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During a campaign stop on August 17, President Donald Trump told supporters the decision to move the United States embassy in Israel to Jerusalem was “for the Evangelicals.” Looking to shore up his base for the 2020 election, Trump has been making efforts to showcase his accomplishments. With the economy reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, though, he has had to highlight other achievements.
When the US formally moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018, it was reported as a decision that pleased Israel but angered Palestine and other Arab nations in the region. As Trump indicated in his speech, though, “the Evangelicals are more excited by [the move] than Jewish people.” It is a typically bold assertion from the president and one that is probably correct.
Moving the US embassy in Israel
In December 2017, Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in a speech he gave at the White House. In doing so, he also announced that the US would be moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He said when the new embassy was complete, it would “be a magnificent tribute to peace.”
In reality, Trump’s decision was met with anger around the world, specifically in Arab and Muslim nations. While Israel has long held that Jerusalem is its capital, the city is also the location of important Islamic and Christian sites.
The United Nations Partition Plan of 1947 established the state of Israel within what was then Palestine (Israel was officially recognized as a nation the following year). The plan further designated Jerusalem as an international city, held by neither Israel nor Palestine.
In 2017, when the US brought a resolution to the UN to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, it was roundly rejected. Only nine countries – among them the US and Israel – supported Trump’s proposal, while 128 countries rejected it and 35 abstained from the vote.
Nonetheless, the US went forward with moving its embassy to Jerusalem. With thousands of Palestinians protesting, the embassy opened on May 14, 2018, resulting in violent clashes between protesters and Israeli troops. It was said to be the most violent day in the region since 2014 and ultimately resulted in 52 Palestinian deaths and 2,400 injured.
An appeal to Evangelicals
Though the embassy’s move has been celebrated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others in Israel, Trump – who has a history of using antisemitic tropes – recently implied that the decision wasn’t made for them.
Appearing in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Trump spoke about the decision to move the embassy, highlighting it as an achievement of his administration. As the crowd cheered, Trump explained the apparent motive for the geopolitical decision.
“And we moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem. That’s for the Evangelicals. You know, it’s amazing with that: the Evangelicals are more excited by that than Jewish people. It’s really, right? It’s incredible.”
If Trump’s motivation was the approval of Evangelicals, it’s likely prudent of him to highlight the decision. He has consistently trailed former Vice President Joe Biden in the polls and has reportedly been losing support among the so-called “white working class” contingent.
Trump, who is no stranger to coarse language and infidelity, nonetheless won the Christian vote in 2016 and appears likely to do so again in 2020. In fact, while Black Christians are more likely to vote for Biden, both white Protestants and white Catholics are projected to stick with Trump.
Why do Evangelicals care about Israel?
While the Republican Party’s historical opposition to abortion plays a big part in Christian support, Trump’s overt appeal to Evangelicals matters. As reported by the Christian publishing firm LifeWay Research in 2017, Israel’s well-being is of vital importance to Evangelicals.
In an extensive opinion poll, LifeWay surveyed “Evangelical attitudes towards Israel and the peace process.” What they found is informative for why Trump views Israel as an appeal to his Evangelical base.
Among the findings: “69% agree that Jewish people have a historic right to the land of Israel,” “63% disagree that biblical passages about Jewish people having a right to the land of Israel no longer apply today” and, perhaps most importantly, 80% believe that the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 fulfilled “Bible prophecy that show we are getting closer to the return of Jesus Christ.”
However, only 3% of those surveyed had ever been to Israel.
These views are generally defined as Christian Zionism. This belief system holds that Israel must be a whole and independent nation to bring about the end times as prophesied in the Christian Bible. Part of that involves Jerusalem being restored as the nation’s capital.
Evangelicals largely believe that Trump was appointed by God to be president to shepherd in the end times. This belief, far from an apocalyptic nightmare for Evangelicals, holds that the end times will herald the return of Jesus Christ who will then rule over a 1,000-year period of peace on Earth, after which his true followers will ascend to eternity in Heaven. All others will be destroyed.
Christianity Today and tomorrow
Christian Zionism is hardly new. It’s a set of beliefs that has appeared regularly in the pages of Christianity Today, a magazine founded by Billy Graham in 1956 to appeal to the growing Evangelical movement in the US. The magazine currently has a circulation of 120,000, with 3.3 million monthly visitors to its website.
Christianity Today published a cover story on Christian Zionism in its March 1992 issue. The story, entitled “For the Love of Zion,” cited Amos 9:14-15 from the Old Testament of the Bible as a foundational passage of the belief system:
“14and I will bring my people Israel back from exile. ‘They will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them. They will plant vineyards and drink their wine; they will make gardens and eat their fruit. 15I will plant Israel in their own land, never again to be uprooted from the land I have given them,’ says the Lord your God.”
The article expands from there: “For evangelicals, perhaps no issue twines politics and religion more tightly than the past, present, and future of Israel … its establishment in 1948 … signaled for many Christians the beginning of the end times.”
The imminent apocalypse was further popularized through Christian book publishing. First, there was the 1970 publication of “The Late Great Planet Earth” by Hal Lindsey and C.C. Carlson, detailing end times prophecy. Though dismissed by theologians and scholars, it sold well enough to merit an Orson Welles film adaptation and become the top-selling “nonfiction” book of the 1970s.
Since the 70s, apocalyptic narratives, whether framed as fiction or prophecy, have been big sellers. The greatest success was the “Left Behind” series, written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. The series, which spanned 16 books and included a children’s book series, had sold 80 million copies at the time of LaHaye’s death in 2016.
In roughly the same amount of time, the seven-book Harry Potter series had sold 400 million copies. And like that British fantasy series, the “Left Behind” series spawned multiple movies. The original “Left Behind” novel has been adapted two separate times, with the second film starring Nicholas Cage.
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