Walter Rodgers

A message for Israel and Evangelicals: Genesis isn’t a policy guide

With a dogmatic loyalty to Israel born out of a literal interpretation of the Bible, is the American Christian Right the new Jewish lobby in US politics? Mixing religion and statecraft isn’t just dangerous and unwise. It’s sacrilegious.

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I recently passed a local evangelical church here in rural New England with a sign that read: “We Love You Israel. Hold God’s Land.”

The sign is part of a wider phenomenon: the American Christian right’s dogmatic support for Israel and the Jewish state’s claim to the “Holy Land.” It’s a loyalty born out of a literal interpretation of the Bible and its apocalyptic narrative and a view that ascribes divinity to a physical place. And this reflexive support for Israel has spread to the broader conservative base and American political scene in general. Look no further than Glenn Beck’s “Restore Courage” trip to Jerusalem planned for this August, which at least one GOP presidential contender has noted he will attend.

Such religious attachment isn’t an isolated theological agenda. It’s at the heart and history of the conflict in the Middle East.

But with a Palestinian bid for statehood planned for September and escalating tensions in the region, there’s too much at stake to use God as a real estate broker. To avoid a potentially violent flash point, leaders must look to a peaceful constituency – not the political ploys – of the world’s great religions, all converging in this Holy Land.

Mixing religion and foreign policy

Mingling religion with foreign policy has a longstanding history: from the Islamic armies of Allah marching across the first millennium Christian world, followed later by two centuries of theologically dubious European Christians crusading across Mediterranean lands. In some respects, we moderns have never escaped medieval traditions. The problem is that these traditions are the foundation on which diplomats are still forced to build.

“Isn’t it unwise to use the Bible to settle real estate disputes?” I asked the pastor of the conservative congregation whose sign I’d passed.

“We take the Bible literally, every word,” he replied on the other end of the phone.

“What about Genesis 15:18, where Jehovah promised Jews all the land ‘from the river of Egypt [the Nile] unto the great river, the river Euphrates [think Baghdad]’?” I said, “Surely you don’t think Israelis have claim to a huge chunk of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, do you?”

The evangelical clergyman replied, “I am kind of excited to see what God will do for Israel.” He went on to tell me he thought all Arabs and Palestinians living within Israeli borders should be deported to neighboring Arab countries, an idea that has had underground currency in Israel for more than a decade. “God made a covenant with the Jews that the land would be theirs in perpetuity,” the minister explained.

Finally I asked, “When you say ‘Hold God’s land,’” I asked, “which God are you talking about? Isn’t the Islamic Allah just another name for God?”

“No, Allah is a false God,” the evangelical clergyman said, lending credence to Muslim fears that some in the West are out to delegitimize their faith.

The concept of 'The Holy Land'

At the root of the issue is the concept of “The Holy Land.” Although the idea of the Holy Land didn’t exist in Jesus’ time and didn’t emerge until some centuries later, Timothy Robinson, a theology professor at Bright Divinity School at Texas Christian University, noted that “for a lot of Christians, there is a deep connection to earth where Jesus may have walked.”

Israeli tour guides often fabricate facts to gull the would-be pilgrims, Mr. Robinson said. “There is a lot of tripe they feed the crowds, especially Evangelicals.” Israeli tour guides generally ignore genuine Christian holy sites in East Jerusalem like Lazarus’s tomb. That would divert tourist dollars to Arabs and lend legitimacy to Palestinian claims to being the “first Christians.”

The very idea of the Holy Land is a sticky wicket. So many of the sites in the “Holy Land” are simply “traditional,” lacking any historical corroboration. The grotto below the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, said to be where Jesus was born, is a prime example. I recall a discussion I had with one Israeli rabbi who privately acknowledged the worship of land itself probably violated the second commandment against graven images.

Theologically based claims to the Holy Land drive politics and undermine peace in the region. When the US Congress slavishly cheered and fawned over Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in his recent address to a joint meeting of the House and Senate, it was, I suspect, as much this evangelical Christian constituency that lawmakers were pandering to as to the “Jewish Lobby.”

Mixing religion and statecraft isn’t simply dangerous and unwise; it also smacks of sacrilege.

Zealots and policymakers alike need to shift away from any obsession with the concept of a Holy Land and recognize that thousands of years of worshiping real estate has only produced several millenniums of war and shameful bloodshed. If there remains any constituency for peace, then the angels of humanity’s better nature – charity, tolerance, and simple decency – must supersede the religious triumphalism that seems to be too much in evidence today.

Walter Rodgers, who served as the CNN bureau chief in Jerusalem for 5-1/2 years, writes a biweekly column.

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