God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America
By Samuel Goldman
University of Pennsylvania, 2018
Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the White House in March made headlines for his comparison of Donald Trump to Cyrus, the ancient Persian king who ended Israel’s Babylonian captivity. Speaking of the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel, Netanyahu placed Trump in a distinguished lineage including Lord Balfour and Harry Truman, saying, “Mr. President, this will be remembered by our people through the ages.”
Indeed, a popular anecdote in the annals of American-Israeli relations tells of a retired President Truman being introduced to a Jewish Theological Seminary audience. As he is presented by his old business partner, Eddie Jacobson, as “the man who helped create the State of Israel,” Truman bristles and replies: “What do you mean, ‘helped to create’? I am Cyrus! I am Cyrus!”
Both the current Israeli prime minister and President Truman invoked the name of Cyrus as shorthand for an instrument of God chosen to restore the Jews to their Promised Land. In the flurry of Christian Zionist activity in the Trump era, the Cyrus motif still carries weight. Cyrus, and the biblical story of Esther, are perhaps the predominant typologies in contemporary Christian Zionist thinking.*
Samuel Goldman, who teaches political science and directs the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University, makes the case in his new book, God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America, that a significant tradition in American Protestantism has understood the United States as a collective Cyrus, destined to help return the Jewish people to their Promised Land as a fulfillment of God’s covenants with Abraham.
Less well known—and Goldman’s prime concern—are the predecessors to modern evangelical Christian Zionists: sixteenth-century British theologians, seventeenth-century Puritan divines, eighteenth-century American revolutionaries, and nineteenth- and twentieth-century liberal Protestants. He weaves these characters into a history of American Christian Zionist thought from the seventeenth century to the present and gives a semblance of coherence and understanding for readers who are curious about the roots of American Cyrus-philia and the possible consequences of its invocation by political leaders.
Unlike today, when U.S. engagement in the Middle East is a matter of course, American interest in Palestine before the twentieth century was chiefly theological. Goldman reminds us that out of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation emerged popular interest in the fate of the Jewish people and a new covenantal thinking that tied the destiny of gentile nations to Jewish settlement in Palestine. Protestant theologians, by reading the Hebrew and early Christian prophetic books “literally” instead of allegorically, came to believe that ancient Israel had never enjoyed complete domination over the land to which they were promised, and that God would yet fulfill those promises with the physical descendants of Abraham.
It was not just theology but Protestant theology that created the “unique connection” with Israel in the “American imagination,” Goldman writes. Early Puritan settlers in America understood their “errand into the wilderness” as a fulfillment of God’s covenants. But Goldman argues that most of the seventeenth-century colonial talk about America as “the New Israel” was less about Puritans and more about the Jews. Puritans did not claim that God had turned his favor to New England at Israel’s expense. Rather, as Goldman writes, “New England might have been like Israel in important ways. But it could not be a replacement for the Jews because the covenant with Abraham remained in effect.” The nuances of this belief, the author admits, did not extend to all, or even most, New Englanders. There are copious examples of colonial (and later) theologians and pastors equating America with God’s covenanted people. But the belief that Jews remained in covenant with God was held by Increase Mather and Jonathan Edwards, among others.
This conviction, Goldman argues, outlasted the Puritans and became embedded in American political thought. Elias Boudinot, a former president of the Continental Congress, wondered in 1816 whether “God had raised up these United States in these latter days, for the very purpose of accomplishing his will in bringing his beloved people to their own land.” By 1891, the conservative evangelical William E. Blackstone, whom Louis Brandeis called the “father of Zionism,” could produce more than 400 signatures from the circles of American political and social elites—Supreme Court justices, senators, congressmen, and business tycoons—to urge President Benjamin Harrison to become like Cyrus and facilitate the Jewish people’s return to their homeland.
This American fascination with Israel was mediated through the Bible. For Boudinot and Blackstone, God’s continued covenant with the Jewish people did not, of course, seamlessly translate into Protestant respect for Judaism. Most theologians expected Jews to convert “from unbelief” as a precondition for their restoration to Palestine. Even for those who did not, Judaism and political Zionism were tolerated only as imperfect tools of God’s will. America’s covenantal responsibilities encapsulated more than Jewish political restoration and extended to fulfilling the Apostle Paul’s prophecy of Romans 11:26 that “all Israel will be saved.”
Likewise, the Israel that American Christians invoked hardly resembled the land or people of Palestine in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Americans preferred vivid biblical and national metaphors to describe the Holy Land and their relationship to it; Cyrus was but one of the most prominent. The United States was the “eagle” of Exodus 19, according to Boudinot, delivering Jews from exile. Palestine, described by Herman Melville as a place “[w]here vulture unto vulture calls,” evoked the unsettled American West. For famed Protestant minister Harry Emerson Fosdick, who toured Palestine in 1926, the Arab inhabitants were destined to become like the Native Americans. “[T]he Arab has not the faintest chance of competition,” he concluded, in the presence of industrious Jewish migrants. John Haynes Holmes, a Unitarian minister and friend of Fosdick, called for Jews confronting violence in Palestine to be “a ‘suffering servant’ of God for his work of justice and peace upon the earth” and to resist acting as “a nation ‘like all the nations.’” Goldman observes that “Holmes was subtly and perhaps unintentionally implying that Israel’s duty was to engage in a collective imitation of Christ.”
