Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent comments regarding Donald Trump, his election, and his administration’s stance toward Israel have spawned a range of reactions. To this recent episode, we sought two contrasting perspectives to clarify Pompeo’s comments and illuminate the implications of the variety of evangelical positions on Israel and the Jewish people.
“The Middle East Doesn’t Need the Insertion of Christian Fundamentalism”
by Daoud Kuttab
As a Palestinian Christian who grew up in an evangelical family in Jerusalem, I was shocked to hear an American official insert the Bible into the Palestinian-Israeli political discourse. US Secretary Mike Pompeo said in Jerusalem that “God sent Trump to save the Jews.” Later at the AIPAC conference, many of the speakers introduced partisan Christian Zionist rhetoric into America’s Middle East foreign policy.
According to a Public Religion Research Institute poll conducted in late 2018, President Donald Trump enjoys an approval rating of 71 percent among white evangelicals. Donald Wagner, a professor of religion and Middle Eastern studies at North Park University in Chicago, estimates that about 15 to 18 percent of US evangelicals are fundamentalist Christian Zionists. Christian Zionists, which includes Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence, believe in a specific theological interpretation that focuses on the claim that the secular State of Israel is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
The comments of US officials in Jerusalem and at the AIPAC conference reminded me of a story that made the rounds when we were growing up. The story goes that an evangelical missionary proposed to a local woman: “God has guided me to marry you.” “Oh,” the married woman replied while putting a huge ideological hole in the missionary’s claim of divine communication, “Did God tell you what I should do with my husband?”
The cradle of three Abrahamic faiths in the Middle East is the last place that one should espouse a single religious bias as a formula for day-to-day political rhetoric. Religion is basically based on absolutes, while politics is the art of the possible. If Secretary Pompeo is so engrossed in this absolute religious view, he should not be a senior diplomat.
The United States, a country that was established on the need to separate religion from politics, should be the first to understand the dangers of inserting religion into issues of international policymaking. Even as Secretary Pompeo made his ill-advised religious remarks, pro-US forces were about to destroy the last physical presence of another group of religious fundamentalists who also believe that they have a monopoly on truth and want to create their own version of a religious state.
There are important and valuable religiously-inspired moral values, including Christian values, that the United States stands for. But in the same way that the American founding fathers refused to make a religious test on anyone wanting to run for office, American diplomats must not apply their theology on the world stage, even if they have their own religious perspective.
While the analogy that Pompeo offered was connected to a righteous Queen Ester who used her proximity to the ruler to help save her people has a biblical basis, it is a far-fetched comparison. Comparing the righteous queen, whose story appeared in the Old Testament book bearing her name, with the current president of the United States is beyond comprehension.
Christian Zionists in the Trump administration have done much to hurt their own credibility and expose their political naiveté, in contrast to America’s record of supporting the oppressed, defending the right of self-determination, promoting democracy, and respecting human rights.
In the Middle East context, opposing Iran on the basis of its human rights record while supporting Saudi Arabia—a known human rights violator both to its own people (especially women) and to the innocents in Yemen—speaks volumes about the hypocrisy of the present resident of the White House, his Christian fundamentalist vice president, and his secretary of state.
Secretary Pompeo made his statement shortly after he violated standing international policy regarding occupied territories by visiting the Western Wall, and took place while Israeli authorities have been trying to bar Muslim worshipers from accessing a location within their own mosque. After the prime minister called for closing the Bab al-Rahmah site within Al Haram al Sharif/Al Aqsa mosque, an Israeli court temporarily banned Muslims, which reflects a dangerous shift in Israeli policy. Many see the unexplained and unjustified ban as acquiescence to fanatical Jewish groups that have been eyeing the very same location within Islam’s third holiest mosque and want to turn it into a synagogue on what Jews consider the Temple Mount.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II and his government have called the latest Israeli decisions regarding the mosque “playing with fire.” Secretary Pompeo is also playing with fire by inserting a religious element into an already troublesome part of the Middle East. Using religious examples and favoring one religious group over the other is a scary recipe that could possibly lead to a religious war that no one in the region wants.
America, which has always stood for the separation of church and state, must not violate its own history and governmental system while conducting diplomacy. Israelis and Palestinians, as well as Syrians and Iranians, have enough trouble with their own Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists to have a Christian fundamentalist element inserted into the mix. If Secretary Pompeo has certain strongly held religious ideas or biases, he should do what that missionary whom I grew up learning about should have done. Keep whatever divine communication he thinks he has to himself.
Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian Christian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Follow him on on Twitter.
“Secretary Pompeo Considers God’s Providential Hand in World Affairs”
by Luke Moon
Being a Christian who believes that the Jewish people should be allowed to live in freedom and safety in their ancestral homeland, I have come to accept the label “Christian Zionist.” I accept that it is a loaded term that, for some, conjures up images of Southern Christians wrapped in the flag of Israel blowing shofars. These depictions are intended to portray Christian Zionists as unsophisticated rubes who are fanning the flames for the next wars of religion.
It’s this framework that Daoud Kuttab uses in his article attacking Secretary of State Pompeo and the Christian Zionists who support him. Like so many of these articles written by anti-Zionists, Kuttab misquotes Pompeo, diminishes the broad support for Israel, and ends with Christian Zionists being the cause for war in the Middle East. In the spirit of allowing divergent voices to grace the pages of Providence, let me offer this rejoinder to Kuttab.
Secretary of State Pompeo never said, “God sent Trump to save the Jews.” Rather, in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network on the eve of Purim, the holiday commemorating the saving of Jews in Persia (Iran) by Esther, Secretary Pompeo was asked whether he thought “President Trump right now has been raised for such a time as this, just like Queen Esther, to help save the Jewish people from the Iranian menace.” To which Pompeo replied, “As a Christian, I certainly believe that’s possible.”
There is a chasmic difference between saying “God sent Trump to save the Jews” and “it’s possible that God sent Trump to save the Jews.” One is dogmatically confident, and the other recognizes that God is active in the world and still uses rulers and nations to achieve his redemptive plan for humanity.
Certainly, there are Christians who are confident that God actively “raises up rulers and tears them down.” And there are those who see a gentler invisible hand. Nevertheless, both would affirm the Providential hand of God in the affairs of the world he created.
Similarly, the broad support for Israel (Zion) among American Christians is significantly more than the 15 to 18 percent identified by Corbynesque Donald Wagner. Among white evangelicals, support for Israel is consistently between 78 to 82 percent. Among African Americans, Catholics, Hispanics, and even millennials, support for Israel never drops below 55 percent. The only Christian group that consistently rejects support for Israel is the US mainline denominations, which are in such rapid decline that they won’t even exist in a couple decades.
An additional misconception among those seeking to delegitimize Israel and the Christians who support her is that all Christian support for the country is based on a combination of the Genesis 12:3 blessing and the footnotes in the Schofield Bible. Again, there are certainly Christians who take both of those seriously, but there are millions more who support Israel for historical, political, or other theological reasons. Each of which could be called in the broadest use of the term Christian Zionists.
Finally, the argument that somehow Christians are playing with fire because they support the one Jewish nation on the planet is patently absurd. The leaders from nations that have emptied their lands of Jews and are in the process of emptying their lands of Christians have no business claiming American Christian Zionists are obstacles to peace.
It is also disingenuous of Kuttab to claim that the Trump administration’s support of Israel undermines the US commitment to promote human rights and for him to use the Temple Mount as an example. There is only one place in the Old City of Jerusalem where Jews and Christians are prohibited from having a Bible in their bag, wearing a cross or star of David around their necks, or even bowing in prayer. That place is on the Temple Mount, which is the only place in the Old City that is under Jordanian control. Rather than Israel being the greatest abuser of human rights in the Middle East, it’s a model for how nations can have a strong religious identity and simultaneously affirm the preeminent human right—freedom of religion.
It is refreshing to have a secretary of state who understands personally how important religion is for people. There is no violation of the separation of powers to recognize that God is at work in the world. In fact, it is God’s sovereign authority in the world that Thomas Jefferson appealed to in the Declaration of Independence. To recognize the possibility that God uses events, leaders, and nations for his ultimate purpose is not antithetical to America’s guiding principles; it is the first guiding principle.
Luke Moon is a senior editor of Providence.
Photo Credit: US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visiting the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, March 21, 2019. The two officials were joined by Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Ambassador David Friedman and Western Wall Heritage Foundation Director Mordechai (Suli) Eliav. By Matty Stern, US Embassy Jerusalem.