritual blessings to the Christians. After all, Jesus was a Jew. The apostles were Jewish. And all of the people who wrote down both the Old and New Testaments were Jewish. In light of these gifts, Paul exhorts Christians to provide material support to the Jewish people. Happily, this provision has been dusted off after centuries of neglect and now motivates true Christian charity towards the Jews.
I think it is also important to note that Evangelical Christians not only support Israel and Jews around the world with spiritual and material support, but also actively condemn anti—Semitism. This would come as a pleasant surprise to many Jews. Might you elaborate?
With pleasure. In recent years, I have learned about the latest anti—Semitic outrages in the Muslim world and Europe not from Jews or Jewish organizations (although they are certainly quite vigilant on these fronts), but from my evangelical friends. Evangelicals are the ones who send me the first e—mails about the latest atrocities, be they physical attacks or the hateful words that will later incite physical attacks. And evangelicals are the ones who tend to take these words and incidents most seriously, never dismissing them as isolated or meaningless.
This evangelical sensitivity to anti—Semitism comes from a number of sources. First of all — like all aspects of evangelical behavior towards the Jews — Genesis 12:3 is always a factor. Since 'He who blesses Israel will be blessed,' evangelicals want to bless the Jews by fighting anti—Semitism. But beyond this, many evangelicals feel guilty about all of the past acts of anti—Semitism that were committed in the name of Christianity. I see in their very sensitive anti—Semitism radars a desire to make amends for past crimes, and to clearly demonstrate that true Christians behave very differently towards the Jews.
Many people , unfortunately, engage in ad hominen criticism of Jerry Fallwell and Pat Robertson for statements they have made in the past. You believe this criticism has been misplaced and is unfair. Why?
Both Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have devoted their lives to helping Israel and the Jewish people. Time after time they have thrown their significant political support behind Israel. But perhaps even more importantly, Falwell and Robertson each runs a major Christian university (Liberty University and Regent University, respectively), and each teaches the next generation of Christian leaders passing through their schools to support Israel. Each has been to Israel over 20 times, and almost every time they go they bring students with them to reinforce the love of Israel that is taught in their classrooms.
Israel served as a bulwark to stem Russian Communist influence in the Middle East and was seen as a strategic partner of America. Now the Cold War is over. Do Christians view Israel now as a bulwark against Islamic extremism and a force for good in the world?
They certainly do. Christians tend to see the world in terms of the biblical absolutes of good and evil. Thus during the Cold War, the Soviet Union was seen an evil empire —— it is no mistake that Ronald Reagan first used this label for the Soviet Union in front of an evangelical audience. During those days, Israel was seen as a US ally and a bastion of the free world in a sea of Soviet satellites.
Today, Christians typically believe that the new enemy, the new 'evil' we must confront, is radical Islam. This is the force that attacked us on 9/11, and this is the force that continues to plot against us. Against this backdrop, Israel is widely viewed as a bastion of Judeo—Christian civilization surrounded by Islamic nations that breed or at least coddle these militants. For many evangelicals, Israel is the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Israel's successes in the war on terror make the world safer for all of us, and their failures are an indication of a growing threat to us all.
What do you foresee happening in the future between Jews and evangelical Christians in America. Is there more of a sense of receptivity among Jewish groups towards the efforts of evangelical Christians to bond with them and to protect and support them? What can we do to encourage this comity?
I think that tectonic political plates are slowly but surely shifting. Everyone with eyes can see that Iran is emerging as the greatest threat to the Jewish people since Hitler's Germany. And Hamas' election in the recent Palestinian elections only darkens the gathering storm clouds.
Against these threats, I think it is becoming harder and harder for Jews to continue to shun the only political block in America that shares their passion for the project of Jewish survival in the world: evangelical Christians. Yes, many in our communities may differ on abortion or gay marriage. But these differences don't seem very significant at all when viewed against the existential threats looming on the horizon.
I think the most important thing we can do to speed this reconciliation is to educate and spread the truth. Much of Jewish discomfort with evangelicals stems from the fact that they have never known many evangelicals and have no idea what they believe. Jews tend to unfairly lump all Christians together and blame them equally for past atrocities rather than doing the hard work of sorting friend from foe. Once Jews understand how very different evangelicals in America today are from the Christians who persecuted them in Europe in prior centuries, they will feel much more comfortable about this budding alliance.
Do you feel there is any potential for liberal groups — including Jewish groups — and evangelicals to work together on solving problems that both agree need to be solved? There is a Hebrew phrase, "Tikkum Olam," which roughly translates as an obligation of Jews to help "repair the world." Many evangelical groups operate around the world to deal with poverty, hunger, the homeless, drug and alcohol addiction and other maladies. On the political front, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas (a Republican, an evangelical who converted to Catholicism in 2002) has worked with members on the other side of the aisle and has won praise from liberal groups for his efforts to improve the lives of millions around the world. Is a similar rapprochement possible with evangelicals and liberal Jewish groups? Might this be an avenue to reduce resistance?
Your question is an important one, Ed. As you note, contrary to the common view, evangelicals care about much more than abortion and gay marriage. They too follow the call of the Hebrew prophets to care for the poor and the persecuted around the world. In particular, evangelicals have emerged as important allies of the Jews in what I call the mission of 'Never Again,' i.e. fighting genocide and ethnic cleansing wherever it occurs. The recent Save Darfur rally in Washington DC was largely the product of evangelical/Jewish collaboration.
I think there is potential here for very productive collaboration on many human rights and social justice issues outside of Israel. The necessary precondition, however, is that certain liberal leaders get over their discomfort with evangelicals and recognize that they are very powerful allies with whom they share much more than they realize. In particular, these leaders need to recognize that reasonable people can and do disagree on issues such as gay marriage and abortion, and that such differences should not stand in the way of fruitful collaboration elsewhere.
To what extent do figures such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson represent the millions of evangelicals in America? While these two figures have been unfairly and unjustly tarnished for statements and views that have been attributed to them, they have served as lightening rods for Jews to be reluctant to embrace evangelicals. I was wondering if you could just give us a glimpse of the structure of evangelical Christianity in America. Is there a top—down structure, similar to the Catholic Church or a more diffuse structure?
Evangelical Christianity is the most entrepreneurial of all major religions in America. In most cases, there is no hierarchy whatsoever. Evangelical churches are largely non—denominational — they exist on their own without any connection with or supervision from a larger structure (as opposed to mainline churches or synagogues, almost all of which belong to a larger movement which dictates theology). While there are national groups such as the National Association of Evangelicals, these are largely umbrella organizations without the ability to control the doctrine of member churches.
As a result of this structure, a multiplicity of evangelical leaders have risen on the merit of their intellect and charisma. For instance, Joel Osteen in Houston has built an enormous church (it's housed in what used to be an indoor sports stadium) and a far larger television ministry. His words reach multi millions each week. California Pastor Rick Warren wrote a book called The Purpose Driven Life which has sold more hardback copies than any other book in the history of publishing with the exception of the Bible itself. And when it comes to politics, James Dobson of Focus on the Family has emerged as the most powerful evangelical spokesman in the country. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are still important and influential, but they by no means speak for a community that is large, diverse, and at no loss for leaders.
Ed Lasky is news editor of The American Thinker.