Protestants in America give support to Israelis

Saturday, June 15, 2002

The siege at Bethlehem's revered Church of the Nativity dramatized the distress among the Mideast's oft-neglected third party, Arab Christians. Hostility toward Israel's tactics has grown in their dwindling ranks, and in Europe.

However, American Christians are largely steadfast in traditional support for Israel, though some church statements have become more critical of the nation's tactics.

Some Americans simply empathize with Jewish friends. Those with longer memories believe humanitarianism requires a secure Jewish homeland in the post-Holocaust world. Others embrace Israel as a Mideast outpost of democracy and Western values. Lately, suicide bombings against Israeli civilians have undercut sympathy for Palestinians.

Conservative evangelical Protestants hold varying views, but as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and other media have noted, a major segment of "premillennialists" and "dispensationalists" bases unflinching support for Israel upon literal interpretation of the Bible. For some, that includes prophecies about Israel's future End-Times role.

"Most evangelicals are certain that God always takes the side of Israel" in any conflict, comment Randall Balmer and Lauren Winner in "Protestantism in America."

National Review's Rod Dreher says evangelicals who hold a "divine right" viewpoint support Israel with an "uncritical fervor that exceeds that of even some American Jews."

Popular belief

Such belief is fueled less by evangelical graduate-level theology schools, except for Dallas Theological Seminary, than by Bible colleges and popular media, especially best-selling books and radio-TV preachers. Pro-Israel rallies are held each year during the Gospel broadcasters' convention.

One exponent, the Rev. Richard Land, social-issues spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, said in the Los Angeles Times that God gave the "unconditional" promise to Israel that "he would give that land to the Jews forever."

In calling God's promise permanent, literalists often cite a complex passage on the covenant with Abraham (Hebrews 6:13-20) that says God showed "the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose" and "it is impossible that God should prove false."

Literalists like Land also believe the welfare of the United States depends on friendship with Israel due to God's biblical covenant with Abraham's descendants: "I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse" (Genesis 12:3).

That passage includes the first of several promises bestowing the Holy Land.

For some, the boundaries of God's land grant were forever fixed in Genesis 15:18: "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates" (present-day Iraq). Like some Israelis, these Protestants think those troublesome Jewish settlements among West Bank Palestinians are part of the divine plan.

By contrast, the bulk of official Christian theology -- Roman Catholic, Orthodox, classical Protestant -- avoids such readings of the Bible and literalism on apocalyptic, prophetic and poetic passages. The influential St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) formulated that view.

On God's covenant with ancient Israel, details vary but such interpreters often say the promises were conditioned on Israel's faithfulness, or that the coming of Jesus Christ ended national distinctions. A favorite text is Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek ... for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

The harder-edged "replacement theology" says the Christian church has absorbed the ancient promises made to Israel. For instance, a recent article in the Protestant weekly World said Israel has no "claims to national divine right" because "Israel as a whole today rejects her Messiah."

Then there are biblical liberals, Christian and Jewish, who doubt God made such promises in the first place and figure Israelites turned their national aspirations into divine revelation.

Or, as Reform Judaism's Torah commentary suggests, perhaps Genesis doesn't recount God's words to Abraham but merely the "spiritual experience" and "internal vision" of Abraham himself.

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