On Monday, November 18, 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the Trump Administration would be “reversing the Obama Administration’s approach towards Israeli settlements” and asserted that “the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements is not per se inconsistent with international law.” According to Pompeo, this move was all about advancing the peace process. “Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law,” Pompeo suggested, “has not advanced the cause of peace. The hard truth is that there will never be a judicial resolution to the conflict, and arguments about who is right and who is wrong as a matter of international law will not bring peace.”
Although reversing another Obama era position was undoubtedly a selling point for much of Trump’s base, this isn’t the first time such a claim has been made from a sitting Presidential Administration. As the historian Gershom Gorenberg pointed out recently on Twitter, Ronald Reagan said the same thing nearly forty years ago.
In addition to holding views on Israeli settlements that are inconsistent with international law, there is another, related, an issue that Trump shares with Reagan; namely, a tremendous amount of support from the Christian Right. As has been frequently repeated since his victory, 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016, and they continue to be his most steadfast supporters. There are numerous reasons for the Evangelical support for Trump: His choice of Vice President; his willingness to stack the supreme Court with conservative judges; his promotion of “religious freedom” (code for the ability of Evangelicals to discriminate while citing their “beliefs” as the reason, rather than old-fashioned bigotry), and, as Anthea Butler showed us recently, plain old racism. Although it is unclear that Trump needed to do anything further to maintain evangelical loyalty, this announcement, is one of many gifts he has offered up to his evangelical supporters in return for their loyalty.
I say gifts because these announcements have made official what have been long-held beliefs among the subset of evangelicals commonly referred to as Christian Zionists for decades. And through their political activities, not to mention the fact that the two Mikes—Pence and Pompeo—are counted among their ranks, Christian Zionists have helped make their religious views aspects of American foreign policy.
Christian Zionism is a term that is used to describe a subset of evangelicals for whom the modern state of Israel holds important religious meaning. For them, modern Israel’s formation in 1948 and expansion in 1967 fulfilled prophecy, and serve as visible affirmations that God remains active in history, demonstrating that the Bible is true in its entirety, and thus vindicating their self-identification as a rarefied group of true believers who have privileged access to the truths about the world to which others remain ignorant.
For Christian Zionists of this persuasion, Israel is not simply another nation state, it is God’s country. Any attempt to alter the terms of Israel’s borders, or create a Palestinian state within those borders is seen as a direct affront to God. Additionally, because this theology is also predicated on an escalation of violence that will reach its peak during the future battle of Armageddon, Christian Zionists tend to view human attempts at reaching peace is futile at best, and satanic at worst.
In his most recent book “Earth’s Last Empire: The Final Game of Thrones,” prominent American Christian Zionist and Trump cheerleader, John Hagee, outlines the theological significance that Christian Zionists place on Israel:
“God chose the nation of Israel to provide the source of divine truth on this earth for the generations to come. Through Israel, the Almighty gave mankind His sacred Word, the Patriarchs, the prophets, and our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Because Satan hates what God establishes, the spirit of anti-Semitism has prevailed through the ages in an effort to destroy this thread of redemption.”
As I point out in my book “Righteous Gentiles: Religion, Identity and Myth in John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel,” (and as the excerpt above suggests) Christian Zionists view the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians as an earthly manifestation of a cosmic conflict between God and Satan. Viewed through this theological lens, it is not difficult to see who is standing in for Satan at this particular juncture: the Palestinians seeking self-determination and those who advocate on their behalf. This type of demonology has a dehumanizing function. Humans are quite literally stripped of their humanity and invested with demonic forces, rendering opposition or indifference to their plight that much easier to come by for many believers. Why, they might ask, would anyone want to negotiate with the devil?
Hagee is perhaps America’s most well-known and politically active Christian Zionist. In 2006 he founded Christians United for Israel (CUFI) a lobby group that has grown to become the largest pro-Israel organization in the world with over 7 million members. In 2008 Hagee endorsed John McCain, only to have the endorsement rejected by McCain himself after a 2005 sermon surfaced in which he claimed God sent Hitler to get Jews to leave Europe and return to Palestine in the lead up to Jesus’s return. Despite vowing to “Never again” endorse another candidate, Hagee enthusiastically supported Trump in the 2016 election, and told Americans that God would not hold them harmless if they failed to send Trump to the White House. When Trump did win the election, Hagee credited Trump’s victory to divine influence, stating that “when Donald Trump started saying good things about Israel, the winds of heaven got behind his political sails and pushed him right to the White House.”