These metaphors, so powerful in linking America to Jewish restoration, also exposed blind spots in future American diplomacy, both in attitudes toward Palestine and in the prescriptive roles for Arabs and Jews that undergirded American thinking. Goldman is reticent to explore the links between Christian Zionist attitudes and American policy toward the Middle East in the twentieth century, even as he illustrates how pervasive Protestant thinking was in American political thought. Other historians, including Paul Boyer, Douglas Little, and Melani McAlister, have more fully examined the ramifications of Protestant theology on American policy toward Palestine’s Arab inhabitants. In short, the special link between Israel and the land of Palestine, and the vaunted place of Jewish restoration in Christian eschatology, often came at the expense of the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine.
Goldman is more engaged in tracing the contours of liberal Protestant opinion toward Jews in Europe. The legacy of supersessionist theology, which declared that the church had assumed the blessings once reserved for Israel while Jews suffered under their rejection of Jesus as Messiah, blunted Protestant concern for European anti-Semitism. “To the extent that liberal Protestants protested the Third Reich in its first years,” Goldman writes, “it was in defense of so-called non-Aryan Christians—converts to Christianity or their descendants, who were still considered Jews under Nazi racial laws.” The seeming paradox of elevating the role of the Jewish people in God’s ultimate plans while remaining disengaged with contemporary Jewish suffering was not a uniquely American Protestant phenomenon, but its development was especially consequential in the United States, which after 1945 became more engaged than ever in Middle East diplomacy.
The “Judeo-Christian civilization” that Americans began to articulate in the 1930s, and which received a major boost in the waging and winning of World War II, opened new avenues for American Zionism and informed successive U.S. administrations’ understandings of Israel and the Middle East. But “Judeo-Christianity” also advanced a civil religious concept that celebrated God chiefly as the bestower of democratic and individual rights. This God—“the universal deity of liberal Protestantism” in Goldman’s account—was not the God who chose Israel as his covenanted people, but a God who had used the Jewish people as a “testimony to a religious perspective to which all people had access.” The postwar ecumenical leaders had less patience for covenantal chosenness and the nationalism of political Zionism. The drift of liberal and mainline Protestantism from its Christian Zionist roots, Goldman argues, was due in part to this shifting theological emphasis, as well as Israel’s transformation from “David to Goliath” after its victory in the Arab-Israeli War of June 1967.
Even so, for a smaller group of postwar liberal Protestants, humanitarian and geopolitical considerations fueled a vigilant Christian Zionism. Reinhold Niebuhr, the most outspoken postwar Protestant supporter of Israel until his death in 1971, was a bellwether, basing his concerns for Israel on morality and political realism. Unlike other liberal Protestants, it did not take the Holocaust to spur his humanitarian considerations—Niebuhr had come to believe in the need for a Jewish state in Palestine in the 1930s. Like the Protestants of old, he acknowledged Jewish covenantal exceptionalism, though he did not believe in the literal fulfillment of biblical prophecies. Niebuhr’s long career and defense of Israel bridge the Christian Zionist tradition that Goldman traces from the sixteenth century with the late-twentieth century Christian Zionist movement dominated by evangelical Christians.
In Goldman’s telling, the alliance between evangelicals and Israel after 1980 was “more continuous with the liberal Christian Zionism of the postwar years than it appeared to be”—a judgment that too swiftly ignores the novel ways evangelicals developed their Zionism, including the adoption of prosperity theology to give material weight to God’s promise to “bless those who bless” Israel. Indeed, the historical lesson Goldman seeks to draw from emphasizing continuity in American Christian Zionism is left undeveloped. Today’s evangelical Christian Zionists can point to a historical and distinguished pedigree; their skeptics can trace the long theological moves that kept covenantal theology and prophecy interpretation alive in American Protestantism long past its preferred expiration date. While empathetic to Christian supporters of Israel, Goldman refrains from judgment on which narrative is closer to the truth. While he admits that “not everything old is good,” he situates current Christian Zionists as the inheritors of the tradition and, to use 2018 language, normalizes Christian Zionism in American thought—not to endorse it, but to stimulate “civil discussion.”
Yet it is true that God’s Country tells, with notable clarity and academic rigor, a version of the story close to what Christian Zionists repeatedly tell themselves. Mike Pence uttered a less nuanced version of that story in his January speech to the Knesset. The vice president invoked the memories of the Pilgrims, George Washington, John Adams, and Harry Truman to affirm that “down through the generations, the American people became fierce advocates of the Jewish people’s aspiration to return to the land of your forefathers.” Goldman has provided the most erudite, accessible, and concise guide to this unfamiliar but relevant theological history; perhaps he has also supplied the tools to critique it anew.
Daniel G. Hummel is a Robert M. Kingdon Research Fellow at the Institute for Research in the Humanities, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
*Correction: This sentence has been updated.