Trump’s Jerusalem decision is a victory for Evangelical politics
Source: The Brookings Institution
By Célia Belin
Publsihed December 15, 2017
President Trump’s announcement that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and that the American embassy will relocate, is—not surprisingly—going over badly with Arab partners, allies in Europe, and beyond. At first glance—and as many analysts have pointed out in recent days—his pronouncement appears somewhat incoherent with the administration’s stated policy of revitalizing peace talks and achieving what Trump has famously called “the ultimate deal.” It contradicts efforts to contain Iranian influence, which might benefit from Palestinian frustrations. Ever since Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, presidential candidates have promised these moves from the stump, only to realize once in office that the Jerusalem issue is a clear third rail, not to be touched. But unlike his predecessors, Donald Trump delivered.
Why would this president move in such a direction, against the advice of his own national security team, including his secretaries of defense and state? As reports indicate, the decision was quite personal, so it is fair to assume that President Trump was simply fulfilling a campaign promise on a popular issue among Republicans, as shown in recent polls. It belongs to the category of Trump’s foreign policy grand gestures that are high on symbolism and low on effective policy change, in that sense similar to his decisions on the climate change accord or the Iran nuclear deal.
Nevertheless, whatever is behind the president’s decision, the move is pleasing many of Trump’s supporters. Prominent pro-Israel Jewish activists such as Las Vegas real estate mogul Sheldon Adelson may be among the loudest to applaud President Trump for his decision, but there is no doubt that the verdict on Jerusalem is of incredible significance for the broader GOP Christian base. Take note, for instance, that the religious right’s chief representative in the White House, Vice President Mike Pence, stood right over Trump’s shoulder during the announcement, evidently elated by a decision he long supported. The Jerusalem decision should remind us of the remarkable influence that Christian fundamentalist worldviews have enjoyed over Republican foreign policy for the past four decades, in particular the views of Christian Zionists, who believe that the return of the Jews to the Holy Land is in accordance with God’s will, and biblical prophecy.
AN ANCIENT PROTESTANT EVANGELICAL TRADITION
Today’s Evangelical support for Israel’s vision is born out of the combination of deeply held religious beliefs, historical evolutions, and the politicization of the Christian right. The term “Christian Zionism” is an oxymoron in a way, yet it encapsulates the paradox of a religious belief supporting a secular territorial objective. This ideology has deep religious roots, dating back four centuries.
Proto-Zionist ideas were already present at the birth of several Protestant sects in 16th-century Europe, when close and inductive readings of the Bible born out of the Reformation renewed interest in eschatological debates. It led to a new understanding of the role of the Jewish people in Christian history, leading some to prophesize a return of the Jewish people to the Holy Land. Several versions of these theological debates made their way to America, popularized by the Great Revivals of the 1730s and 1810s, and expanded with the growth of Evangelical Protestantism. In America, they encountered a fertile ground of mystique around the Americans’ own “New Jerusalem” experiment.
Many Evangelical Protestants subsequently took action on these beliefs, petitioning Congress in favor of the “restoration of Palestine to the Jews” as early as 1891, five years before Theodore Herzl’s call for a Jewish homeland. Later on, there were signs of Christian longing for the Jewish restoration behind Lord Balfour’s declaration and Woodrow Wilson’s subsequent support, the British Mandate for Palestine, or Harry Truman’s recognition of the State of Israel.
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