The claim that saying good things about Israel is what thrust Donald Trump into the White House is based on a verse from the biblical book of Genesis. In Genesis 12:3, God speaks to Abraham and tells him that those who bless Israel will be blessed, and those who curse Israel will be cursed. Christian Zionists frequently cite this verse when explaining their support for the state of Israel, and also use it as a warning when they fear America might be straying from that support.
During the Obama years, organizations like CUFI worked with Republican Congressional representatives to shape policy toward Israel and the Middle East. They fought against the Iran Nuclear Deal, and, according to Hagee, were instrumental in having Jerusalem described as the “undivided” Capital of Israel in the Republican platform, creating their own set of “facts on the ground” and ensuring that East Jerusalem was no longer a disputed territory in Republican eyes.
Since Trump took office, Hagee has had a close relationship with the Trump Administration, and Christian Zionists have enjoyed a great deal of success in achieving their long term aims. Trump has repealed the Iran Nuclear deal, recognized Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel, and recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Trump also invited Hagee to give the benediction of the opening the US Embassy in Jerusalem, during which he happily described it as the place where Jesus would return, “and establish a kingdom that will never end.” Likewise, over the past three years, current and former members of the Trump Administration including Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, and Mike Pompeo have spoken at CUFI’s annual meeting in Washington, DC.
One of CUFI’s underlying aims is to transform their version of pro-Israel support into a form of cultural common-sense, at the same time making it equally a part of what counts as acceptable Christianity. They achieve through a language of mythmaking that blends theological beliefs about Israel into the language of American exceptionalism and Christian Nationalism, wherein support for the even the most far-right Israeli policies become acts of religious and national piety. In short, Christian Zionists and their collaborators are working to define what means to be truly American and truly Christian. Among other things, support for Israeli expansion into the occupied territories and opposition to a two-state solution are part of that litmus test. It is hard not to view the Trump Administration’s latest declaration about the legality of Israeli settlements as anything but a success for Christian Zionists, and the further blurring of lines between the Christian Right’s beliefs in biblical laws and this Administration’s. For Christian Zionists like Hagee, the settlements have never been illegal because God’s law supersedes international law—and now, it seems, so do the laws of Israel and the United States.
One of the arguments that I make in my book is that one of CUFI’s underlying aims is to transform their version of pro-Israel support into a form of cultural common-sense, at the same time making it equally a part of what counts as acceptable Christianity. One way I argue they achieve this is through a language of mythmaking that blends theological beliefs about Israel into the language of American exceptionalism and Christian Nationalism, wherein support for the even the most far-right Israeli policies become acts of religious and national piety. In short, I argue that Christian Zionists were working to define what it meant to be truly American and truly Christian. Among other things, support for Israeli expansion into the occupied territories and opposition to a two-state solution became part of that litmus test. At the time that I was writing the book, I didn’t make any predictions about whether they would be successful. However, it is hard not to view the Trump Administration’s latest declaration about the legality of Israeli settlements as anything but a success for Christian Zionists, and the further blurring of lines between the Christian Right’s beliefs in biblical laws and this Administration’s. For Christian Zionists like Hagee, the settlements have never been illegal because God’s law supersedes international law—and now, it seems, so do the laws of Israel and the United States.
With that in mind, when, at the same press conference, Pompeo asserted that “The hard truth is that there will never be a judicial resolution to the conflict, and arguments about who is right and who is wrong as a matter of international law will not bring peace” It reminded me a great deal of something that one of CUFI’s leaders explained to me and others in attendance at one of CUFI’s pro-Israel events that I attended a few years ago. “The solution to the conflict in the Middle East is probably going to require the return of the Messiah. It’s extremely complicated to come up with a solution.”