Cheering for Doomsday

Article excerpt

AMERICANS LIKE TO THINK of themselves as sui generis, and Christian Zionism is an important aspect of American exceptionalism. The U.S. is unique in its unwavering support for the state of Israel--not just Israel's right to exist but also to expand into Arab lands.

That Jewish Americans lobby the U.S. government to back Israel is no surprise. But the Jewish community is no monolith. Many Jewish Americans fear that Israel's policies undermine its future as both Jewish and democratic.

Few such doubts bedevil Christian Zionists. Journalist Victoria Clark opens Allies for Armageddon with a vignette from a tour of Jerusalem's Temple Mount, topped by the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam's most recognizable sites. As Clark admired the ancient building, a Colorado dentist remarked, "I wish someone would move things along here --like, just blow this place up!" A financial consultant from Nevada, quickly glancing around to check that no Muslim guard was in earshot, agreed: "Yeah, why not blow it all sky-high? We're Americans! We like to start anew!"

While not all Christian Zionists are determined to trigger Armageddon, most seem willfully oblivious to the practical consequences of their views. Their support for the most extreme Israeli demands is "pouring more fuel on the flames of the dispute that lies at the heart of the Muslim world's sense of grievance against the West," writes Clark. But Christian Zionists believe theology trumps reality. God insists on absolute U.S. government backing for Israel.

Only in America, one is tempted to say, but Christian Zionism was born in Great Britain. Starting in the 1600s, so-called Judaisers and Restorationists published books and raised money to promote the return of Jews to their ancient homeland. The movement's lobbying efforts, mixed with the exigencies of war, eventually led to the Balfour Declaration that promised the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

In time, Christian Zionism crossed the Atlantic. Clark spins an interesting tale of Bible teachers, preachers, and evangelists promoting dispensationalism, the end-times theology that emphasizes the role of Israel. Cyrus I. Scofield, whose Scofield Reference Bible has influenced millions, was perhaps the most important. His idiosyncratic Scriptural interpretation, according to Clark, "ensured that pre-millennial dispensationalism spread so deep and wide that it could never be uprooted."

Nevertheless, the political impact of this theology was long muted. "A mood of triumphant exultation reigned at a flurry of prophecy conferences" after Britain gained control of Jerusalem in World War I, but there was little the U.S. government could do.

Christian Zionists did not even influence President Harry S. Truman in recognizing the new state of Israel in May 1948. But after Israel's creation, Christian Zionism became "an overwhelmingly American and Israeli" phenomenon. Private faith metastasized into government policy, for while American legislators may not accept the theology of Christian Zionism, they want the votes of Christian Zionists.

Clark, who ably mixes journalism and historical analysis to explain this curious and dangerous phenomenon, devotes much of her book to the modern American movement. Although U.S. support for Israel is now taken for granted, American policymakers once recognized that American and Israeli interests were not always the same. The bilateral relationship tightened after the 1967 War as Washington justified the alliance in Cold War terms. Yet American support for Israel increased following the Soviet empire's collapse.

What sets Christian Zionists apart from other advocates of Israel is their religious reasoning. In its most modest manifestation, Christian Zionism treats the secular state of Israel as a theological marker, support for which shows fidelity to God. Christian Zionists point to the fall of the Assyrian, Babylonian, British, Egyptian, Nazi, Persian, Roman, and Russian empires as a consequence of persecuting Jews. …