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The United States, Christianity, and Israel have a long and complicated relationship. Despite being founded upon the separation of Church and State, Christianity has been a driving force in shaping the direction of U.S. politics and culture since its foundation.
The spread of right-wing politics with religious justification within American Evangelical circles has, in many ways, been mirrored in present-day Israel. Although Israel is meant to be a homeland for Jewish people, Zionism — a Jewish nationalist movement — has long since staked a political claim to a historically diverse territory. Currently, Israel is governed by an increasingly anti-democratic right-wing government, with ongoing civilian protests against the extreme excesses of this administration.
There are numerous causes for the shift towards an open right-wing political alignment within both Zionist and mainstream American Evangelical camps. One of the underappreciated ways in which this shift continues to occur in both countries, however, is through specific Christian special-interest groups like Christians United for Israel (CUFI). This group, as part of the pro-Israel lobby within the United States, has been a leading contemporary voice furthering an extremist right-wing policy agenda under the protection of religious freedom. This fusion of national politics into religion, and vice versa within the United States and Israel, has largely been facilitated by Evangelical groups like CUFI, which makes dissecting their influence highly relevant to understanding both countries today.
The Southern Strategy – How American Christianity Shifted to the Right
While the U.S. Constitution has always stated that it is “one nation [indivisible] under God,” the open association between right-wing politics and Christianity did not always exist. It was not until the mid-1960s — when Christian groups began organizing politically — that this connection was solidified.
At the height of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, the northern and southern U.S. regions experienced significant racial tensions. During this time, Republican lawmakers like Barry Goldwater saw an opportunity to convert the largely poor white population in the Southern states from a strong Democratic base into Republican voters. In doing so, Republicans focused their efforts away from the Democrats’ historic support for better labour laws and working-class conditions. Instead, they began fuelling cultural and religious anxieties surrounding the growing labour and civil rights movements in what was named the Southern Strategy.
The Southern Strategy proved effective. From the 1970s onwards, working-class white Southerners began to vote for reactionary conservative politicians based on social and cultural issues despite their advocating for economic policies that were against their interests. Throughout this process, Christian Evangelicals, who came to refer to themselves as the “Moral Majority,” were appealed to by Republicans throughout the region as a means of spreading support for their policies. As a result, a distinctly conservative Evangelical Christianity was pushed into modern politics on an unprecedented level that endures to this day.
The Specifics of the U.S. Pro-Israel Lobby
U.S. federal law argues that religious institutions should be exempt from taxes and broad government oversight as they do not engage in political activity and often provide valued social services to their communities. However, what counts as political activity remains a gray area that, for decades, has allowed Christian lobbying groups to influence American policy at home and abroad.
This gray area is perhaps most clearly shown in the U.S.’s pro-Israel lobby. Major groups, like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), pledge donations to candidates on either side of party lines to strengthen U.S.-Israel ties. While this political activity of buying influence in a democracy can and should be criticized, AIPAC itself is not any more powerful or special than other similar lobbying groups in the United States.
The same cannot easily be said about Christians United for Israel (CUFI), another key group in the pro-Israel lobby. Much of current-day support for Zionism within the Republican party and voter base can be traced to CUFI, a group which explicitly supports right-wing candidates. This Evangelical organization, founded by pastor John Hagee in 1992, was once denounced by Republican presidential nominee John McCain in 2008 for its founder’s praise of Adolf Hitler’s genocide against Jewish people. Since then, the organization has supposedly grown to over 10 million members and has courted a significant amount of influence in the Trump-era Republican Party — the newly elected Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, is one such right-wing Evangelical Christian who has ties to AIPAC and CUFI.
Christians United for Israel highlights how the radical extreme of conservative political beliefs in the United States was welcomed into the mainstream. By providing a religious justification to far-right political beliefs, the organization’s acceptance into the Republican establishment provides important insight not just into Christian Zionism, but U.S.-Israel relations at large.
Evangelicalism and Zionism — A Relationship of Political Convenience
Initially, the Republican Party and its Evangelical lobbyists’ near universal support for Zionism may seem tolerant or even progressive. After all, these groups are showing support for historically oppressed ethnic Jews, expressing solidarity between different religious groups, and acting by both Democrat and Republican governments’ historical policy positions on the Middle Eastern nation.
Of course, this position should not be accepted without critique. Firstly, Zionist support is mainly held and pursued by the current-day establishment of Evangelicals within the U.S. As noted by theologist Gary M. Burge, overall Christian support for Zionism within the U.S. is not guaranteed, with Christians’ historical positions having been far more complicated than a matter of religion. Catholics, Protestants, and other denominations of Christianity all fundamentally disagree with Evangelical support for Israel. Additionally, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that Zionism is becoming less popular among younger Christians, demonstrating that it is incorrect to generalize all Christians as supportive of Israel.
Secondly, it is noteworthy to bring attention to the contradiction between this support for Zionists by Evangelical groups and Republicans. For Republicans and conservative Evangelicals to support Israel more-or-less unconditionally while, at the same time, promoting anti-semitic narratives about the so-called Jewish-controlled media and a new world order is hypocritical at best.
In many ways, Evangelical and Republican support for the state of Israel gets used as a shield for their critics’ claims of anti-semitism. Progressive voices that have put forth legitimate and necessary criticisms of the Israeli state’s military occupation of Palestine and its numerous violations of Palestinians’ rights are frequently labelled “anti-semitic” by Zionist groups. At the same time, Christian Zionist groups like CUFI actively promote hateful anti-semitism and are not only conveniently able to avoid this same criticism but are given a say in U.S.-Israel relations. Not only is this a double standard on the American side, but on the Zionist side as well. If nothing else, a right-wing Israeli alliance with an organization whose founder has openly praised the Holocaust indicates a very distorted sense of priorities.
Although the alliance between Christian and Zionist radicals can and has been framed for both parties to fight back against predominantly Muslim Arab populations in the Middle East, the presence of a historic minority Palestinian Christian community in what is now Israel only further emphasizes that this is not just a religious issue. If it were, one could expect that these Palestinian Christians would be supported and represented within American Christian circles rather than being cast aside and ignored.
In an open letter to all American Christians, Palestinian Christian pastor Munther Isaac aspires for unity amongst Palestinians and Israeli Jews while simultaneously stating that “Western Christian theology has been part of the matrix that empowers the Israeli occupation.” Munther Isaac’s overall point about separating criticism of Israel from anti-semitism similarly addresses the central problem with Christian Zionist activity abroad. There are numerous Jewish and Christian groups alike that lobby for fairer treatment of Palestinians without engaging in anti-semitism, yet organizations like CUFI that are blatantly anti-semitic are given a seat at the table primarily due to an alignment of politics and not religion.
Conservative Politics and Religion — and How to Separate the Two
Religion on its own cannot begin to explain the immense, ongoing destruction within the region. The specific institutions of Zionism and Evangelicalism have their own intersectional history, as complex reactionary politics and settler colonialism have ultimately influenced the rise of a deadly combination of conservative policy with religious backing.
While proponents of American Evangelicalism or Zionism may claim that their political involvement is free speech and based on matters of religious disagreement, this argument loses its weight after observing the realities of their similar right-wing nationalisms that both promote extremism, intolerance, and violence. A broader understanding of the ways that groups like CUFI affect domestic politics should already be enough to provoke change. A deeper awareness of the ways international populations suffer from the U.S. right-wing Evangelical establishment should make the issue of religion in politics a top priority.