Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Reviewed by Paul C. Merkley

Christian Zionism, Up Close and Personal

A lucid, painstaking, and refreshingly open-minded account of a much-contested subject.

Stephen Spector is a professor of English at State University of New York, Stony Brook, with many scholarly publications in medieval literature. He is also the author of Operation Solomon, the story of Israel's rescue of the Ethiopian Jews in 1991. He has lectured at his own university as well as at Wesleyan University and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on religion and politics, the Bible, Middle English literature, contemporary American politics, and various aspects of Christian faith.

Somewhere along the line, Spector became fascinated by the dynamics of Christian Zionism and set himself the task of exploring that world and reporting back to the Jews of America everything he could learn about motives, beliefs, and behavior. He is not the first to attempt this task. Yaakov Ariel of the University North Carolina pioneered this research field some years ago and continues to produce scholarly conclusions combining historical and sociological perspectives; and there are a few others in the field. But Spector's work is so thorough and so up-to-date and so scrupulous that no one who imagines himself an expert on the subject will turn away from this remarkable book without a headful of fresh insights and facts.

In his preface Spector cites polling that shows that American Jews are deeply suspicious of Christian Zionists. The incentive for his research arose when he noted how the chilly attitude of most Jews contrasts with the warmth of expression for Jews, Judaism, and Israel that is typical of conservative Christians generally and "evangelicals" particularly. At the outset, Spector puts his finger on the most important clue: "Much of that feeling owes to [American] Jews' general tendency to oppose conservative Christians on many domestic issues." He does not pursue this thought, nor does he return to it, but the theme is elaborately explored in Elliot Abrams, Faith or Fear (Free Press, 1997).

Spector has studied the history of American Christian Zionism and made a creditable effort to put it briefly into the context of the longer story of Christian Restorationism. More to the point, he has also done a heroic amount of "field research." He has attended Christian Zionist rallies at which he has found American Jewish supporters of Israel sharing the platform with Israeli diplomats, evangelical pastors, and a variety of lay politicians. He has gone to evangelical and charismatic worship services and found there Jews and Christians sharing in songs of praise to the God of Israel. He has researched the archives of all the American Christian Zionist organizations, the educational organizations, the propaganda efforts and the lobbies, and he has read their publications as well as all the journalistic and academic analyses of these activities.

Spector brings to his task an insatiable appetite for all the facts that can be assembled as well as a respectful appreciation for religious motivations and expressions that are outside his personal experience and belonging. In order to get a secure hold on this notoriously amorphous topic, he has had to read quantities of pamphlets and tracts, tons of hit-and-run religious anthropology and solemn-ass polemics. But being a learned man, with a learned man's appreciation for the issues which have always belonged to religious advocacy, he resists being drawn into petty arguments. He quietly displays the range of arguments and suggests inconsistencies and inadequacies.

I have looked carefully at his list of interviewees and I cannot think of a single individual of any importance in Christian Zionist ranks whom he has not spoken to. This research has made it possible for him to follow up every generalization with a thesaurus of direct quotations.

Spector is respectful of what he does not find congenial. He goes behind the caricature of the Christian conservative that occupies in most American Jewish minds the place where observation and critical thought should be, and he breaks it down into its constituent cliches. Examining each of these in turn, he finds that, instead of the "theological rigidity" which he had been given to expect of Christian Zionists, there is "unexpected pragmatism, flexibility, and nuance." Some of the great cliches are found, upon inspection, to be partially true; some need to be qualified; some are simple misunderstandings; almost all are plain canards.

If this book gets read, it should not be necessary anymore to spend pages of book-text explaining that Christian Zionists never were all premillennial dispensationalists; today, in fact, dispensationalists are no more numerous among the Christian friends of Israel than are evangelical Congregationalists or evangelical Lutherans, Anglicans, Baptists, and Roman Catholics. Also effectively demolished is the red herring about the "hidden agenda" of Christian Zionists—to get the Jews all lined up for ready conversion either before or following the Rapture.

The bottom line is that "born-again Christians are radically individual." Therefore, what an outsider needs is "a nuanced understanding" of the many different ways in which individual Christian Zionists combine their faith with their positions on public issues—and not least on the matter of Israel. "Evangelical Christians are so individualistic and diverse," Spector has found, "that it's hard even to identify and count them, much less to define their theology or measure their political convictions definitively." Instead, they are, he says, paraphrasing the historian Mark Noll, "like a river that runs through different denominations, including mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. It passes through stand-alone churches and non-denominational megachurches, voluntary societies, and personal networks."

Spector closes with a chapter on a hardy conspiracy theory—that the mighty engine of Christian Zionism once captured the heart and mind of George W. Bush and thereafter directed his Middle East policy. The best-selling guru of spiritual anti-Zionists, Karen Armstrong, has expatiated on George Bush's "unconditional and critical support for Israel, his willingness to use 'Jewish End-time warriors' to fulfill a vision of his own … . He believes [she says] that God chose him to lead the world to Rapture." Jimmy Carter makes the same hysterical claim in more or less the same words. Pro-Palestinian advocates have clipped these and similar sentences for use in their diatribes against "Fundamentalist crazies" and "Neo-Cons." Spector brings in some interesting nuggets from contacts with Bush-White House people, while insisting (correctly) that the public record, available to us all, makes clear that Bush has never run with the Christian Zionists and that, in fact, the policy he has pursued towards Israel and the Palestinians has been anything but consistent.

I have to confess that I have not until now fully appreciated the range of positions that have been taken by the current cohort of eminent Christian Zionist personalities on such hot-button matters as attitudes toward Islam, attitude towards Arabs, attitudes toward George Bush's foreign policy, attitudes toward Iran and Ahmadinejad, attitudes on the great range of secular political matters, and so much else. Spector's recital is, if anything, a little too anecdotal and impressionistic; the effect might have been improved by more sections of summary. But there is no law against skipping a few paragraphs now and then when one feels that the point has been abundantly documented.

This is all overdue. Christian Zionism deserves respect and thrives on healthy examination. And this is good news, as Israel needs all the Christian attention that it can get.

Paul C. Merkley is the author of Christian Attitudes Towards the State of Israel (2001) and American Presidents, Religion, and Israel (2004.)

Most ReadMost Shared