White evangelicals used to dominate Christian Zionism, but not anymore

'The Atlantic' explores how the Christian Zionist movement is undergoing a transformation, both theologically and geographically.

Thousands of Christians march in Jerusalem / Udi Shaham
JERUSALEM—The scene was like a contemporary Christian music concert, but with a lot more Jewish swag. European pilgrims wore Star of David jewelry as they swayed among the palm trees of Ein Gedi, an oasis in the Judean desert. Spanish delegates sported matching “España loves Israel” T-shirts. A tiny woman from China jogged around waving a person-sized flag bearing a Hebrew word for God, while another Chinese woman periodically blew a giant shofar, the ram’s horn that is sacred in Judaism. The crowd sang songs from the Psalms, following transliterated Hebrew on giant television screens. As night fell, their chorus of “holy, holy, worthy, worthy” seemed to fill the desert.
This was the opening ceremony for the 2017 Feast of the Tabernacles, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem’s annual celebration held during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. More than 6,000 Christians from all over the world had come to show their love for Israel, and I tagged along with ICEJ spokesperson David Parsons and his wife, Josepha. “It’s like a pre-celebration before Moshiach comes,” she explained, using the Hebrew word for messiah.
Christian Zionism typically involves a belief that Jews must return to Israel in order to fulfill biblical prophecy. While the movement long predates the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, it got new energy from the American religious right in the 1980s. Now, according to Daniel Hummel, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the movement is undergoing a transformation, both theologically and geographically.
The ICEJ Feast is an example of a broader shift within Christian Zionism toward Pentecostal or charismatic traditions: Many attendees come out of traditions that emphasize present-day miracles, ecstatic worship, and God’s healing powers. The ICEJ also has an international rather than American focus: Parsons, an amiable North Carolinian who has lived in Israel for decades and casually uses Yiddish phrases like “oy oy oy,” proudly noted that Americans made up less than 10 percent of the Feast’s attendees this year.
Israel often stands alone on the international stage, save for the one ally that almost always comes to its rescue: the United States. Conservative Christians in America have long reinforced that partnership. In the future, though, Christians outside the US may prove more organized and influential when it comes to Israel than their American counterparts.
White, American evangelicals have long been some of the most visible leaders in the Christian Zionist movement. In the 1980s, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority made Israel a Republican policy priority. Decades later, Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the Christian Zionist organization led by the Texas pastor John Hagee, is enjoying remarkable access to the Trump administration; Vice President Mike Pence addressed the group in Washington in July. At this year’s ICEJ Feast, a number of attendees expressed admiration for President Trump, who is more supportive of Israel than past administrations, they said. Charles Null, a 66-year-old pastor from Florida, noted that “I actually had hair” when he and his wife started coming to Israel. He wore a Make America Great Again cap.
Yet, there are signs that the ICEJ, founded in 1980, will have a more lasting influence on Israel than its American counterparts, Hummel said. This year’s Feast drew attendees from nearly 100 countries, according to the group, which is “by far the largest reach that any of the big Christian Zionist organizations have,” Hummel said. Other than CUFI, he added, no other group has as much visibility and contact with the Israeli government. And some Christian Zionists in America worry that they haven’t effectively reached young evangelicals with their message. “I don’t think it would be surprising if after Hagee dies, CUFI goes away,” Hummel said.
By contrast, local volunteers in roughly 86 countries coordinate activities and recruit delegations to attend the ICEJ Feast; the organization can legitimately claim that it represents a global, grassroots network. “The Embassy sees the future in the non-American Christian community,” said Hummel. “It’s another reason why the Embassy is a much more appealing partner than Americans.”
“We need these people to be our allies in the UN.”
Thousands of Christians march in Jerusalem / Udi Shaham
ICEJ has expanded in tandem with the rise of global Pentecostal movements. Parsons said the Embassy’s presence has been growing in Asia, Latin America and Africa, where Pentecostal revivals among the middle class are reshaping the religious landscape. In Brazil, for example, the Catholic Church is quickly losing followers to these lively churches. Dozens of people in this year’s Brazilian delegation traveled 22 hours to get to the Feast, said 33-year-old Alexandre Morales, who was there for the fifth time. “Our baby boy was conceived here, and his name is Israel,” he told me.
