On May 14, 2018, seventy years after Harry Truman became the first head of state to recognize Israel’s Declaration of Independence, President Donald Trump moved the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The American pastor and televangelist John Hagee was one of two American Pastors invited by the Trump Administration to “bless” the new Embassy. The controversial move was hailed by Hagee and others as an act of God. Speaking at the Embassy’s opening, Hagee stated that Jerusalem was the “city of God,” and the birthplace of “principles of righteousness that became the moral foundations of western civilization.” He thanked God for Donald Trump and his “courage in acknowledging to the world a truth established 3000 years ago that Jerusalem is and always shall be the eternal capital of the Jewish people,” before proclaiming his and other Christian Zionists’ belief that Jerusalem is the place “where Messiah will come and establish a kingdom that will never end.”
Hagee has been a vocal supporter of Israel since he held his first “Night to Honor Israel” at his church in San Antonio, Texas, in 1981—an event held in response to the criticism Israel received for its pre-emptive strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor under construction in Iraq. In 2006 Hagee expanded his pro-Israel reach when he founded the pro-Israel lobby group Christians United for Israel (CUFI). In addition to Hagee, CUFI’s leadership is comprised of pastors and other prominent Christian Right figures scattered throughout the United States. In its inception, CUFI was designed to be a Christian pro-Israel organization analogous to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Since then it has surpassed AIPAC to become the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States, claiming over 4 million members across the country. In its own words, CUFI is “devoted to transforming millions of pro-Israel Christians into an educated, empowered, and effective force for Israel.”
CUFI represents its support for Israel as the logical response to growing concerns about anti-Semitism, the threat of terrorism, and a nuclear Iran, while also emphasizing the Jewish roots of Christianity and what it calls the “Bible’s mandate” to support Israel based on a reading of Genesis 12:3 (“I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you I will curse”). Yet CUFI’s leadership and constituent churches also adhere to an apocalyptic vision of history in which Israel plays a central role, indicated by Hagee’s statement above regarding Jerusalem as the place where, following the bloody battle of Armageddon, Jesus will return to establish his millennial kingdom. For them, Israel is the basis for God’s prophetic clock, and significant events in Israel and the Middle East are understood and interpreted through this prophetic lens. The establishment of Israel in 1948, and its control over Jerusalem after the Six-Day war in 1967 are therefore represented as the fulfillment of scriptural prophecy that signaled the rise of the Antichrist and the return of Jesus within their lifetime. More broadly, these events are represented as affirmations that God’s word is true, that God remains active in the world.
Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital provided them with a further sign that Jesus’ return is imminent. For them, Jerusalem will be the capitol of the world, from which Jesus will rule the world. In this context recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, ensures that it will remain under Israel’s control, paving the way for Jesus’s return.
As part of this apocalyptic view of history, and the belief that we are living in the End Times, this form of Christian Zionism is also underpinned by a dualistic worldview in which Satan works through individuals and nations to attempt to thwart God’s plans for Israel and hence the world, a conflict which they maintain has been raging since the beginning of time. In a recent sermon series based on his new book, Earth’s Last Empire: The Final Game of Thrones, Hagee makes this point clearly: “The basis for the battle of Jerusalem is supernatural. God has promised it to Jesus Christ … The Devil has promised it to the Antichrist. There is a war between light and darkness over the city of Jerusalem.”
Framing the status of Jerusalem as part of a binary conflict between God and Satan has the effect of efficiently assigning roles to world leaders, individuals, and nations, smoothing out complex historical and political events, in order to define them as either good or evil. Consequently, any attempts at reaching peace through negotiations or limiting further Israeli expansion into occupied territories is not simply seen as political folly, but acts of evil in direct disobedience to God. In this instance, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital becomes a form of divine obedience. Consequently, this logic also implicitly or explicitly works to define the presidency of Barack Obama as force of evil. In this respect, vehement opposition to the Obama Administration provided a source of unity for Christian Zionists and their allies during its two terms.
Although Obama maintained and expanded the United States’ longstanding financial and military support for Israel, Christian Zionists were not convinced. Obama’s public spats with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (whom Christian Zionists unreservedly admire), and his call for Israel to cease building homes in East Jerusalem and return to its pre-1967 borders as a basis for negotiation with the Palestinians, did not merely anger Christian Zionists, it also convinced them that God would punish America as a result. Moreover, Obama’s willingness to negotiate with Iran to reach a mutually agreed nuclear deal amidst fears that Iran would develop nuclear weapons and use them to destroy Israel were all cited as evidence that Obama was not only one of the most anti-Israel presidents in US history, but that he was aligning the country with the forces of darkness.
I think the person who inspired anti-Semitism was [former United States president] Barack Obama. He gave $150 billion to Iran, a celebrated terrorist state, and that $150 billion was used to advance their nuclear program to murder Jews, and superior missiles to kill you in a more efficient way. And no one ever called his hand about being an anti-Semite.
Framing Obama’s presidency in these terms, within this dualistic worldview, further provides the means for Christian Zionists like Hagee to rhetorically cast Trump as God’s instrument. Prior to Trump’s election, Hagee made this clear when he told viewers on his “Hagee Hotline” that “to see evil and not call it evil, is evil,” and that God would hold voters and the nation accountable if they did not cast their vote the right way. He then explained that he was "going to vote for the candidate that’s going to make the U.S. military great again … for the party that is going to solve the immigration problem, not the one that has created the immigration problem .. [and not] … for the party that has betrayed Israel for the past seven years."
When Trump did win the election, Hagee credited the victory to his support for Israel, claiming that God “stirred the evangelicals to get out and go vote — and they stormed the voting booth to have a change in America.” When Trump pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal, this too was celebrated as a victory for God. From this perspective, Obama had provided the means for Iran to attempt to destroy Israel with nuclear weapons—a satanic plot that, like the division of Jerusalem, would prevent the return of Jesus. Reversing that deal, in this representation, meant that God worked through Trump to prevent a nuclear holocaust in Israel which Obama (under the influence of Satan) had effectively encouraged.
Since its inception, CUFI has been plagued by accusations that its support for Israel is underpinned by an ulterior motive to bring about the End Times. In turn, these accusations are emphatically denied. Such denials are legitimate to the degree that motivations are complex, multiple and fluid. While Christian Zionists may believe the End Times are upon us, they also maintain that God is in control. In that respect Christian Zionists are far more likely to cite Genesis 12:3, the Jewish roots of Christianity, and their belief that Israel is a nation chosen by God for a special purpose in the world—a claim they argue is continuously authenticated through its existence and survival—as important sources of their support for Israel. Yet at the same time, an apocalyptic, dualistic worldview does temper the way they engage with Israel, what policies they support, and what policies they oppose. While they spent the Obama years focused on thwarting policies that might hinder what they claim God wants, the Trump Administration is clearly far more willing to make decisions that comport with their apocalyptic visions. In turn, they also see Jesus’s return as increasingly imminent, and, perhaps more significantly, work to naturalize controversial policy shifts as historical inevitabilities.
Sean Durbin holds a PhD from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He is an editor of Relegere: Studies in Religion and Reception and has published widely on topics related to Christian Zionism. His most recent publication is Righteous Gentiles: Religion, Identity, and Myth in John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel. Leiden: Brill, 2018.