Thousands of Christian Zionists are meeting this week in Washington in a second annual gathering to bolster evangelical support for Israel and fan opposition to radical Islam.
San Antonio mega-church pastor and author John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel’s first gathering last year drew about 3,500 Christians to the nation’s capital to meet and lobby members of Congress on pro-Israel legislation. This year, in a summit meeting July 16-19, he hopes for twice that many.
Tuesday’s “Night to Honor Israel” was to feature former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and special greetings from former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Today registrants are fanning out on Capitol Hill to meet with their representatives and senators to present “the biblical positions of our support of the nation of Israel.”
Hagee’s alliance of pro-Israel Christians is quickly emerging as a powerful lobbying group, drawing comparisons to the Jewish lobbying giant American Israel Public Affairs Committee. It is also creating ambivalence within the Jewish community about working with evangelicals and drawing criticism from Christians on both the left and right.
In March Hagee received a warm reception in an unprecedented prime-time spot at AIPAC’s annual conference. “It’s a new day in America,” Hagee said. “The sleeping giant of Christian Zionism has awakened.”
Hagee claimed there are 50 million evangelicals in America “who have a deep-seated, faith-based belief to love Israel, to speak up for Israel, to stand up for Israel, to pray for Israel and to financially support Israel until Israel achieves a just and lasting peace.”
Hagee’s young organization quickly grabbed the attention of politicians. Last year’s summit featured GOP head Ken Mehlman and Republican senators Sam Brownback, Rick Santorum, John Cornyn and Kay Bailey-Hutchinson. President Bush sent recorded greetings.
Early this year Blunt, a Southern Baptist and former president of Southwest Baptist University in Missouri, flew to San Antonio to pay homage to Hagee and promise red-carpet treatment when he comes to Washington. Blunt is Republican Whip, the party’s second-ranking member in the House of Representatives.
“I am delighted to announce that Roy Blunt is a strong supporter of Israel,” Hagee said in a note to supporters, “and following our conversation about CUFI has offered to gather groups of Congressmen in his office any time I come to Washington, D.C., in the future.”
Hagee’s hard-wiring to Republicans has brought criticism from Jewish members of AIPAC, who view it as a departure from the group’s traditional non-partisan appeal that may drive away more members than it attracts.
“The American Jewish community must decide: Does it want to connect young Jews to Israel, or does it intend to drive them away?” Rabbi Eric Yoffie wrote in an essay titled “When We Let John Hagee Speak for Us.”
Another Jewish author warned that “many evangelicals who claim to be our ‘Knights in Shining Armor,’ are really ‘Trojan horses,'” implementing a new “soft-sell” approach to proselytizing Jews for conversion.
Hagee is careful to avoid any image of proselytizing, but such ambivalence among the Jewish community prompted at least one high-profile evangelical supporter of Israel, Christian radio host Janet Parshall, to withdraw from a conference sponsored by a Christian caucus of Israel’s parliament, because the group condemns and does not associate with groups that share the gospel.
“We can’t just blindly support Israel,” Parshall told a Christian news outlet. She said Israel should not tell evangelical believers, “We’ll take your aid, your support and your tourist dollars, but we won’t take your Jesus.” Christians should not have to “choose between the cross or Israel,” she said.
Mainline Christians reject Hagee’s uncritical support of Israel for other reasons, along with his anti-Muslim rhetoric and advocacy of going to war with Iran.
“John Hagee’s message differs greatly with what theologians have taught for centuries,” Antonios Kireopoulos of the National Council of Churches said in a statement.
Hagee’s uncritical support for the State of Israel based on a literal reading of apocalyptic texts from the Bible separates CUFI from Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox and traditional Protestant churches, Kireopoulos said. All support a two-state solution, with a secure Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state.
“Only a just solution will bring peace to the Middle East,” said Kireopoulos. “CUFI stands apart from the historic churches still present in the Holy Land. All of these churches serve Palestinian Christians, who are adversely affected by the policies supported by Hagee and CUFI. As a result of these policies, Christian communities in the Holy Land are diminishing and are threatened with extinction.”
Another NCC official, Shanta Premawardhana, criticized Hagee’s organization for its “ongoing vilification of Islam.”
“The NCC continues to urge Christians to build relationships with Muslim people, the vast majority of whom are peace-loving, law-abiding people,” said Premawardhana, a Baptist minister who works as the NCC’s associate general secretary for interfaith relations.
Premawardhana rejected war with Iran advocated by Hagee’s group. “Such a war is totally unacceptable,” he said. “The NCC believes that high-level dialogues with Iran and other Middle Eastern partners is the proper method of dealing with Iran.”
Hagee has compared Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Adolf Hitler and labeled him a nuclear threat.
“America, Israel and the world are facing a great danger in the Middle East,” says an information page on CUFI’s Web site. “Iran’s president has become the new Hitler, and has sworn to blast Israel off the map with nuclear weapons. We are reliving history!”
“When the Jews of Europe were marched to the gas chambers in Hitler’s holocaust, the Christians of the world were strangely quiet,” the site continues. “Never again! Not on our watch! The sleeping giant in America has awakened!”
Speaking to the AIPAC conference last March, Hagee said: “Hitler is again walking across the stage of history. You open your newspapers and read about American universities, where Israel is being viciously vilified by students taught by professors whose Middle Eastern chairs are sponsored by Saudi Arabia. You look to America’s mainline churches and their initiatives to divest from Israel. You go to book stores and you see slanderous titles by the former president of the United States.”
Recently, Hagee’s group trained Christian students at a California university to “make the case for Israel” in the face of campus attacks. According to the Jerusalem Post, training at California State University in Bakersfield was the first step toward establishing an initial college chapter of Christians United for Israel. The hope, the article said, is to establish similar “CUFI on Campus” chapters at colleges and universities across the United States.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.