Articles in this issue
9/11 On Our Mind
After the Globe
Choosing Up Sides in the
Reading the Koran in Chapel
Sex in the
Choosing Up Sides in the Middle
By Dennis R. Hoover
Nearly 10 years ago, Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington
published his influential Foreign Affairs article on the "Clash
of Civilizations," which forecast, among other things, a growing rift
between "Western Civilization" (defined largely by the Western
"Judeo-Christian" religious traditions—Jewish, Roman Catholic,
Protestant) and "Islamic civilization." For fans of this
interpretive paradigm (whose ranks have swelled since 9/11), the
contemporary crises in the Middle East—both the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict and the looming U.S.-Iraq war—fit the mold.
But on the home front the predicted rally effect across Judeo-Christian
traditions has failed to materialize. Indeed, only Protestant
fundamentalists (motivated more strongly than ever by their apocalyptic
interpretation of Biblical prophecies regarding the Middle East) seem to be
itching for a civilization fight. Liberal Protestants and Catholics, by
contrast, have continued to offer qualified sympathy for the Palestinian
cause and to oppose a war against Iraq, especially if conducted without U.N.
In fact, the religious debate in the United States has largely reflected
domestic "culture war" divisions—liberals vs. conservatives within
the Judeo-Christian traditions—rather than an expected rally effect. There
is one partial exception, that is, American Jews (including some liberal
Jews) and Protestant fundamentalists have joined hands in supporting tough
action against both Palestinians and Iraqis. But it is the product of an
awkward marriage of convenience between old-fashioned realpolitik and
millennialism, not newfound civilization kinship.
The limited extent of Judeo-Christian convergence is perhaps especially
remarkable with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the
wake of 9/11, the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon argued that its
military actions in the West Bank should be seen as part of a larger war on
Islamist terrorism, and thus morally continuous with U.S. military action
against Al Qaeda.
While polls did show the general public tacking more toward a pro-Israel
position, there were many who resisted an easy equivalence. For instance, on
April 20 the Minneapolis Star Tribune profiled Churches for Middle
East Peace, an umbrella advocacy group backed primarily by mainline
Protestants and Catholics that opposes (however fecklessly) hard-line
Israeli policies and their American apologists.
Mainliners were even less likely to see the proposed war on Iraq as a
legitimate extension of the war on terrorism. Coverage of religious opinion
on the Iraq crisis didn’t really begin to ramp up until early September
this year, when reporters took notice of a recently released statement from
the mainline World Council of Churches (WCC), which called on the United
States to "desist from any military threats against Iraq."
Close on the heels of the WCC’s peace statement came others from U.S.
mainline denominations and/or their leaders and from the National Council of
Churches, which launched an anti-war lobbying campaign. The U.S. Catholic
Bishops (whose energies were diverted by the priest pedophilia crisis) were
slow in articulating a collective position, but in the course of their
annual fall meeting they found time to issue a statement November 13
declaring that "We continue to find it difficult to justify the resort
to war against Iraq, lacking clear and adequate evidence of an imminent
attack of a grave nature."
On September 23, a group of 100 Christian ethicists (moderate to liberal)
issued a succinct, widely covered statement: "As Christian ethicists,
we share a common moral presumption against a pre-emptive war on Iraq by the
As reported in the September 1 Lancaster, Pennsylvania Sunday News,
pacifists, who had been pushed back on their heels in the debate over war in
Afghanistan last year, had found their footing, and a great many more
allies, in the debate over Iraq. Moreover, as Frances Grandy Taylor noted in
the September 18 Hartford Courant, there are growing connections
between the Iraq peace camp and Israeli-Palestine peace camp.
Most mainline Christians expressed their objections in terms of
"just war" theory, an ancient tradition of moral reflection on
government use of military force. Because of the unusually public nature of
the debate over Iraq, journalists were able to cover an unusually public
argument over the detailed application of just war theory. "What Makes
a War Just?" asked the headline on Larry Witham’s September 26
article in the Washington Times. It was a question addressed in
scores of reports and op-eds.
The just war tradition stipulates a number of criteria, and two of them
were of particular concern for opponents of the Iraq war. First, war must be
a "last resort," and many were worried that the doctrine of
pre-emptive action fails to satisfy this criterion. Second, the decision on
war must be taken by a "legitimate authority," and because Iraq
represents an international rather than national problem, many felt that the
legitimate authority must be conceived in terms of international law.
