Loving Israel Before It Existed

Robert W. Nicholson surveys the long history of evangelical support for Zionism, insisting it “bears no resemblance to the portrait of cardboard-cutout Jesus freaks itching for the annihilation of the Jews and using them as pawns in their apocalyptic game”:

Part of God’s covenant with the Jewish people involved bringing them back from exile and doc_42setting them once again in their own land. Since the 16th century, and despite the sheer improbability of the idea, Protestant writers spoke of a Jewish ingathering and sometimes actively promoted it. When the Zionist movement proper began in the late 19th century, and especially after the Jewish state was founded in 1948, this unlikely prophecy seemed to many to be coming true before their very eyes. Although not all Christians embraced the new state, the vast majority of evangelicals became immediate supporters; one of them was President Harry Truman, a Baptist.

In brief, evangelicals love Israel because God loves Israel.

But there is also another way of putting it. For evangelicals, Israel’s mistakes are representative of their own mistakes as imperfect individuals in need of God’s grace. They are comforted by the fact that God remains faithful to Israel; it means that God remains faithful to them.

He notes that this alliance may not last forever, as sympathy for the Palestinians rises among younger and more progressive evangelicals. While reviewing two recent books about the Bible’s place in American political rhetoric, Robert E. Brown also tracks the decline of Israel as a potent symbol of our national aspirations. Why it was attractive in the first place:

[E]arly Americans — beginning with the Puritans — were accustomed to thinking of themselves as the new Israel, bound by covenant to honor God in their public life. This mindset helps to explain why the Exodus and other biblical events were so rhetorically compelling during the Revolution, why the patriots naturally identified with the Israelites struggling under the bondage and tyranny of the Egyptians.

That didn’t last:

[T]he controversy over slavery radically undermined the moral authority — and so the mythic power — of the Old Testament. Pro-slavery apologists repeatedly trumpeted that the Old Testament sanctioned slavery, and abolitionists responded by fashioning interpretive methods that privileged the moral vision of the New Testament at the expense of the Old. The mythology of an ideal Hebrew polity that could be held out for modern emulation was substantially eroded. The Civil War dealt a final, crushing blow to American self-identity as a renewed Israel.

But the resonances remain.

(Image via Temple Emanu-El)