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American Christian Zionism in Perspective

by John Spritzler

December 20, 2013

A good friend of mine who is very rightly a vehement opponent of Zionism recently told me that the fact that so many Americans belonged to Christian Zionist fundamentalist megachurches made her despair if it would ever be possible to mobilize sufficient numbers of Americans to oppose and actually end our government's support for the government of Israel. Is her despair warranted or not? That's what this article is about.

When I raised this question with another very good friend of mine, Dave Stratman, he suggested I re-read some relevant sections of a book the two of us had read together many years ago, The making of the English working class, by E.P. Thompson, which devotes more than 800 pages to a detailed look at the English working class in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Here are two paragraphs from that book (pg 388) that summarize a wealth of historical information and that, assuming some important perspective on here-and-now can be gleaned from there-and-then, seem very helpful for putting American Christian Zionism in perspective:

As orthodox Wesleyanism throve, so also did breakway groups of "Ranters"--the Welsh "Jumpers" (cousins to the American "Shakers"), the Primitive Methodists, the "Tent Methodists", the "Magic Methodists" of Delemere Forest, who fell into trances or "visions", the Bryanites or Bible Christians, the "Quaker Methodists" of Warrington and the "Independent Methodists" of Macclesfield. Through the streets of war-time and post-war England went the revivalist missionaries, crying out: "Turn to the Lord and seek salvation!"

One is struck not only by the sense of disequilibrium, but also by the impermanence [emphasis in the original] of the phenomenon of Methodist conversion. Rising graphs of Church membership are misleading; what we have, rather, is a revivalist pulsation, or an oscillation between periods of hope and periods of despair and spiritual anguish. After 1795 the poor had once again entered into the Valley of Humiliations. But they entered it unwillingly, with many backward looks; and whenever hope revived, religious revivalism was set aside, only to reappear with renewed fervour upon the ruins of the political messianism which had been overthrown. In this sense, the great Methodist recruitment between 1790 and 1830 may be seen as the Chiliasm of despair." [Note: one definition of "Chiliasm" is "Belief in an earthly thousand-year period of peace and prosperity, sometimes equated with the return of Jesus for that period."]

In the United States, the working class began unwillingly entering into the Valley of Humiliations in the mid 1970s. This was when the ruling elite, frightened out of its wits by the radical upheavals of the "1960s," initiated a counterrevolution to make more controllable the wildcat striking workers (some of whom in 1971 shut down the entire U.S. postal system forcing soldiers to sort the mail), and the "uppity" blacks refusing to obey Jim Crow and rebelling in the inner cities and cheering Muhammad Ali's declaration that "No Vietcong ever called me a nigger," and the audacious welfare mothers demanding nobody be below the poverty line, and the rebellious anti-Vietnam war students shutting down universities.

The corporate/government elite blamed the upheavals on the rising expectations of Americans that stemmed from the fact that there was greater economic equality than ever before and as a result people felt economically and psychologically secure enough to devote time and energy not only to personal survival but to the larger cause of making society even more equal and more democratic. The rulers' solution was to dramatically lower people's expectations in life and make them feel much more insecure economically and psychologically. An oft-cited Business Week editorial proclaimed on October 12, 1974:

"It will be a bitter pill for people to swallow--the idea of having less so that big business can have more. Nothing that this nation or any other nation has done in modern history compares with the selling job that must be done to make people accept the new reality."

Thus the one thing that all major policy initiatives since that time have had in common is that they have made people more insecure: high stakes testing makes school children insecure about ever getting or even deserving a decent job; market-driven health care makes people worry about quitting a job they hate or going on strike for fear they'll lose their health insurance and it makes the sick and elderly fear not getting crucial medical care when they need it; President Reagan's firing of the striking air traffic controllers changed the "rules of the game" so that workers now fear being fired if they dare to go on strike; NAFTA and similar policies make workers fear that if they don't accept cuts in wages and benefits their employer will relocate the company to a foreign country with much cheaper labor; skyrocketing college tuitions have saddled college graduates with student loans that make them debt-slaves; and austerity budget cutting to "pay back the debts"--the latest policy initiative--forces people to abandon hope of making things better because they're forced to fight just to keep things from getting much worse.

We've been living in the Valley of Humiliations for four decades. Many of us have known nothing else. It is not unreasonable to think that this is why there has been a rise of fundamentalist and apocalyptic religions that, with very emotional pitches by skilled orator pastors, give hope for good times to come in a world different from the depressing one here on earth.

Nor is it unreasonable to believe that when people regain hope that they can make good times come to our world here on earth, they will, as the English working class did on such occasions, set aside religious revivalism.

If the above analysis is true, then it would imply that a growing revolutionary movement for a good world--an egalitarian world based on mutual aid--would, by its very existence, give people in Christian fundamentalist churches renewed hope for making the earthly world better and thereby induce many of them to set aside their loyalty to fundamentalist preachers who tell them how and what to think, in apocalyptic other-worldly terms.