Discomfort with U.S. hegemony and unilateralism was interwoven with this
Many conservatives thought just war criteria were amply satisfied. The
September 26 Wall Street Journal editorial,
"Wayward Christian Soldiers, " read, "We confess that we’re
not experts on Christian doctrine. So maybe we missed the revelation, in
Thomas Aquinas or elsewhere, that no war is just unless it is sanctioned by
the United Nations Security Council…. We recognize that Christian leaders
believe they are accountable to a Higher Authority, but can’t they do
better than the U.N.?"
For their part, Jewish organizations were largely supportive of military
action against Iraq. "Do It: Jewish Leaders in U.S. Favor Pre-Emptive
Military Strike," announced the headline on Liz Halloran’s September
24 piece in the Hartford Courant. However, some Jewish groups did
urge that every effort be made to secure international backing before
resorting to unilateral (or near-unilateral) action.
On September 15, the Boston Herald’s Eric Convey found it ironic
that some of the strongest anti-war sentiment had issued from United
Methodist ranks, a denomination to which both the president and vice
president belong. "If Bush seems undeterred," Convey averred,
"it might be in part because the evangelical Protestants to whom he
turned for support in the 2000 election have had little to say negatively on
the Iraq question."
On September 28, New York Times columnist Peter
Steinfels noted rightly that part of the reason for evangelicals’ support
is the influence of Catholic neoconservatives, such as George Weigel of the
Ethics and Public Policy Center. In recent years, many evangelicals’
traditional anti-Catholicism has softened, and their thinking on political
issues has been informed by the Catholic tradition of social thought,
including just war theory.
Of late, the neoconservative reading of just war theory sounds remarkably
close to liberal interventionism. Steinfels wrote that, "The latest
issue of Christianity Today, the leading evangelical journal, quotes
Mr. Weigel and rejects the argument of many administration critics that a
pre-emptive action against Iraq would necessarily be unjust. Not only might
it be just, the magazine editorializes, it might ‘perhaps be an act of
Christian charity and duty.’"
But because the theater is the Middle East, wars and rumors of wars
resonate for many conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists in a way
that goes much deeper than "just war" theorizing. In his September
28 Washington Post article, "Religious Leaders’
Voices Rise on Iraq: Most Question U.S. Moves Toward War, But Evangelicals
Embrace Bush Policy as Assault on Evil," Bill Broadway turned to
Richard Cizik (of the National Association of Evangelicals), who said, "In
this instance, the president has articulated a faith much like our
own," which includes the explicit acknowledgement of the existence of
"evil," embodied in people like Saddam Hussein. "This isn’t
preemption, but another step in responding to the continuum of terrorism, of
evildoers," Cizik added.
The September 9 Tampa Tribune reported on a speech by Bob Jones
III, who gave unqualified support to the president. "Let the United
Nations fly a kite," he said. In October, news broke that the Southern
Baptist Convention’s Richard Land, irked by the mainline’s deluge of
anti-war sentiment, had drafted a pro-war statement and rounded up a few
other evangelical conservatives to sign it: Bill Bright, Charles Colson, D.
James Kennedy, and Carl Herbster. Even Pat Robertson’s American Center for
Law and Justice, which normally concerns itself with domestic issues, got
into the act, starting a pro-war petition drive.
Islam has been increasingly vilified in the evangelical subculture. On
September 9, the Springfield, Illinois State Journal-Register
reported on a speech by Gary Bauer, Christian Right leader and sometime GOP
also-ran. In it, he said, "I wish the president would be a little bit
more, I guess, politically incorrect and say what we are at war with, and
that is radical Islam—not all of Islam, but the radicals in that faith
that have basically declared war on Jews and Christians and on Israel and
the United States. I think it’s going to be hard for the American people
to do all the things we should do unless our leaders make it clear who the
Bauer’s comments were mild by comparison to the views expressed
publicly by several other evangelical leaders. "Pulling No Punches: The
Reverend Franklin Graham is Leading the Charge Against Islam," ran the
headline on Martha Sawyer Allen’s story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune
August 10. Graham asked Allen rhetorically, "Why haven’t Muslim
clerics from around the world gathered at ground zero, held hands together
and prayed to Allah for forgiveness and told the American people this is not
Islam? Because they believe it was right."
"Open scorn for Islam has become a staple ingredient in the speeches
of conservative Christian leaders since the September 11 attacks,"
concluded Susan Sachs in the June 15 New York Times. Sachs reported
on anti-Islamic remarks made by Southern Baptist leader Jerry Vines (who
said Muhammad was a "demon-possessed pedophile"), and by Pat
Robertson (who said Islam is a religion that seeks to control, dominate, or
"if need be, destroy" others).
