Guest Columnist: Jimmy Carter's Christian problem

Blaming Israel for the region's problems may be his way of attacking conservatives within his own church.

jimmy carter 88 224 (photo credit: )
jimmy carter 88 224
(photo credit: )
The historical Jesus was a Jew, which remains an often vexing circumstance for many Christians. How this impacts Christian attitudes toward Judaism and the State of Israel is equally complicated. A quick review of both helps explain former US president Jimmy Carter's antagonism toward Israel, which is once again in the spotlight now that he has become an outspoken apologist for Hamas. Christianity has innumerable theological, political and social fault lines. Two broadly defined alignments within Protestantism - itself a division of the larger Christian world that includes the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches - are liberal Protestants and conservative, or more traditional, Protestants. The former grouping includes the so-called mainline churches - Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Episcopalians/Anglicans - while the latter category includes fundamentalists and most evangelicals. Liberal and conservative Christians - like liberal and traditionalist Jews, Muslims and virtually every other religious grouping - tend to emphasize those aspects of scripture with which they are most comfortable. When it comes to the Hebrew Bible - what Christians call the Old Testament - liberal Protestants tend to favor the ethical teachings, which they generally interpret as demanding support for those perceived to be victimized by a fallen and unjust world. Palestinian Arabs have been cast in this role by the liberal churches without their fully considering - and sometimes purposefully obfuscating - the part that Palestinian rejectionism, violence and corruption has played in worsening the Palestinian plight. In contrast, conservatives, and most evangelicals in particular, often give more weight to the Jewish eschatological role, the so-called messianic end times they believe will culminate in Jesus's triumphant return to Earth. Israel plays a central role in the drama, which is why some traditionalist Protestants become outspoken Christian Zionists. Without a sovereign Israel and the ingathering of the Jews, they believe, there can be no second coming. ONE RESULT of this different view of scripture is that modern Israel has become a bitter point of contention in the ongoing theological culture war between liberal and conservative Protestants - a war in which Carter has long been a vocal partisan for the liberal side. In 2000, Carter famously quit the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the US, and one that in recent years has become increasingly socially and politically conservative, as well as increasingly vocal in its support of Israel. Despite the risk of indulging in pop psychology, it is not too great a stretch to say that Carter's indulgence for Hamas and his generally antagonistic attitude toward Israel is likely, at least to some degree, an extension of his personal conflict with a church - the SBC - that he left in a wrenching public breakup (he sent a letter explaining his opposition to church policies to 75,000 Baptists across America). Of course no one asked Israel - which, in truth, might not have come into being if not for early Christian Zionist support - whether it wished to play a role in the liberal versus conservative intra-church competition. Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish New Testament scholar at Nashville's liberal Protestant Vanderbilt Divinity School, has written extensively on contemporary Christian attitudes toward Jews and Israel. She notes that Christianity's historical problem with Jesus being a Jew continues to color for some Christians their understanding of contemporary Judaism and Israel. "Judaism becomes in such a discourse a negative: Whatever Jesus stands for, Judaism isn't it; whatever Jesus is against, Judaism epitomizes the category," she writes. How this came about is a long story. Suffice it to say it was not so much because of what the historical Jesus preached as it was a product of later teachings by the early church leaders who were the Christian religion's true architects. Their motives included fending off Roman hostility, appealing to gentiles and anger toward the Jewish establishment for rejecting Jesus as the messiah. What matters most today is that among Christians who employ Jesus for political ends - both liberals and conservatives do this, of course, but here Levine speaks of liberals - the Hebrew Bible's calls for justice are too often twisted into anti-Jewish and anti-Israel rants. "Jesus becomes the Palestinian martyr crucified once again by the Jews; he is the one killed by the 'patriarchal god of Judaism.'" She adds, "The history is dreadful, and the impression given of Judaism is obscene." Liberal Protestantism, both in North America and Europe, is experiencing a steep numerical decline. It has lost considerable ground to secular consumerism on the Left and the startling growth of more conservative churches on the Right. This is a galling proposition for a committed liberal Christian such as the former president, who took office in 1977 as America's first openly born-again chief executive. For Carter, blaming Israel for the Middle East's problems and cuddling up to those who are among the Jewish state's most implacable enemies is an indirect attack on conservative Christians, and most pointedly those who would identify themselves as Christian Zionists, his bitter theological rivals. The writer is an author and editor in Annapolis, Maryland, and a former newspaper religion writer.