Last Monday’s opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem featured prayers that provoked, just because of who said them. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, merited a front-page headline in the New York Times for having expressed the view that “Jews are going to hell.” John Hagee, a famous televangelist out of San Antonio, once speculated that perhaps the holocaust was God’s way of getting His chosen people back to Israel.
When that last remark was unearthed in 2008, it caused then-presidential candidate John McCain to reject Hagee’s endorsement. A propos of the embassy opening, McCain’s successor, Mitt Romney, tweeted his view of Jeffress as a “religious bigot.” And of course, the Internet responded by producing a greatest-hits list of horrifying quotes from both men.
That’s fine. But for any American of any other religious disposition, the main worry about the likes of Hagee and Jeffress is not their bigotry. It’s their eschatology. It’s not what such ministers may have said, half of which is easy for them to wash out in the waters of "context." It’s what they and their sizable flocks believe, in combination with the political power that they currently exercise.
“McCain and Romney: both losers,” you can practically hear Trump hit back at all the opprobrium. For once, he’d have a point.
Prior to Trump, the last Republican to win the White House was George W. Bush, an Evangelical who had seen his father lose the presidency by losing the support of Evangelicals and whose entire tenure reflected his determination not to make the same mistake.
Like W., Trump came into office under a cloud of questionable legitimacy, but had none of the advantages W. enjoyed both as a born-again Christian and as a favored Establishment son. So Trump has done what any survival-minded reality-t.v.-star president would do. He has boiled his governing philosophy down to the hook of a hit single. To quote Meghan Trainor, albeit with a small spelling twist at the end:
It’s all about that base.
For Trump, "that base" is, first and foremost the Christian right— a catch-all phrase that causes all kinds of problems for anyone who tries to write about it. Even as the bulk of their brethren continue to hail Trump as a perfectly serviceable messiah, a vocal minority of conservative Christians has railed against him. Meanwhile, extra-Trump developments, ranging from the various faith paths of younger Evangelicals to the failure of the world to end in 2000, mean that there is much more to the "Christian right" picture than the part I am about to paint. That said, it’s a pretty important part: a hard-core fundamentalist Christian cohort that remains extremely motivated, extremely organized, and extremely loyal to the president – which makes it extremely powerful.
Enter Jeffress and Hagee. Crucially for purposes of Jerusalem, both believe in dispensationalism, a doctrine that has long been of existential centrality to millions of Americans, yet somehow fails to register with almost everybody else.
Whether it’s being revered or ridiculed, dispensationalism is widely portrayed as a direct product of the Bible. But though it draws its references from the Old Testament, it didn’t take shape until the 1800’s. Since then, it has generated various versions whose adherents differ on a number of particulars, which I apologize for blurring here. But by and large, they believe that human history is divided into segments, in the course of which God tests His people and, so far, has flunked them. The last and most important of these “dispensations” will be the end of the world, which may or may not be at hand right now. At any moment, in the mind of the dispensationalist, Jesus Christ could initiate “the rapture” by coming through the clouds and summoning the “saved,” who will meet him in midair before all ascend to heaven. Unbelievers will be left behind to face the wrath of God in “the Tribulation”. (Hence the “Left Behind” series, which sold roughly 80 million copies.)
Next, Christ and his righteous army will return to earth to join a literal, physical battle against the forces of evil, led by an anti-Christ who will first have presented as an agent of peace. When this battle has ended, the winners will revel in the reign of their triumphal Lord, and the losers will fall into a fiery pit.
Again, there is some variety of opinion on exactly when and how all this will happen, but there’s no disagreement as to where. It all goes down in the land of Israel, the protection and promotion of which is therefore held by dispensationalists to be a matter of eternal life and death.
Faith is so funny. It makes total sense to the people who hold it and strikes everybody else as stark raving mad. As hard as it is for me to imagine taking all this Armageddon stuff literally, it is easy to imagine how crazy Catholics like myself probably strike dispensationalists with our notions about, say, bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ. Given this, I absolutely respect the right of any American to proclaim a dispensationalist view. The question is: should all Americans be represented by a Middle East policy that reflects it?
This is not a new question. In fact, nearly twenty years ago, I spent a good while asking it, for a piece that appeared in National Journal. To their credit, numerous then-leaders of the Christian right, including Jerry Falwell, Sr., were absolutely clear in their answer: yes! Falwell and company proudly expounded upon their belief not only that an end-of-days scenario would come to pass, but that U.S. policy toward Israel and the (distinctly less favored) Palestinians should unfold accordingly. I remember a top right-wing religious radio host assuring me, when I asked what should be done about the decidedly-temporal issue of any Palestinian refugees God might expel from the promised land, that they’d all fit fine in Jordan. Not long before, various of these sources had entertained the possibility that Bill Clinton, given all his years peddling the Oslo Accords, might have been the anti-Christ. Not long after, speculation turned to the thought that it might be Saddam Hussein. But speculation there was, and none too idle.