The most widely publicized broadside came from Jerry Falwell, who, in an
exchange with CBS News’ Bob Simon broadcast on "60 Minutes"
October 6, blurted, "I think Mohammed was a terrorist. I read enough of
the history of his life written by both Muslims and non-Muslims, that he was
a violent man, a man of war."
Falwell later apologized. According to a CBSnews.com report October 14,
"He claimed he made a mistake while responding to a ‘controversial
and loaded question’ at the end of an hour-long interview." Without
commenting on the irony, the report added that, "Shiite Muslim clerics
in Lebanon and Iran reacted with rage to Falwell’s remarks, and an envoy
of Iran’s supreme leader called for his death."
Simon’s "60 Minutes" segment also explored the origins of
Protestant fundamentalism’s growing bond with Israel—namely, it’s
tendency to filter all matters Middle Eastern through the lens of
"There is an alliance between America and Israel in the war on
Islamic terror. But it goes deeper," noted Simon. "For Christians
who interpret the Bible in a literal fashion, Israel has a crucial role to
play in bringing on the Second Coming of Christ."
This is old news, as Christian conservatives have been apocalyptic allies
of Israel for decades. What’s new is (a) the unprecedented intensity,
since the most recent intifada began, of Christian Zionist passion for
Israel, and (b) the extent to which American Jewish organizations are openly
embracing this support.
Larry Witham was on the story early, writing in the April 6 Washington
Times that, "The bloody conflict in the Middle East is again
turning some evangelicals to the Bible for texts that speak of a final
cosmic battle in those ancient lands." Hal Lindsey, who popularized the
study of Bible prophecy in his 1970 book, The Late Great Planet Earth
told Witham, "I see Israel as the only nation on Earth with a title
deed to any real estate."
Many Christian fundamentalists are being encouraged to agree with this
kind of sentiment. In late April, for instance, Christian Right wunderkind
and GOP strategist Ralph Reed took to the op-ed pages of the Los Angeles
Times and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to explain "Why Christians
Stand Firm With Israel."
Arm chair Armageddonism has long been a favorite fundamentalist hobby,
and in recent years there has been a surge in pop-eschatology, one not
without political overtones. As David Waters noted in the August 21 Memphis Commercial
Appeal, "Christian Zionism is the theology behind the best-selling
‘Left Behind’ books. It’s also the theology behind the rise of Israel
as a favorite cause of the Christian Right."
"Jewish leaders don’t seem to mind the theology as long as it
generates political support for Israel," Waters argued. He
oversimplified matters, but there has indeed been a new level of
Jewish-evangelical cooperation. For instance, the Anti-Defamation League
republished Reed’s op-ed. Then on June 9, as David Firestone reported in
the New York Times, Reed stood alongside Yechiel Z. Eckstein,
president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, to
announce the formation of a new lobby called Stand for Israel. Eckstein only
half-jokingly called Stand for Israel "the Christian AIPAC."
For its part, AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) recently
held its annual conference in Atlanta, where invited speakers included Reed.
"Jewish Lobby Meeting in Bible Belt to tap Pro-Israel Sentiment in the
South," announced Scott Shepard’s report for the Cox News Service
October 1. AIPAC spokesman Josh Block remarked that AIPAC’s 40 percent
membership surge in the last two years has come "from all over the
A June 10 AP dispatch by Matt Curry reported that a group called Churches
United With Israel had kicked off a series of pro-Israel rallies/prayer
meetings. The first event, held June 9 in an Assemblies of God mega-church,
featured welcome videos from Jerry Falwell, Pat Boone, and Benjamin
Netanyahu, and an appearance by Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert. And on July 12,
the Washington Times reported that Gary Bauer was joining hands with
Orthodox Jewish Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a longtime cultivator of the Christian
Right, to form a new group called the American Alliance of Jews and
In his July 13 article, "A Growing Friendship: Love for Israel
Drawing Jews, Evangelical Christians Together," Tulsa World
religion writer Bill Sherman interviewed Yehuda Katz, an Israeli emissary to
Tulsa, who argued that although Israeli Jews have seen evangelicals as good
friends for the last 20 or 30 years, American Jews have traditionally been
cool-to-hostile toward evangelicals. "But something has happened in the
last two years. They have realized that Israel, at its hardest time, has
received huge support from the evangelical community, and not necessarily
from liberals," said Katz.
