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Stop Gaslighting The Left About Evangelicals. They Believe Awful Things About Jews

I have a pastor uncle who brought a shofar back from an “end times” trip to Israel. It’s a type of religious tourism popular among America’s white evangelicals. Guided tours include not just (sometimes dubiously) historical information, but also make direct connections to evangelical understandings of biblical prophecy.

Such trips appeal to people like my uncle, who believes in the Rapture. The Rapture is an eschatological prophecy which promises that before the final battle between good and evil, Jesus will appear in the sky and take true believers up to heaven, sparing them from some, or perhaps all, of the apocalyptic horrors which will be meted out on everyone else. According to those who believe this prophecy, Jews who have not converted to Christianity will suffer through the apocalypse, and, according to most evangelicals, eventually end up in hell.

My uncle likes to blow his shofar for fun. And people like him have a stranglehold on power in the United States under Donald Trump. White evangelicals still makes up about 16% of the U.S. population, and, as of the 2018 midterms, 25% of the electorate. Such a disparity throws into stark relief how right-wing, white evangelicals are highly motivated voters, and they vote based on their illiberal Christian beliefs.

To me, it’s thus somewhat mysterious that a new genre has emerged which seeks to cast Christians like my relatives as essentially harmless anachronisms. A new book by Daniel G. Hummel argues that the story of Christian evangelicals supporting Israel to hurry the Rapture is false. Christian Zionists don’t secretly want to convert Jews, he asserts, nor is the movement apocalyptic; hardly anyone believes in the Rapture, per Hummel.

Taking things one step further, in these pages, Jarvis Best called the idea that Christian love for Jews has to do with the Rapture “a paranoid conspiracy theory.”

They are both wrong.

Best and Hummel both insist that few evangelicals believe in the Rapture, a conclusion I suspect can only be based on a very skewed definition of evangelical, and that therefore it is not a central tenet of the belief system. But even if belief in the Rapture is declining among U.S. evangelicals, the number of adherents of a particular idea tells us less about the consequences of that idea than the power wielded by its adherents does.

Radical Christians like John Hagee, chief of Christians United for Israel, are at the very center of authority in Trump’s America. And they’re not shy about their beliefs. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made public comments about his belief in the Rapture. Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network was given exclusive access to Trump during his 2017 Middle East tour. And Hagee gave the closing benediction at the opening ceremony of the new U.S. Embassy to Israel in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018, praying, “We thank you O Lord for President Donald Trump’s 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.”

Does it matter how many believe something when the people who believe it most have the ear of the most powerful man on the planet?

Hummel and Best both place a lot of weight on a 2017 Lifeway study’s finding that “only 12% of evangelicals cited fulfillment of prophecy as the most important reason to support Israel.” But people’s self-reported motivations must be taken with a grain of salt. People lie to pollsters, especially about unpopular opinions, and it is also possible to have mixed motives. And Lifeway, an evangelical institution, has a history of whitewashing right-wing, mostly white evangelicals to appear more moderate than they are.

That same survey found that 80% of which evangelicals believe God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants was for all time and that 52% view Israel as “important for fulfilling biblical prophecy.”

In other words, there is a mapping of religious beliefs onto history and current events that generates what I call a “politics of Providentialism.” This dangerously illiberal politics revolves around beliefs about divine blessing and punishment — and, yes, about the “end times.”

And illiberal apocalyptic ideas with disturbing implications for Jews are common among conservative Christians, whether or not they believe in the Rapture. As a historian whose academic research has focused on the influence of certain Russian Orthodox Christian intellectuals’ ideas, I have researched how during World War I, when Jews were frequently subjected to pogroms and Russian forces were carrying out ethnic cleansing in occupied Poland, the Symbolist poet Vyacheslav Ivanov described Jews as Christian’s “providential testers,” suggesting that a reason to treat Jews better would be that it would lead to their conversion.

And Ivanov’s friend and colleague Sergei Bulgakov wrote that Jewish migration to Palestine had eschatological significance. Another of their friends, Nikolai Berdyaev, expounded on Jewish suffering at the time and throughout history through the lens of “divine punishment,” writing, “And the fate of the [Jewish] people, rejecting Golgotha, was transformed into Golgotha.”

These Orthodox Christians did not believe in the Rapture, but some of their comments are eerily similar to John Hagee’s infamous discussion of Hitler fulfilling “God’s plan” to bring the Jews to Israel.

Now, do most evangelicals self-consciously harbor a desire to kill Jews? Of course not. But that’s a red herring. Most evangelicals do believe that Jews who do not convert to Christianity will go to hell, and they believe the apocalyptic Battle of Armageddon will center around Israel. They support destabilizing policies like the move of the U.S. Embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on the basis of the theological script they are following.

One cannot achieve a healthy religious pluralism by pretending that robust mutual respect for religious diversity exists where it does not exist. Fostering healthy pluralism, which democracy demands, means confronting intolerance.

Chrissy Stroop is a writer and researcher with a Ph.D. in modern Russian history from Stanford University. Raised evangelical in the American heartland, Stroop is now an outspoken critic of evangelical subculture and resides in Portland, Oregon.

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