Of the remaining Republican presidential hopefuls, Ted Cruz has emerged as the candidate of the Christian right. Yet he is also the candidate of the 1%, with just four people donating over $31 million to his campaign: eccentric billionaire Robert Mercer, longtime friend Toby Neugebauer, and two brothers, Farris and Dan Wilks.
The Wilks brothers, in fact, are both Christian conservatives and billionaires, having made their money in the fracking business, which they sold for $3.5 billion in 2011. There aren’t many billionaire pastors out there, but Farris Wilks is one of them.
But Wilks is no ordinary Christian. The more you study his church — the Assembly of Yahweh, which combines political Christianity, messianic Judaism and “the morality of the market” — the more uncomfortable it gets for some Jews. There’s the menorah, the butchered Hebrew phrases, the philo-Semitism. What’s going on?
Of course, by now, we’re used to seeing Christian Zionists flying Israeli flags — and Christians now outpace Jews in their funding of AIPAC and other right-wing Israel organizations when these organizations are taken all together. But while the Assembly of Yahweh is not unique, it does seem particularly… well, weird. This isn’t just Jewish window-dressing; it’s a full-on hybrid of Judaism and Christianity that is powering Cruz’s campaign for president.
First, Farris Wilks denies the mainstream Christian understanding of the divinity of Jesus. Not surprisingly, given Wilks’s connection to Cruz, his sermons have all been removed from the Assembly of Yahweh website and YouTube channel. But in a sermon given at a different church, the Mount Zion Church of God, he cites numerous passages from the New Testament showing, in his view, that the son of God and God/Yahweh are two distinct personages, that Jesus is a mediator between people and God, and that Jesus is God’s “right-hand man” but distinct from God Himself.
Second, members of the Assembly of Yahweh “keep the Sabbath, the Passover and other festivals of Lev. 23, [and] choose to eat clean foods,” avoiding pork and shellfish. (A bit like Karaites, they only maintain the biblical law, and thus do not prohibit the mixture of milk and meat or require kosher slaughter.) They sleep in tents on Sukkot, but reject Christmas and Halloween.
And then there are the trappings of Jewish observance. Each Sunday service starts with a shofar blast. The church’s logo features a menorah. And despite the occasionally risible mispronunciations of Hebrew words, the Hebrew is there. The church practices a mode of close textual reading, untethered from any particular tradition, that relies heavily on the meanings of particular words and phrases; it is, in other words, at least as Jewish as it is Christian.
Finally, unlike Christian Zionists such as evangelical leader Mike Bickle, the Assembly of Yahweh is less concerned with Jews and their role in the End Times, and more oriented toward creating Christian Judaism themselves. They, more than the actual Jewish people, will play the pivotal roles in the soon-to-come end of days. Past Christian Zionist eschatology has been relatively easy to accommodate — fine, you think the world will end soon; we don’t; we’ll see how it goes — but the many new forms of evangelicalism that have displaced it, less so.
What are Jews to make of all this?
On the one hand, surely it feels creepy to watch a group of highly goyish, hardcore conservative evangelicals blow the shofar, wear the tallit and observe Passover. These aren’t Jews for Jesus; they’re not here to convert us. These are Jesus people for Judaism, creating a new hybrid religion in front of our eyes. And their politics are indeed extreme. Wilks’s foundation is bankrolling far-right anti-abortion groups, Kim Davis’s lawyers and several organizations that have been designated as hate groups.
On the other hand, Wilks’s Assembly of Yahweh is, in its way, the same kind of postmodern hybridization that has enlivened 21st-century Judaism. Sure, we usually think of hybridizers being progressive, like BuJus and Jewish sustainable foodies. But the way the Assembly of Yahweh mixes and matches is actually quite similar.
In their case, the hybridization can happen in part because there are no central authorities patrolling the boundaries of evangelical Christianity — just as there aren’t any patrolling the boundaries of progressive Judaism.
This was, in part, Molly Worthen’s argument in her 2014 volume “Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism”. Challenged by secularism and without denominational authorities, evangelicals have sought to create internally coherent worldviews that somehow survive the critiques of modernity and postmodernity. Reading the Bible as requiring dietary law observance (even though the Apostle Paul expressly disclaims it) is but one such example. It may not make any sense from the perspective of boundaries of denomination or religion, but it somehow coheres internally, however idiosyncratic it appears.
Of course, the great difference between the Assembly of Yahweh and progressive Jewish hybridization is money, which is to say, power. The Wilks brothers are billionaires, after all. And they use their money to promote a Christian-Dominionist-anointed presidential candidate, to use the apparatus of the state to enforce a theological view of conception, and to continue to fight the lost legal cause of “traditional marriage.” They’re not into “live and let live.”
Which might well underlie that sense of unease that many Jews feel around Judaizing Christians like these. Yes, the philo-Semitism is amusing, even flattering. But at the end of the day, their quirky views have real-world results on people trying to live their lives without being persecuted. I might join in an Assembly of Yahweh attempt to sing “Hinei Ma Tov.” But I also know they want to put people like me in jail.
Judaizing Christians are interested in a symbolic, fictive Judaism that has little to do with actual Jews. Sure, they, like past generations of Christian Zionists, may find willing partners in rabbis like Shlomo Riskin and Israeli governments like the present one.
But when myth and reality collide, myth wins — whether that’s the myth of Greater Israel, the myth of the End Times, or the myth of Jesus’s free-market politics. And those of us living in the real world often pay the price.
CLARIFICATION: The claim that “Christians now outpace Jews in their funding of AIPAC and other right-wing Israel organizations” should not be construed as claiming that Christians are majority funders of AIPAC specifically. To clarify this, the clause “when these organizations are taken all together” has been added.
Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward. Follow him on Twitter @JayMichaelson