Who Are the Megachurch Congregants?

Now let's take a look at the fundamentalist megachurch phenomenon in the United States to see if the facts about it fit with the above analysis or not.

Who, demographically, are the five million people who weekly attend America's megachurches? According to a 2009 survey, the largest ever conducted, the following is true:

  • Nearly two-thirds of megachurch attenders are under 45 years old, as compared to only one-third for all Protestant churches (62% vs. 35%).
  • Nearly a third of megachurch attenders are single, unmarried persons.  In a typical church, singles account for just 10% of the congregation. 
  • Megachurch attenders are both more educated and more affluent than attenders at other churches.
  • The majority of megachurch attenders are not necessarily new to Christianity but nearly a quarter had not recently been in another church before coming to a megachurch. 
  • While newcomers almost always attend a megachurch at the invitation of family, friends or co-workers, the real attraction tends to be the church’s reputation, worship style and senior pastor.
  • Long-term attendance flows from an appreciation for the church’s music/arts, social and community outreach and adult-oriented programs.
  • 45% of megachurch attenders never volunteer at the church, and 40 percent are not engaged in a small group, the mainstay of megachurch programming.

How do these facts relate to the question this article is trying to answer: "Will it ever be possible to mobilize sufficient numbers of Americans to oppose and actually end our government's support for the government of Israel? Is despair warranted or not?"

First, consider the size of the megachurch following, which is about 5 million* people. As of 2010 there were, in contrast, about 235 million Americans 18 or over in age. The megachurch congregants are a very small minority of Americans. If almost all megachurch congregants vehemently supported Zionism (a big if, as we shall see) and all 5.3 million adult American Jews also vehemently supported Zionism (another very big if**) and everybody else (non-megachurch congregants and non-Jews) was neutral except for a mere 10% of them who vehemently opposed Zionism, then there would be 10.3 million vehement supporters of Zionism and 22.4 million vehement opponents of Zionism. If it were just a question of numerical strength, who do you think would win that fight?

The reason I think many megachurch congregants would not be vehement pro-zionists if and when the issue came to a head is this. They are not in their megachurch because of the crazy Zionist preaching. As the survey facts above indicate, megachurch congregants are in the church for much more immediate and "earthly" reasons, things like being single and looking for a mate, and enjoying the "music/arts, social and community outreach and adult-oriented programs."

Here's a personal anecdote that reflects this point. In 2006 when I worked at the Harvard School of Public Health I and some others decided to collect signatures at the school for a very strongly worded statement in support of the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees. Lots of people signed, including a woman who worked with me. This woman read the statement and thought about it and decided that she agreed with it, that it reflected her basic values. But a few days later this woman asked me to cross her signature out. I said ok, but asked how come she changed her mind. She said she had mentioned it to her pastor (in a fundamentalist Christian church) and he told her not to sign. She didn't even know why she shouldn't sign, just that she was told not to. Quite clearly her attraction to this pastor and his church had absolutely nothing to do with any pro-Zionist thinking on her part!

So, even in the worst case scenario that the megachurch congregants all continue to vehemently support Zionism, opponents of Zionism can easily outnumber them, by more than 2 to 1. Furthermore, despite the fanatical pro-Zionism of some of these megachurch and fundamentalist preachers, it does not at all follow that all or even most of their congregants will fight for Zionism when push comes to shove and their loyalty to their minister is weakened by the presence of a revolutionary egalitarian movement that gives them hope for making a better world in the here-and-now on earth.

Second, consider that the megachurch congregants are "more educated and affluent" than at other churches. As I discuss here, the way Americans will stop the U.S. government from supporting Israel's government will be by making a revolution, a revolution driven far more by their concern with domestic issues than foreign policy issues; but once ordinary Americans are finally in a position to obtain all the relevant information about Palestine and Israel and Zionism and they (as opposed to the American plutocracy) are in a position for the first time to determine their foreign policy, they will conclude that they don't want to support Zionism because it is really a terribly unjust ethnic cleansing project. This revolutionary movement will gain most of its support from the have-nots and the have-littles, and much less support from the have-mores. This means that the wealthier congregants of the megachurches are not going to be the main people that the revolutionary movement needs to recruit. We should certainly not despair, therefore, if this small minority of the American population will be among the last to support the revolutionary movement.

Third, consider that two thirds (versus only one third in Protestant churchs) of megachurch congregants are (as of 2009 when the survey was done) under 45 years of age. These are people who were born after 1964 and who were not old enough to have participated in or truly experienced the hopefulness about making a more equal and democratic society that made the "1960s" so different from today. These people, on the contrary, have known nothing but life in the Valley of Humiliations. They may be better off than others, but they are burdened with student loans greater than anything their parents ever endured and their lives are often one paycheck or job layoff or medical expense or home foreclosure away from disaster. In the absence of a serious and hope-inspiring revolutionary movement, these people find some solace and community and a kind of spiritual hope for a better future at their megachurch with its skilled preacher orator.

