Christian Zionists and neocons: a heavenly marriage

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
3 February 2005

The effects of the Iraq war are reverberating across the United States defence establishment. One of its consequences is a major rethink of military budget planning, including a decision to postpone some high-tech projects in favour of increasing the size and capability of the US army (see “Insurgents prevail”, 6 January 2005). It is becoming clear that this is happening in the contest of increasing civilian influence over defence planning within the Pentagon, as well as a more powerful role for the Pentagon itself within the George W Bush administration.

US military leaders, according to a well-informed source, “are worried the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) is being hijacked by a small cadre of civilians, and they believe they will be kept out of the loop, just as they were when budget cuts were decided only a few weeks ago” (for more information, see David Fulghum & Robert Wall, “Style Change”, Aviation Week, 24 January 2005).

The key player in this “cadre” is probably Stephen Cambone, under-secretary of defence for intelligence. But the overall trend seems further evidence that Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz (the defence secretary and his deputy) are able to maintain much greater control of military force planning than their predecessors.

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The senior military are naturally reluctant to cede the control of such planning to civilians. They also have a wider concern that the current hawkish security policy of the Bush administration, including its liking for pre-emption, simply doesn’t take military realities into account. A well-rehearsed example is the refusal of the civilian leadership in 2002-03 to listen to voices from within the Pentagon and the US Army War College about the likely consequences of regime termination in Iraq.

Many departments of the United States government – state, commerce, justice and the treasury, as well as agencies such as the CIA – have historically made a contribution to developing United States security policy, in a context where the Pentagon plays the major role. But in the post-9/11 era, as US military forces moved to the forefront of the US response, “national security” concerns have come to overshadow other influences in policy formulation. In particular, the administration has come to regard the intelligence agencies much more as arms of government policy than as providers of independent assessments. This has been encouraged by, and in turn enhanced, the influence within the administration of neo-conservative security ideologues who are determined to ensure that the dream of the New American Century becomes a reality.

Many commentators have concentrated on the increasing influence of this neo-conservative thinking, especially in the light of the convincing electoral victory of President Bush in November 2004. But a quite different source of influence on US foreign and security policy, often neglected or underestimated, is also becoming significant. This is the constituency known most commonly as the “Christian Zionists”, whose role was mentioned recently by those anonymous SWISH consultants in their recent report.

Towards the “end of days”

Christian Zionism, also known as dispensationalism or dispensation theology, has been around for over a century and a half but it has only acquired real political significance in the past decade. Its current importance stems from three factors: the voting power of a significant proportion of evangelical Christians, its visceral support for the state of Israel, and its links with neo-conservatism.

The essence of “dispensation theology”, allowing for internal variations, is that God has given a dispensation to the Jews to prepare the way for the Second Coming. The literal fulfilment of Old Testament promises to biblical Israel is approaching, an “end of days” that will involve a millennium of earthly rule centred on Jerusalem. Thus, the state of Israel is a fundamental part of God’s plan, and it is essential for it to survive and thrive.

Dispensationalists would argue that this has always been a core part of the Christian message, but most historians of theology trace the doctrine to the thoughts and preachings of John Nelson Darby (1800-82), a minister of the Plymouth Brethren active in promoting it in the 1820s. It attracted particular attention in the United States as part of the Biblical Conference Movement in the 1870s, and flourished in the first decades of the 20th century.

The evangelist Cyrus Scofield was central to this process. His Scofield Reference Bible (1909) was the first book published by the new US offices of the Oxford University Press. Its prolific theological interpretations helped make it perhaps the most renowned version of the bible in North American evangelism.

Michael Vlach describes how many Bible schools teaching dispensationalism were formed in the 1920s, the most significant being the Dallas Theological Seminary in 1924. The Scofield Bible became a standard source in these institutions, helping the phenomenon of “Christian Zionism” to lay down firm roots in the inter-war years.

Many dispensationalists saw the establishment of Israel in 1948 as the beginning of a fulfilment of biblical prophecies. Later moments in the country’s history – especially the six-day war in 1967 and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 – gave a further impetus to the idea.

The Bill Clinton years (1993-2000) were more difficult for dispensationalists, partly because they followed the preacher scandals of the late 1980s, and because Clinton was more favourable to the more secular elements of the Israeli political system, not least with its Labour Party. But during his presidency, the main Israel lobbies in Washington – particularly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) – sought to build close links with the Christian Zionists. In this, Aipac and similar organisations were recognising the increasing demographic and political power of the Christian Zionists, and also securing a wider base of support at a time when American Jewish communities were scarred by deep divisions that threatened to reduce support for Israel.

A recent, succinct history of Christian Zionism by Donald Wagner of Chicago’s North Park University tracks the remarkable coming together of the movement with neo-conservatism during the George W Bush era, and quotes the leading evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell: “The Bible Belt is Israel’s safety net in the United States.”

Wagner remarks: “By 2000, a shift had taken place in the Republican Party. It began embracing the doctrines of neoconservative ideologues who advocated US unilateralism and favored military solutions over diplomacy. The more aggressive approach was put into action after Sept. 11, and to no one’s surprise, Israel’s war against the Palestinians and its other enemies was soon linked to the US ‘war on terrorism’.”

A number of groups now connect evangelical Christian churches in the United States with support for Israel, many of them making specific reference to Jerusalem. Stand for Israel, for example, talks of the need “to mobilise Christians and people of faith to support the State of Israel…” and declares on its home page that “Anti-Israel = Anti-Zionism = Anti-Semitism”.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here.

A new dispensation

This growth in Christian Zionism in recent years forms just one part of the wider increase in the conservative evangelism movement, the fastest-growing sector within American Christian churches. Donald Wagner estimates that it numbers 100-130 million adherents (the population of the United States is 293 million). The proportion of Christian Zionists among this figure is harder to assess, but perhaps 20-25% of US evangelicals could be described as sympathetic to the doctrine’s fundamentalist views. At the same time, larger numbers may be inclined to support Israel because of broader dispensationalist sympathies; and the fact that evangelical Christians seem particularly disposed to vote, and to be more likely to support the Republican Party, has allowed them to secure a power even greater than their numbers.

The political consequence is that both Israel and US neo-conservatives have come to benefit from ideological and electoral support from an unexpected and growing source. This has wider strategic implications too: for many adherents seriously believe that we may be approaching the end of the world, that salvation can arrive only through a Christian message linked decisively to the success of the state of Israel, and that Islam is necessarily a false faith that must be combated.

The fusion of religion and politics that Christian Zionism represents remains a largely unrecognised force in American politics. Its alliance with neo-conservatism may yet do much to influence the middle-east policies of the second administration of the born-again George W Bush.


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