This week, Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the nation's largest pro-Israel organization, will host a virtual summit in lieu of what was originally expected to be a major conference in Washington. Featured speakers include a lineup of top U.S. and Israeli officials: Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Republican Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton.
In a recent sermon, John Hagee, founder and chairman of CUFI, alleged that the coronavirus "was not an accident, it was planned." He claimed that liberal American politicians, the media and China have conspired to extend the pandemic into November to further disrupt the U.S. economy and undermine President Donald Trump's reelection campaign. CUFI has complained that the conspiracy behind the pandemic has distracted the U.S. government from its role in the Middle East.
And we can't simply dismiss Hagee and his conspiratorial rhetoric, because CUFI represents a formidable constituency that lobbies politicians and other religious groups in support of Israel. Hagee claims to have influenced Trump's transfer of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and offered a prayer at its dedication, praised the assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani and was present in the East Room of the White House when Trump discussed his Middle East peace plan.
Hagee believes that his movement is a fulfillment of Bible prophecy. His rhetoric is often nationalistic, claiming that America plays a God-ordained role in Israel's politics.
But revisiting the historical background of CUFI's ideology - called dispensationalism - reveals an apocalyptic motivation that should make people even more wary of CUFI's influence than Hagee's extremist rhetoric, which has the potential to warp U.S. policy.
Most modern evangelicals who believe that the United States has a divinely sanctioned mission to secure the state of Israel can trace their worldview to William E. Blackstone, a Chicago businessman turned preacher. Between the 1870s and 1890s, Blackstone became a key proponent of dispensationalism, the theological view that Israel will play a central role in the final events of Earth's history.
In 1878, Blackstone published "Jesus Is Coming," which built on previous iterations of dispensationalist ideology. He laid out a sweeping forecast of future events. First on the agenda was the return of the Jews to the land that was then Palestine. Once that was accomplished, the "rapture" would take place, meaning Christian believers physically would be taken to heaven while unbelievers and Jews would be left behind.
In his story, the Antichrist then emerges to take control of the Middle East and pretends to offer peace to Israel by allowing the Jews to rebuild their temple. But before long the Antichrist turns on the Jews, outlaws their religion, demands worship from them and leads a global military conglomerate against Israel.
Dispensationalists deem this phase "the time of Jacob's trouble," in which one-third of Jews convert to Christianity and are saved accordingly, while the majority are killed.
Jesus then returns from heaven with the previously raptured believers, defeats the Antichrist at the battle of Armageddon and establishes his kingdom on Earth.
Blackstone cared little about the details of how only a third of Jews would convert to Christianity, but what was certain to him was the "awful time of trouble awaiting" Israel.
The catalyst in the whole dispensationalist program was the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state.
Historian Matthew Sutton has shown how the publication of Blackstone's book "signaled the beginning of a radical new religious movement that eventually transformed the faith of millions in the United States." It sold more than 1 million copies and was printed in 48 languages, "making it one of the most influential religious books of the twentieth century."
What set Blackstone apart from previous dispensationalists - and what still resonates - was his insistence that the United States was God's appointed political agent to ensure that the prophetic scheme would be fulfilled. Before the rise of political Zionism and the work of Theodore Herzl, Blackstone petitioned successive presidents to establish a Jewish state of Israel.
A promising opportunity came during World War I when Britain's Balfour Declaration pledged to create a national home for Jews. Britain's leading political strategists were not dispensationalists; they were motivated more by political factors, including the hope that American Jews would influence the United States to join the Allies in the war. Notwithstanding their different motives, Blackstone urged President Woodrow Wilson to endorse the Balfour Declaration and emphasized that America was "God's chosen instrument in these last days" to secure Palestine for the Jews.
American Zionist leaders like Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis recognized Blackstone's pioneering work, considering him "the Father of Zionism" because his work antedated the rise of political Zionism. Yet their praise reflected how Blackstone often held back the bleak elements of his dispensationalist views, particularly his belief that Jews would be persecuted in their homeland before the rapture, to make his lobbying more palatable.
Blackstone died in 1935, but his dispensationalist successors kept alive the familiar refrain of their end-time scenario. Most influential would be John Hagee, coming on the scene in the 1970s, who revived the political aspect of Blackstone's dispensationalism with enormous impact. He too sees America as God's tool for carrying out this prophecy in geopolitical terms. Hagee even welcomes the harnessing of military power to carry out a mission he believes to be fulfilling God's will.
While Blackstone's generation of dispensationalists never established a centralized organization capable of leveraging political or economic might behind the Christian Zionist cause, Hagee has. CUFI supports a conservative agenda on social issues and has been aided by the rise of the evangelical right in the Republican Party, giving it increasing influence in American politics.
When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke at the 2019 CUFI convention in Washington, he praised Blackstone's lobbying that "helped convince" Wilson to support a homeland for Jews. Blackstone, Pompeo continued, laid the groundwork for the establishment of Israel in 1948. Pompeo has publicly stated his belief in the rapture and believes that God may have raised up Trump to defend Israel. Vice President Pence is also an outspoken supporter of CUFI and imbibes this type of Christian Zionism.
But CUFI's advocacy should give Christians pause. Although dispensationalism claims to be based on biblical prophecy, it is actually at odds with it. There is a rich history of apocalyptic hope in the Christian tradition that does not ascribe to the United States a divinely sanctioned role as God's chosen instrument. Instead, biblical apocalypticism draws a sharp contrast between the kingdom of God and earthly governments and is a dissenting witness against ideologies of empire and militarism.
Dispensationalist Christian Zionism, by contrast, has a dogmatic apocalyptic ideology fixated on specific geopolitical developments, and for adherents its political aims must be carried out at all costs, no matter what the consequences or how extreme the measures. Perhaps this is why Hagee encouraged a "maximum pressure campaign" against Iran and urged audiences in 2016 to vote for the candidate who would "make the U.S. military great again." This religio-political agenda depicts measured diplomacy as weakness and stokes an aggressive approach to foreign policy that fuels unrest and tension in an already volatile region.
Ideas have real consequences, and for Christians and Jews alike, weaponizing biblical prophecy for political ends should be too high a price to pay.
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Rosario is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge researching American religious and political history.