Here's a line you wouldn't have heard during many church sermons inthe last, say, 2,000 years: "Father, we thank you for the Jews."
Or: "We thank you for the fact that they're the Chosen People throughout history."
Yet, as surprising as such sentiments would have been to earliergenerations, they've become commonplace in recent decades among tens ofmillions of American evangelicals - Christians for whom support of Jewsand Israel has become not just a question of politics and morality, buta religious obligation.
The lines quoted above, for example, are spoken by the faithful in Waiting for Armageddon,a documentary opening Friday at the Cinema Village in New York's EastVillage that follows evangelicals both to churches around the countryand on a study tour of Israel.
Articulate, informed and above all passionate, the film'sChristian subjects offer insight into their 50-million-membercommunity, ranging from its beliefs about divine prophecy and Jewishhistory, to the role those views could have on peace efforts in theMiddle East.
"We felt that this was really an important topic, somethingthat was escaping a large part of the population," says Franco Sacchi,one of the film's directors and producers. "They seemed not to be awareof this phenomenon of Christian passion for the End of Times andIsrael."
For at least a subset of Israelis, the phenomenon is already familiar: Waiting for Armageddonnotes that American evangelicals donate tens of millions of dollars tothe country annually, and shows a clip of then-prime minister EhudOlmert giving thanks via satellite to a large conference of Christians.Evangelicals, the film notes, have for years been among Israel's mostdependable visitors, propping up the country's tourism industry duringthe second intifada, as well as in other periods of distress.
AT THE same time, as some of the interviewees make clear, thatsupport comes attached to a very specific set of political ideas -ideas that could limit Israel's room for maneuver in foreign affairs,for example, and others that might strike many Jews as theologicallyproblematic.
"With Orthodox Judaism, deep down inside," says Roy Sanders,the director of Christian Friends of Israel, "there's no love, there'sno hope. There's no future."
Instead, many evangelicals believe, Jews will convert toChristianity or die - a development they expect to coincide with thebeginning of Armageddon.
The need to support Israel, in this view, derives less from alove of Jews on their own terms than from a belief that Jews mustcontrol the biblical land of Israel - all of it - for the Second Comingto occur.
Perhaps most significantly, several of the influentialevangelicals shown in the documentary - allies of figures like JohnMcCain - would seek to constrain Israel's autonomy in peace talks,believing that a final and cataclysmic war must break out for NewTestament prophecies to be fulfilled.
Rather than something to be prayed for, peace, in their view, represents a barrier to God's will.
Although he doesn't deny his own views on the topic, Sacchi saysthe filmmakers worked conscientiously to provide a fair depiction bothof American evangelicals and of their skeptics. Portrayed by someopponents as ignorant and superstitious, evangelicals are representedin Waiting for Armageddon by a different set of faces. Alongwith believers from Oklahoma and Texas, the film also introducesviewers to James and Laura Bagg, a married pair of engineers fromConnecticut, as well as believers from the consistently "blue" state ofOregon.
"The number one thing that we wanted to avoid was to ridiculeor make fun of the evangelicals, because that would create aconfrontation, not a debate," Sacchi says. "What we are looking for isa conversation. We are really hoping to break this barrier with thefilm, that people will see it and think and reflect on it."
TO ACHIEVE that end, Sacchi will appear alongside the film'sother directors, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, at a pre-releasediscussion today, billed as an interfaith conversation about theevangelical movement.
Ultimately, Sacchi concedes, moviegoers' conclusions may beless important than those of Israelis, who must weigh the benefits ofevangelical support against the various agendas that underlie it.
"That's a very difficult question," he says. "I don't have ananswer. One thing that I learned from my time in Israel is that it isan incredibly lively society, where you will find all kinds ofpositions.... Certainly, we found Israelis who said that they areextremely grateful for this support. Others look at it in a verypractical way, and others are much more cautious, [seeing it as] arecipe for disaster."
Not faced with an abundance of outside assistance, Israelis, he acknowledges, are faced with a complicated decision.
Nevertheless, he says, "it would be crazy to accept all kinds ofhelp without looking at the deeper motives. I'm not saying not toaccept help, but to pay attention and look at who it is who's givingit."