In America, what has come to be known as Christian Zionism dates back to the Puritan era of the 1600s, and while there’s nothing new about Biblically-inspired Christians being interested in Israel and the Jews, the Christian Zionist movement in our country has gone through — and is still going through — a profound evolution.
These are the core ideas explored in a new book titled “God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America” (2018, University of Pennsylvania Press). The author is Samuel Goldman, a Harvard Ph.D. who teaches political science and who is executive director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University.
Christian Zionist is a term used today to describe Christians who, based on their Biblical beliefs, support Jews having a sovereign and secure country — i.e. the modern state of Israel — and see the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland as the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. They believe that God himself has bequeathed the land to the Jewish people.
Yet, while Israel was not reborn as a modern Jewish state until 1948, Goldman, in an extremely enlightening book, demonstrates that the idea of God’s Chosen People returning to their homeland one day was of intense interest and inspiration to some of the most famed Puritan-era leaders.
In fact, throughout much of American history, as Goldman documents, there even has been a recurring belief among Biblically-inspired Christians that links the birth and success of America to the once-prophesied, now-realized return of the Jews to their holy land.
A key turning point in the development of Christian Zionism came in the 1980s with the advent of the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and the Israeli government’s embrace of this new, well-organized political force. From there a new, still-evolving partnership took hold among America’s Christian and Jewish Zionists and Israeli leaders, especially encouraged by then Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Along the way, many Christian Zionists began to shift away from publicly emphasizing their belief that the restoration of the Jewish people to the land of Israel was a Biblically-required necessity for Jesus to return, at which time Jews would accept him as the true Messiah.
The reason, according to Goldman, is that Christian Zionist leaders wanted good relations with the Jewish community and articulating this conversion belief made Jews uncomfortable. As many Christian Zionist leaders have learned, Jews become uneasy when they sense the integrity and legitimacy of their own religion is being diminished.
This, of course, frames the potential awkwardness in the relationship between Jews and Christian Zionists. Yet both are learning to circumvent this by building a partnership where Jews respect the right of Christians to espouse their faith and Christians in turn recognize that suggestions of conversion, and especially proselytizing, make Jews uncomfortable. Christian Zionist leaders today also emphasize that they see Jews as their spiritual ancestors and current cousins, especially given that Jesus was Jewish.
Christian Zionists also lament and atone for Christian inaction during the Holocaust and know that centuries of Christian attacks on the Jewish faith was one of the factors that created a climate that empowered Adolf Hitler and his Nazi followers to murder 6 million Jews.
Finally, Goldman’s book suggests that based on a Pew research study that shows more and more Americans opting out of organized religion, that evangelical Christianity, where Christian Zionism is anchored, might have fewer adherents in the future, thus less influence. But this remains to be seen.
For now, Christian Zionists continue as a powerful political and religious force in America. Christians United for Israel, arguably America’s most influential Christian Zionist organization, has grown from 400 members in 2006 to 5 million today, according to the group.
Christian Zionists are proud and determined. Genesis 12:3 promises them, as Goldman notes, that if they support Israel they will be blessed. If not, they will be cursed. They are an important source of support for the Jewish state.
They advocate for Israel’s right to exist and defend itself. They favor Israel’s continued presence in Judea and Samaria (which more recently has become known as the West Bank). They rejoice in the extraordinary saga of the ingathering of the exiles, the return of the Jews to their homeland from every corner of the world, just as the Bible promised — and America’s Puritan leaders believed would happen one day.