WASHINGTON, November 22 (By Carl Schreck for RIA Novosti) The recent eruption of violence between Israel and Hamas, which agreed to a cease-fire in the Gaza conflict Wednesday, has turned a spotlight once again on the thriving grassroots support among American evangelical Christians for the state of Israel.
“It’s an odd coalition in many ways,” said Randall Balmer, an expert on American religious history at Dartmouth College, noting that many American evangelicals ultimately desire to convert Jews to Christianity.
Whatever the motivation for this support, Israel is happy to have it, Balmer added.
“Israel will take any allies that they can get,” he said.
Christians United for Israel (CUFI), one of the United States’ leading pro-Israel Christian groups, has launched a campaign this week to have Hamas banned from Twitter, noting that the US government has deemed Hamas a terrorist group and arguing that the social-networking service is illegally offering “material support for the group” by allowing it to tweet.
Meanwhile, Christians across the nation have been calling on Americans to pray for Israel in the conflict, while evangelical groups working with Jewish activists have been organizing deliveries of supplies to areas of southern Israel targeted by Hamas rockets fired from Gaza.
Experts on religion in America note the importance of Israel in popular strains of fundamentalist Christianity in the United States, which contend that the Jews must be in Israel in order to set the stage for the return of Jesus.
In this End Times scenario, Jews who do not convert to Christianity would not be spirited up to heaven alongside Christians. This has led some to scrutinize whether American evangelicals’ support for Israel has much at all in common with the interests of the Jewish people.
The willingness of Israel to embrace this support is due in part to the importance of the evangelical electorate in the United States, which is far greater in numbers than the Jewish electorate in America, said Diana Winston, a professor of media and religion at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
American evangelicals are also effective fundraisers for Israel, she noted.
“The evangelical political lobby on Israel is very formidable, and for Israelis, it’s more important to have a friend here and now rather than worry about what’s going to happen during the Second Coming,” Winston said.
Arguably the most influential figure in American evangelicals’ support for Israel is John Hagee, a Texas-based reverend who serves as the executive director of CUFI, which claims to have 1.2 million members.
Hagee has met in recent years with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as senior Israeli and US officials.
Hagee is no stranger to controversy. After he endorsed Republican Senator John McCain in the 2008 US presidential campaign, it emerged that Hagee had described Nazi leader Adolph Hitler in a 1990s sermon as carrying out God’s will by persecuting Jews, which resulted in the creation of a Jewish homeland in Israel.
Hagee has publicly denied that his organization’s support for the Israeli state has anything to do with an attempt to “hasten” the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
“Yes, like many Jews, we do believe that the creation of Israel was the fulfillment of biblical prophecy,” Hagee wrote in a 2010 essay. “…But since we are powerless to change these plans, our motives for standing with Israel come from elsewhere.”
CUFI spokesman Ari Morgenstern told RIA Novosti on Wednesday that American Christians and Israelis have shared values, including a “belief in freedom and democracy” and support for the right of Israel “to defend its people.”
The group bans proselytizing at its events, and suggestions that its members’ support for Israel is linked to End Times theology is false, Morgenstern added.
“Anyone who advances that myth is betraying a fundamental ignorance about Christian theology,” Morgenstern said.
But Kenneth Wald, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Florida, says for many rank-and-file American evangelicals, comprehension of the current geopolitical challenges facing Israel is of secondary importance.
“Their support is more for a transcendental Israel, not the real Israel that exists on the ground,” Wald told RIA Novosti. “It’s part of their excitement for the End Times.”
This may be changing, said Larry Eskridge, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals.
In recent years, there has been an “unmistakable increase” in the number of American Christians who have developed a more nuanced understanding of the Middle East and Israel’s role in the region, he said.
“There is a growth in the number of people who have a more balanced view as to what’s going on over there and an increased sympathy to the Palestinian side,” Eskridge said.
There is still broad adherence in America to the idea that Israel is key to the theological scenario in which Christians are whisked home to God, Eskridge said.
“But there are a lot of other folks who aren’t buying into that,” he said.