Unsurprisingly for a group that measures its policy positions against the yard stick of eternity, dispensationalists have not altered their point of view. What has changed, however, is American politics and their place in it. One need only compare Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell to their sons Franklin and Jerry Jr. to get the hint: for political purposes, the Christian right, with dispensationalism at its heart, has only become more strident. And under President Trump, it has only grown more powerful.
Of course, it was Ronald Reagan who forged the big modern alliance between the (white) reverends and the Republicans. But as Frances Fitzgerald points out in her recent masterwork, The Evangelicals, Reagan turned out to be so popular with such a wide variety of Americans, his political survival in no way depended upon Falwell and friends. The exact opposite is true of Trump. He needs these folks desperately, and he knows it.
In a way, it’s almost comforting to view the Trump presidency through the lens of this very simple reality. It explains everything.
OK, not everything, but Trump’s eagerness to please the Christian right explains an awful lot. It explains why he has not merely done the bidding of the right-to-life movement, but consistently exceeded its expectations. It is why, back in July, he tweeted his intention to ban transgender people from the military without bothering to consult the military. It is why, since the fall of 2017, his administration has moved to expand the scope of the religious grounds on which federal employees, private enterprises and NGO’s can base how they do business, and with whom (read: not the gays.) It is why any fight with any Muslim, from the nice mayor of London to the nefarious mullahs of Iran, is a fight that he positively wants to pick. And it is definitely why, in complete isolation from any related development in what the snowflakes over at State used to call “the peace process,” he has yanked the embassy out of Tel Aviv and plunked it square in the middle of the Christian Zionist dream.
“Hang on a second,” you might rejoin. “It’s not just dispensationalists…or even Christians… who wanted to move the embassy to Jerusalem. How about Jared, and Ivanka, and all the Jews around the globe who rejoice in that decision? How about Bibi Netanyahu? How about the secular neocons, hawks, and hardliners? How about all those Congressional Democrats and Republicans who have been voting for the Jerusalem Embassy Act since the 90’s? For crying out loud, how about Chuck Schumer?”
Fair point. These actors all had their own reasons for supporting the embassy move, and they have all done their own happy dances about it.
Consider, however, the following:
If you are a member of Congress who has been voting for the Jerusalem Embassy Act, assuming that the relocation it requires would never happen, you will now have to base any future analysis on the reality that it has happened.
If you are a neocon who has been arguing that moving the embassy to Jerusalem is just the sort of bold move that will snap regional players into getting serious about fixing the damn place at long last – or, on the other hand, a peacenik who has been arguing that it will do the opposite -- your argument now stands to be evaluated, and possibly altered, in the light of whatever happens next.
But if you are a devout Christian who sees the embassy move as a divinely ordained step in your dispensationalist progression, there neither is -- nor can there ever be -- any such adjustment. It doesn’t matter whether the Palestinians retain or repel Hamas, or what the Israeli public might decide to go along with, or who else in the region is willing to start or quell what kinds of trouble based on what points of self-interest. The end game is the end of the world. There’s no earthly reckoning with that.
Of course, the exact same could be said of the God-given visions for the Middle East that are cherished by subsets of Jews and Muslims, who are now celebrating and decrying the embassy move for their own faith-based reasons. But they are not calling the shots now.
For most of the American experiment, it has been considered essential that church and state not be allowed to call each other's shots. Not anymore.
In 1960, to remain viable as a Roman Catholic candidate for president, John F. Kennedy famously used the power of television to reassure Americans that his religion would not determine his actions in office. In 2018, Donald Trump routinely uses the power of policy to reassure the furthest right-wing Christian Americans that their religion does dictate his actions in office.
In that sense, the embassy opening in Jerusalem was perhaps the most purely honest moment of the Trump presidency thus far. Here the president had taken major action in the name of the entire United States of America, in a setting of deep significance to three major world religions. By elevating Hagee and Jeffress in that setting, the president signaled the totality of his fealty to a segment of Americans who, though numerous, still comprise but a fraction of U.S. Christians. Of course, Trump is very happy to make common cause with the other Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, (maybe a couple) Muslims and atheists when the planets of taxes or immigration align. But when push comes to shove, as far as the president and his spiritual entourage are concerned, all those other folks can, quite literally, go to hell.
Then again, some of us feel as if we’re already there.