Mixing prophecy and politics
Christian Zionists are growing in influence - even as they fight for policies their critics say work against peace in the Mideast. For these believers, it's all about fulfilling biblical prophecy.
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To this end, Christian groups have sponsored the migration of thousands of Jews from Russia, Ethiopia, and other countries. They've funneled resources into social programs for Israeli communities, and they encourage churches in the US to support Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.Skip to next paragraph
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"We stand for the right that all the land that God gave under the Abrahamic covenant 4,000 years ago is Israel's ... and He will regulate the affairs of how Israel comes into the allotment which is hers forever," says the Rev. Malcolm Hedding, director of International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ), the largest of the Zionist groups with branches in 55 countries. Biblical Zionism rejects any effort to read the Scriptures spiritually or allegorically, Mr. Hedding says. "There is no such thing as a Palestinian," he adds.
Christian Zionism is a more recent term for a 19th-century theology that began in England, called premillennial dispensationalism. It divides history into eras (dispensations) based on a complex interpretation of biblical texts in books such as Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation. Most other Christian groups view these prophecies as predictions fulfilled long ago or as visions with a purely symbolic or spiritual meaning. But premillennialists insist they will occur on earth in the future.
Israel's creation in 1948 and the Six-Day War of 1967 - in which Israel captured all of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza - galvanized premillennialists to believe the Last Days had begun. Mr. Lindsey's book, the nonfiction bestseller of the 1970s, popularized premillennialist teachings for millions of Americans and put Israel right at the center, says Donald Wagner, professor of religion and Middle East studies at North Park University in Chicago. Lindsey started a consultant business, Dr. Wagner says, which involved sessions with the Pentagon, CIA, Israeli generals, and the US Congress.
But Lindsey wasn't the first premillennialist author to leave his mark. William Blackstone, a fundamentalist lay preacher in the US, wrote a 1882 bestseller, "Jesus Is Coming," and in 1891 organized the first campaign in support of a Jewish state in the Middle East. Premillennialists in the British imperial government included Lord Arthur Balfour and Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who were the first to officially promise a Jewish homeland with the 1917 Balfour Declaration.
In the US, premillennialist teaching has spread through TV and radio evangelists and, most recently, the "Left Behind" novels and prophecy websites.
Supporters range from avid believers to more passive participants who nonetheless believe in prophecy and watch for its fulfillment, scholars say. Such teaching may attract more followers in times of stress, observers suggest, as it offers one explanation for disturbing world events.
"[Christian Zionists] create a worldview into which people walk and don't realize how big a move they've made," says Martin Marty, religious historian and co- director of the Fundamentalist Project, set up to study worldwide religious reaction to modernity. There are sincere people in the movement who pray for the conversion of Israel but don't take up the political program, he says.
But he and others, including some Evangelicals, are increasingly concerned that many Christian Zionists have become activists whose actions could ultimately have serious - even disastrous - consequences.
"The danger is that, when people believe they 'know' how things are going to turn out and then act on those convictions, they can make these prophecies self-fulfilling, and bring on some of the things they predict," says the Rev. Timothy Weber, president of Memphis Theological Seminary in Tennessee, and author of "On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel's Best Friend."