Local ICEJ representatives often seek to influence their home country’s politics and culture. Jehu Chan, 67, an evangelical who runs ICEJ’s program in Singapore with his wife, Christine Jael, was trained for military service years ago by the Israeli Defense Forces. Along with reaching potential Christian converts in his home country, he hopes to correct the record about Israel—even in Singapore, a country with a very friendly relationship with Israel. “There’s a lot of fake news about Israel,” he told me.
Many of the delegates came from countries that explicitly oppose Israeli policies. On the day of the Jerusalem March, when thousands of Feast participants parade through the city, a group from South Africa wore T-shirts declaring, “Am Yisrael Chai,” or “the People of Israel lives.” A year ago, the South African delegation to UNESCO—the United Nations body that protects the world’s cultural heritage—voted for a resolution that implicitly denied the Jewish claim to the Temple Mount, a contested holy site in Jerusalem. (This month, the United States and Israel both announced decisions to leave UNESCO over this and other related issues.)
This may be one reason why the Israeli government bothers to confer its blessing on the Feast: This year, as in the past, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shared his greeting via a taped message.
“The future investment the state is doing is hoping that these groups end up actually representing important players in their own countries,” Hummel said.
A number of organizations—including Jewish ones—are investing in the same hope. At the Pais Arena, the giant Jerusalem venue (Tribune News Service) - where most of the Feast was held, attendees could visit a booth for Israel 365, an organization founded by a Modern Orthodox rabbi that aggregates news about Israel into newsletters for largely Christian audiences. Visitors could learn to shake a lulav and etrog, the fronds and fruit traditionally waved during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, or take selfies with an image of the “soon-to-be Third Temple,” as Maayan Hoffman, the director of publishing, called it. “When it comes to diplomatic support, evangelicals are our best friends,” she said. “We need these people to be our allies in the UN.” They’re also good for business: In addition to having a non-profit arm, Israel 365 also acts as a for-profit consultancy to organizations and companies that want to reach Christians.
All the Christians I met at the Feast saw Israel as central to their understanding of Christianity. Julio Caesar, a 49-year-old pastor from Madrid, said his church holds a special Friday service to honor Israel and pray for peace in Jerusalem. Gift Sabeno, a 36-year-old from Angola, said he has “concerns about what we see in the news” about the Arab-Israeli conflict, but “we can pray and know it is being changed while we’re praying.” Most people didn’t have a deep knowledge of the country’s complicated politics. “I think it’s a shame that it’s been like this,” said 18-year-old Drea Fosse of Norway, who supports Israel “100 percent” and can sing the words to “Hava Nagila” from memory. But on the conflict, she said, “I think I have too little knowledge to say something.” Lydia Tang, a 35-year-old delegate from China, said she is not at all concerned about Palestinian humanitarian issues or Israel’s conflict with its Arab neighbors. “God can take care of that,” she said. None of the people I met said they had any interaction with Arabs during their visit to Israel, except for the delegation of 20-something women from Samoa, who had befriended a Muslim woman at their hostel.
Few Feast attendees said they had interacted with Jews in Israel, either, outside of the occasional tour guide or Messianic Jews, people who claim Jewish heritage and practice but embrace Christian teachings. Other than speakers and presenters, Jews do not attend the ICEJ’s annual event.
While some Christian Zionist movements can seem actively hostile toward Jews—particularly those that emphasize supersessionism, the teaching that Christianity has displaced the Jewish covenant with God—Feast attendees were wary of saying that Jews should convert. At most, said 46-year-old Marco Canovas from Sao Paolo, he hopes Jews might learn about Jesus—slowly, on their own time. For its part, the ICEJ scrupulously tries to avoid any impression of proselytization, which is prohibited under Israeli law. “We’re a Christian Zionist organization focused on the restoration of Israel, but we’re also interested in the Jewishness of Jesus,” Parsons said.
At the Jerusalem March, Jewish families stood at the edge of a holding area for participants, watching men in traditional Thai costumes blowing shofars and crowds of Finnish tourists singing Jewish folk songs. They weren’t bothered. “It’s cute,” said Rivka Horowitz, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman who visits the Feast every year with her family. If they were bemused at the whole spectacle, they also saw its advantages. “Usually we have rocks thrown at us,” her husband, Zev, added. “Today, we’re being thrown candy.”
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