Like evangelicals, the GOP has become more staunchly pro-Israel. A steady
drumbeat of news stories speculated about the partisan implications for
Jews, who are normally as Democratic as evangelicals are Republican:
"Bush Stance Pleases U.S. Jewish Groups" (Washington Post);
"Liberal Jews Are Finding Common Ground With the Right" (Buffalo
News); "Jewish Voters Noticing GOP’s Pro-Israel Moves" (St.
As Alison Mitchell reported in the New York Times April 21, it is
a mistake to attribute American conservatism’s turn toward Israel entirely
to pressure from Protestant fundamentalists. "The Likud Party in Israel
has also built ties to conservatives," Mitchell noted, and "The
departure from Republican ranks of Patrick J. Buchanan and his followers
also muted the voices of conservatives who were more critical of Israel….
In the 1960s and earlier, the conservative movement included elements, like
the John Birch Society, that were viewed as anti-Jewish. These elements,
too, have waned."
It is also a mistake to read too much into the decision of Jewish groups
to ally with Christian fundamentalists. To a large extent it is viewed as a
tactical move born of necessity. Memories of an anti-Semitic legacy within
fundamentalism are fresh. One of the biggest religion stories last March
stemmed from newly released Nixon tapes from 1972, on which Billy Graham is
heard exchanging anti-Semitic banter with the president (comments for which
Graham profusely apologized).
There were also voices urging caution on the grounds that fundamentalist
fervor for Israel is so strong that it is counterproductive. Indeed, some
Christian Right leaders have associated themselves with the most radical
positions in the Israel-Palestine debate. The aging Christian Right warhorse
Ed McAteer told Bob Simon on "60 Minutes" that, "Every grain
of sand, every grain of sand between the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, and the
Mediterranean Sea belongs to the Jews." When Simon wondered what that
would mean for the three million Palestinians who live on the West Bank and
Gaza, McAteer suggested the bulk of them could be moved to some Arab
The headline of a column by Peter Beinart in the May 19 Pittsburgh
Post-Gazette asked, "Does the Christian Right Understand
Zionism?" He recalled how Rep. Dick Armey and Janet Parshall (Family
Research Council) had recently made statements endorsing the idea of Israel
transferring Palestinians out of the West Bank. Beinart argued that,
"The overwhelming majority of Israeli politicians and intellectuals
oppose deporting the Palestinians, because they speak in the shadow of the
Holocaust. Even the ultra-far-right Moledet Part of assassinated Tourism
Minister Rehavem Ze’evi—which seeks to make the Palestinians citizens of
Jordan—does not suggest physically moving them."
For the Christian Right, Beinart continued, "Israel’s interests
cannot be defined pragmatically, because Israel’s primary function is to
clarify a larger worldview…. [F]or the Christian Right, Israel’s claims
are moral only insofar as they are biblical. That runs counter to the
mainstream Zionist tradition, one of the greatest achievements of which has
been to establish moral claims to Jewish statehood—claims Israel
incarnates as a liberal democratic state—that do not rely on scripture….
Ultimately, if you don’t love Israel for what it is, you can’t be
trusted to love it at all."
By summer, the pro-Israel views of fundamentalists had moved so far to
the right that it sparked a counter-movement of moderate evangelicals—an
important ball most journalists dropped. In "Evangelical Leaders Ask
Bush to Adopt Balanced Mideast Policy," a July 27 piece in the Washington
Post, Caryle Murphy reported on a July 23 letter sent to President Bush
insisting that "the American evangelical community is not a monolithic
bloc in full and firm support of present Israeli policy." While they
condemned suicide bombings, they also took a swipe at "the continued
unlawful and degrading Israeli settlement movement." The 59 signatories
included a wide array of evangelical luminaries, including Richard Mouw,
Craig Barnes, Bob Seiple, Tony Campolo, David Neff, Gordon MacDonald, Ron
Sider, James Skillen, Philip Yancey, and Marilyn Borst.
For American Jews, the alliance with Christian conservatives on Middle
East politics is partial and provisional. Still, it is a remarkable
development given the history of religious and political tension between the
two communities. Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, put the
matter delicately on "60 Minutes": "On this specific issue,
on this day, we come together. And what is the issue? The issue is fighting
"That is precisely what the Bush administration and the Israeli
government have been saying since September 11, that they are allies in the
war on terror," commented interviewer Bob Simon.
"But the Christian fundamentalists go further," he added.
"They say it is not just an alliance between nations but between