“Why do evangelicals love the Jews?”
For years I’ve heard that question asked in various forms, albeit almost always indirectly. Sometimes it comes from Christians skeptical of Zionism; other times from appreciative but suspicious Jews. The underlying subtext, though, is almost always the same: There must be something amiss about evangelicals’ peculiar attachment.
I think I know the answer to the question. I’ve spent thirty-five years—since the age of six—as an evangelical. I’ve attended hundreds of churches and engaged thousands of my fellow evangelicals. While I’m not qualified to provide a theological explanation, I do believe my experiences can help shed light on the subject from a sociological perspective.
Too often such questions are posed only to intellectual elites while the “view from the pews” is overlooked. The perspective of the common evangelical may not be as sophisticated as that of a seminary professor, but it is important for Jewish-Evangelical relations that it be properly understood.
For example, too often it is assumed that evangelicals’ affection for Jews and Israel is primarily motivated by eschatology. This concern, while overstated, is not without warrant. One of the dominant eschatological views within evangelicalism is premillenial dispensationalism, a system that carves out a significant role for an earthly Jewish state in the events at the end of days. Some of the beliefs of dispensationalism include the concept that Christ offered to the Jews the Davidic kingdom in the first century but they rejected it, and it was postponed until the future; that the current church age is a “parenthesis” unknown to the Old Testament prophets; and that God has separated programs for the church and Israel.
Although introduced in American churches in the 1800s, dispensationalism’s primary influence over the last few decades has been in the form of best-selling works of apocalyptic fiction (especially the Left Behind series of novels) and pop-theology (e.g., Hal Lindsey’s, The Late Great Planet Earth). Because of the ubiquity of dispensational themes in evangelical pop culture, it’s reasonable to assume that it must be the catalyst for evangelical Judeophilia.
However, not all philo-Semites are dispensationlists. (I myself am an amillennialist.) The common thread is not beliefs rooted in Revelation, but rather a perspective shaped by the Bible’s first thirty-nine books. It is this Old Testament-oriented biblicism that accounts for the modern evangelical’s attitude toward the Jews
Biblicism is a core characteristic of evangelicalism. The term is often defined as a “literal interpretation of the Bible,” but this is misleading since no evangelical truly interprets the Bible literally. Instead, as Dan Waugh clarifies, the evangelical form of biblicism is interpreting the Bible “faithfully”:
By faithfully I mean that we take portions of the Bible literally that were intended to be taken, and present them in a literal fashion. In this category, I would include the Old Testament stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, Joshua, David and the like. Also, I would include all the Gospel stories of miracles, including the literally bodily resurrection of Jesus. This sets me apart, and other evangelicals apart from those who interpret these stories as great myths or merely nice religious stories with no factual basis. Much of the Bible is written as a historical record of God’s interaction with his creation. These events are presented as literal facts and must be taken by the faithful Bible interpreter literally—in the natural, intended sense of the author.
For many evangelicals—myself included—the Bible not only records a faithful account of history but also documents the very invention of history by the Hebrew people. The events recorded in the historical books of the Old Testament are not only an account of significant events in ancient history, but are the most important events from the creation of the universe until the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The tale of the Hebrews is one of the most important stories in the history of the world.
Of course, this view of the Bible is not unique to evangelicals. Many other Christian groups share a “faithful” view of Scripture. But the difference is that in many of the other branches of Christianity (e.g., Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy) the Bible shares a place with Tradition. For evangelicals, though, the Bible largely is the tradition.
Lacking a heritage that includes centuries of saints and martyrs and venerable ecclesiastical institutions, we evangelicals turn to the Old and New Testaments for our models and heroes of the faith. The evangelical may not be able to identify Saint Anthony, Christopher, or Demetrius of Thessalonik, but we know—and revere—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. To paraphrase an old Willie Nelson song, our heroes have always been Hebrews.
Indeed, it is almost impossible to overstate the influence of the Old Testament on the evangelical imagination. In its most basic sense, the evangelical mind is an anomalous type of the Hebraic mind. Modern Jews might sneer at the presumptuous nature of the connection, but it is a truism that evangelicals consider themselves to be the other “People of the Book.”
Another related influence on our philo-Semitism is evangelicals’ truncated view of Jewish history. For many evangelicals, the Jewish people exited the stage of history after the destruction of the temple in a.d. 70 and only reemerged in the 1940s with the Holocaust and the birth of modern Israel. For too many evangelicals, the “Diaspora” might as well be a Yiddish term for “intermission.”
While such historical ignorance is inexcusable (if not uncommon among Americans), it has had the salutatory effect of keeping evangelicalism free, by and large, from the taint of anti-Semitism. The horrors of the Holocaust—which were occurring during the same years the modern evangelical movement was being born—also seared our conscience and deepened our sympathy for “God’s chosen people.” For a people steeped in the world of Esther and Joshua, the persecution of European Jews and the reestablishment of the nation of Israel are more than world-historical events. They are the continuation of a story that began with Abraham.
The result of making the unmediated connection between ancient Hebrews and modern Jews is that many evangelicals are accidental Zionists. The idea that the Jews have a right to the land of Israel is simply not something that many evangelicals question. It is akin, in many ways, to how some consider the historically and theologically novel concept of the Rapture to be Biblical. Many of them simply never considered it an issue that was necessary to question.
Political buttresses shore this theological intuition up. The fact that many theologically conservative evangelicals are also aligned with political conservatism—a movement which has developed strong Zionist sympathies—has helped to reinforce the idea that the Jews have a natural right to dwell in Israel.
Such an explanation may seem to bolster the stereotype that we evangelicals are uneducated and easily led—especially by the nefarious neo-cons. But the truth is that few Americans form their geo-political views based on objective foreign policy realism. Evangelicals are not unique in letting our sympathies and prejudices shape our political preferences. And we do have our reasons; it’s just that our theonomic justifications for Zionism are offensive to those who believe all political views must be secularized and denatured of religious influence. That, of course, is their problem and not ours. While it might not be polite to admit in liberal cosmopolitan company, there is nothing illogical or unreasonable about believing that the tribe of Judah has a historical right and providential claim to the land of Israel.
It is worth noting, however, that just as not all evangelicals are dispensationalists, not all evangelicals are Zionists. Supporting Jews as a people does not necessarily require supporting Israel as a state. For many of us, though, Zionism is another natural outworking of the regard we have for the Jewish people.
Even so, the suspicion many Jews have toward the motives of evangelicals is understandable. As David Goldman once noted, “The tragedy of Christendom’s encounter with the Jews has no end of telling.” There is no easy way to convince a people that your religion’s shameful history of anti-Semitism is almost as inexplicable to you as it is to them.
But perhaps it would help if they understood the third reason we evangelicals have a special affection for our Jewish neighbor: Because we know that God has a special affection for them too.
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things.
Dan Waugh, Do Evangelicals Take The Bible Literally?