Fourth, consider that not all megachurch pastors are Christian Zionists. Take for exmple the 3,000 member NorthWood Church of Texas and its pastor, Bob Roberts, Jr. This is a fundamentalist megachurch indeed. In it's online statement of beliefs we read:

The Scriptures
The Bible is the self-revelation of God to humankind and is thus the word of God. It was written by human authors under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is the supreme source of truth for Christian beliefs and living. Both the Old and New Testament point to Jesus Christ and are true without any mixture of error. The canon of protestant scripture is accepted to be the completed Bible.

And yet, the NorthWood church's pastor explicitly rejects Christian Zionism, as can be seen in this video (start listening at time 25:00 for a few minutes) of a talk he gave at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference organized by Palestinian Christians at Bethlehem Bible College in Bethlehem, Palestine. Pastor Bob Roberts engages in outreach to Muslims (as reported here) for which he is attacked sharply by pro-Israel elements like this one, which condemns Roberts for speaking at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference with this paragraph:

An article posted on Hunter’s website reports how the “Christ at the Checkpoint” audience, including students from Wheaton and Eastern Universities, “were moved by the testimony of Palestinian men and women who shared the pain and suffering they experience on a daily basis caused primarily by the continuing occupation.”

In summary, even in the worst case scenario that virtually all megachurchs are led by Christian Zionists and that all of their congregants continue to blindly follow their pro-Zionist and anti-revolutionary pastors, we should nevertheless not despair because we can still outnumber them. Furthermore, the far more likely case is that if we build a hope-inspiring revolutionary movement, we can expect to gain the support of a good many people who, like the woman where I worked who asked to have her signature crossed out, do support our values and will, when the time comes to take a side, take our side.

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* It is hard to estimate how many Americans are true believer Christian Zionists. I am using the number 5 million because it is the frequently cited estimate of the number of megachurch congregants, on the assumption (for the sake of argument only, actually) that Christian Zionists and megachurch congregants are the same set of people. Obviously not all megachurch congregants are Christian Zionists and not all Christian Zionists are megachurch congregants, so the 5 million estimate for the number of Christian Zionists could be too large or too small. A commenter on this article said she heard there were 40 million American Christian Zionists. This 40 million number is, however, the estimated number of American Evangelical Christians. The megachuches are indeed associated with Evangelical Christianity, but it is not at all clear that all or even most Evangelical Christians are Christian Zionists or that the ones who are will remain so forever. As evidence for this, I cite the following information about Evangelical Christians--the differences among them on this issue and how their views can change:

The Roots of Change

Dr. John Stott is perhaps the most influential Evangelical aside from Billy Graham of the present generation. His books number over thirty volumes and have helped shape Evangelical students and young adults since the early 1950s. It was John Stott who drafted much of the “Lausanne Covenant,” adopted by Evangelicals from 150 nations at the International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1974. The Lausanne Covenant continues to be the doctrinal position to which most Evangelicals adhere.

Built into the Lausanne Covenant is a strong position on human rights:

[We] call upon [the leaders of nations] to guarantee freedom of thought and conscience, and freedom to practice and propagate religion in accordance with the will of God and as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We also express our deep concern for all who have been unjustly imprisoned, and especially for our brethren who are suffering for their testimony to the Lord Jesus. We promise to pay and work for their freedom.13
The potential for Evangelical concern for justice and human rights for any people, including Palestinians and Israelis, lies with this statement. However, few Evangelicals would address the Palestine issue until the late 1980s.

In February 1987, I had an opportunity to meet Dr. Stott and asked “What is your perspective now on Zionism and Christian Zionism in particular?” He paused, then answered: “After considerable study, I have concluded that Zionism and especially Christian Zionism are biblically untenable.”

Dr. Stott’s response is significant for several reasons. First, it marks a clear position by one of the world’s great Evangelical thinkers, a leader of impeccable credentials. Second, it reflects the logical conclusion of a Lausanne Evangelical who may not have had cause to ponder the Palestine question until the late 1980s, but clearly had changed his thinking by 1988.

** Many American Jews, even if they support the Zionist idea of a Jewish state at one level, also feel that what the Zionist state actually does to enforce its ethnic cleansing essence is wrong: most American Jews oppose Jewish settlements in the West Bank and only 38% [just 26% among those 18 to 29 years old] believe the Israeli government is making a "sincere effort" to come to a peace settlement.

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Postscript December 17, 2015 Video: Prominent Evangelical Christians Are Worrying Christian Zionists Over Israel

 

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