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A Legacy of Victorian Theology: Vice President Pence’s Christian Zionism and Historical Alternatives

Andrew Wickersham

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At times it can seem that Christians from different backgrounds are not speaking the same language when it comes to Israel and Palestine. When Vice President Pence –a Catholic who later in life experienced a “born-again” Evangelical transformation– addressed the Knesset this past January, he described the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 as an act of Divine Providence: “The Jewish state of Israel, and all the Jewish people bear witness to God’s faithfulness… The miracle of Israel is an inspiration to the world.” The Vice President’s views on Israel represent Christian Zionists, who believe the Bible commands unwavering support for the contemporary state of Israel based largely on their reading of Genesis 12:3. This is the same verse that Pence quoted in a 2002 interview with Congressional Quarterly about his position on Israel, “In the Bible, God promises Abraham, ‘Those who bless you I will bless, and those who curse you I will curse.’”

[From the Journal of Palestine Studies | Historical Landmarks in the Hundred Years’ War on Palestine]

Reading scripture through a nationalist lens, this promise translates into contemporary geopolitics as God bestowing blessings or inflicting curses upon countries depending on their foreign relations with the state of Israel–the descendants of Abraham. In the same interview, Pence expressed his belief that God will continue to bless the United States with prosperity and power as long as American support for the Israel remains steadfast. Support for Israel, according to Christian Zionists, includes opposing any sort of land-for-peace deal with Palestine. Genesis 15:18 and 17:8 detail God’s additional promises: that he would make the land from “the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates” an “everlasting possession” of Abraham’s descendants. Thus, establishing a Palestinian state becomes a direct affront to God’s plan for Israel.

Given the insistence by Christian Zionists that their reading of scripture is the clearest, most literal interpretation, it may come as a surprise that such theological views within Christianity only date back to the early 19th century.

For more than 1500 years, the Church had a very different set of beliefs about the significance of the historic land of Palestine. During the Middle Ages, Christians in Europe referred to Palestine as Terra Sancta, the Holy Land, and believed that the Church had been entrusted with its protection. Christian theologians in Late Antiquity, drawing from Plato’s philosophy, argued that hidden spiritual realities lay behind the seemingly worldly events described by biblical prophecy. This Greco-Roman worldview, combined with the Church’s early attempt to distance itself from Judaism, produced the theology of Supersessionism. In this framework, the Church replaces Israel as the chosen people of God because it alone recognized Jesus as the Messiah. Consequently, the Church inherits God’s covenant promises to Abraham. This theology has been criticized for lending religious support to antisemitism and was officially repudiated by the Catholic Church in Nostra Aetate (1965).

The Protestant Reformation and Scientific Revolution of the 16th century broke the monopoly of the Catholic Church over the interpretation of scripture and shattered the Platonistic underpinnings of medieval Christian thought. Protestant Christians preached the ability of individuals to understand scripture for themselves and rejected allegorical or metaphorical interpretations in favor of what seemed, in that Age of Reason, to be the most rational, straight-forward reading of the text. The most influential Protestant thinking from this time on the relationship between the Church and Jewish people, and the place of the Holy Land in End Times prophecy was Covenant Theology. This teaching originated in the Calvinist Reformed Churches and remains a significant force within Evangelical theology today. In in Mosaic Law, covenant theologians see predictive elements that are later fulfilled in the New Covenant of Christ. This includes the promise of land, which is fulfilled by Christ’s teaching that the meek shall inherit the earth. In this interpretation, the Gentiles are added to Israel, whereby both can become the People of God if they respond to Jesus through faith.

[From the Journal of Palestine Studies | The “Right to Have Rights”: Partition and Palestinian Self-Determination]

The forces of theological change unleashed by the Reformation did not stop with Covenant Theology, however. By the beginning of the 19th century these trends gave rise to a new system of understanding the Bible known as Dispensationalism, which lent theological weight to Christian support for Zionism. In 1828, John Nelson Darby, a former Anglican priest, published his idea that history was divided into eras, or dispensations, in which God “reveals a particular purpose to be accomplished in that period, to which men respond in faith or unbelief” (Colin Chapman, Whose Promised Land, p.254). According to Darby, God had worked with Israel as his Chosen People during the Dispensation of Law and had then turned to the Church during the Dispensation of Grace. However, after the rapture of the Church, Israel would turn back to God and, following the return of Christ, would reign with him on earth in a restored theocratic state. In other words, Israel and the Church have parallel purposes in God’s plan: “Israel is the people of God on earth, while the Church is the people of God in heaven” (Chapman, p.258). Dispensationalists, alone among Christians, believe that God’s promises to Israel, including the promise of land, remain unfulfilled.

Darby made two visits to the United States after the Civil War. His ideas were picked up by many prominent theologians of the time, including James H. Brookes, Dwight L. Moody, William Blackstone, and C. I. Scofield. Dispensationalist insistence on a literal, historical fulfillment of prophecy had a tremendous appeal to many devout Christians who objected to the new trend of literary criticism, which called into question the divine inspiration of scripture. Consequently, the issue of Promised Land and the destiny of the Jewish people became one of the many contentious issues at the heart of the debates between liberal and fundamentalist Protestants.

[From the Journal of Palestine Studies | Plus ça Change: The 1922 U.S. Congressional Debate on the Balfour Declaration]

While debates over eschatology and God’s role in history can seem abstruse, the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 demonstrated the real-world consequences of these beliefs. It is well documented (see Donald Lewis, Origins of Christian Zionism) that religion was an important motive for leading politicians within the British government, such as Lord Shaftesbury, Lord Palmerston, David Lloyd George, and finally Lord Balfour, who pushed for the recognition of Palestine as a national homeland of the Jewish people. Nor can there be any doubt that it was in part faith that led President Truman to enthusiastically support the partition of Palestine and the creation of Israel in 1948 (see Ronald and Allis Radosh, A Safe Haven). The question is to what extent does Christian Zionism also shape the Trump Administration’s foreign policy? If Pence’s Knesset speech is any indication, it certainly plays a much greater role than in any previous administration.

For Christians coming from theological traditions apart from Dispensationalism, the current political realities in Israel and Palestine are a cause for great concern. For them, the desire to see the Kingdom of God established on earth cannot disregard the suffering of humans created in God’s image, nor can God’s kingdom come at the expense of justice. Justice is central to God’s character. They criticize Dispensationalism for its treatment of prophecy as a predictor of historical events rather than as a corrective warning against society’s moral failures. Such sentiments can be heard in the responses to the Trump Administration’s recent decisions on Israel by churches across the theological spectrum in the Middle East, as well as from the Catholic Church and Protestants from both the liberal and Reformed traditions, including many Evangelicals. What remains to be seen is whether these groups can mobilize the same kind of political influence wielded by those who are Christian Zionists.