n January, Vice President Mike Pence earned a rapturous response from Israel’s Knesset for an emphatic, emotional address that emphasized the unbreakable bond between America and the Jewish state. Meir Soloveichik (whose own article addressing the subject appears on page 12) witnessed the occasion and reported in the Wall Street Journal: “The speech was a milestone in American–Israeli relations, and a window into the heart of many American Christians who, like Mr. Pence, observe Israel’s emergence with wonder and reverence.”
American Jews witness such displays of Christian Zionism with our own sense of wonder—especially after the long and well-known history of Jew-hatred on the part of prominent professing New Testament believers. In that context, it’s worth noting that Pence is hardly the first vice president to express impassioned support for a restored Jewish commonwealth in the Middle East. “I could find it in my heart to wish that you had been at the head of a hundred thousand Israelites… & marching with them into Judea & making a conquest of that country & restoring your nation to the dominion of it,” wrote John Adams, first vice president of the United States (and second president), to the one-time diplomat and early Zionist dreamer, Mordecai Manuel Noah, in 1816. “For I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation.”
America helped fulfill that wish in no small part because its settlers and citizens have long cherished “a vision of the United States as a fated partner of the once and future chosen people.” So argues Samuel Goldman in his significant and surprising new book, God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America. The author teaches political science at George Washington University and describes himself as “a minimally observant Jew who admires Israel but considers America his country.” He disclaims any belief in “the literal fulfillment of prophecy” and insists that “American and Israeli interests, while frequently allied, are not identical.”
Despite his background in political science, Goldman gives scant attention to the divergence or congruence of such interests in terms of policy, concentrating instead on the theological heritage that has influenced American Christians in their enthusiastic embrace of Israel. His book not only traces the 200 years of scriptural interpretation and evangelical exhortation connecting Adams and Pence, but also delves into 200 years of prior British Protestantism that shaped the outlook of the Revolutionary generation.
These stage-setting segments of the book pose challenges to the lay reader, emphasizing abstruse doctrinal disputes regarding the biblical prophecies and covenantal promises to the scattered Jews of the 16th and 17th centuries. Distinctions between chiliasm and premillennial dispensationalism may be important in the history of ideas but bear little relevance to the unique and durable association that emerged between the freshly planted Land of Promise in the New World and the ancient Promised Land in the Near East.
Once Goldman shifts his focus to Colonial America, the pace and energy of his account develop significant momentum, generated by some of the indelible and indomitable characters who linked the fate of the Jews with the rise of their own prospering settlements. Ezra Stiles, a Congregationalist minister and the seventh president of Yale, delivered a memorable sermon in 1783 entitled “The United States Elevated to Glory and Honor,” in which he saw the “prosperity and splendor of the United States” as a sure sign of the predestined rebirth of the Jewish people in their ancient home, “when this branch of the posterity of Abraham shall be nationally collected, and become a very distinguished and glorious people.” According to his son-in-law and biographer, Stiles used textual hints to calculate that this restoration of the Jews would occur on or around the year 2370.
Elias Boudinot, one-time president of the Continental Congress and a founder of the American Bible Society, went even further than Stiles in associating America’s providential progress with its mission to restore the Children of Abraham. “America has been greatly favoured by God, in all her concerns, civil and religious,” he wrote in 1798. “She has been raised up in the course of divine Providence, at a very important crisis, and for no very inconsiderable purposes. She stands on a pinnacle—She cannot act a trifling or undecided part….Who knows but God has 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.”
At the time Boudinot expressed this visionary purpose, actual Jews represented less than .03 percent of the American population, with a mere 2,500 individuals scattered across 15 states of the Union. The would-be benefactors of the Jewish people had so little familiarity with real-world Jewry that they easily assumed that once the Jews became again “a very distinguished and glorious people,” they would happily shed their outmoded religion and become Christians. But in the mind of committed “Restorationists,” these conversionary expectations amounted to an inevitable result of Jewish deliverance rather than a precondition for it.
In 1823, Ethan Smith, a Revolutionary War veteran and influential Vermont pastor, published A View of the Hebrews, in which he advocated unconditional kindness for the Children of Abraham “under the protecting wings of a great Eagle….Yea, a land that, when all other lands shall be found to have trampled on the Jews, shall be found to have protecting wings for them; free from such cruelty, and ready to aid them.”
Remarkably, this sympathy and support from American Christian leaders survived the sudden tidal wave of destitute Eastern European Jews who began immigrating to the United States after Russian pogroms in 1881. Goldman offers an especially sympathetic portrait of William Eugene Blackstone, the evangelist and bestselling author (Jesus Is Coming) who responded to such persecution with an urgent plea to President Benjamin Harrison in 1891 to use America’s power to bring the Jews back to their ancestral home. “Why shall not the powers which under the Treaty of Berlin, in 1878, gave Bulgaria to the Bulgarians and Servia to the Servians now give Palestine back to the Jews? These provinces, as well as Romania, Montenegro and Greece were wrested from the Turks and given to their natural owners. Does not Palestine as rightfully belong to the Jews?”
Blackstone not only won a personal meeting with the president and his secretary of state to present his petition, but secured a dazzling array of important signatories, including the speaker of the house, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, future president William McKinley, and business titans John D. Rockefeller, Cyrus McCormack, and J.P. Morgan. In view of this achievement some six years before Theodor Herzl convened the first official Zionist Congress, newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis later described Reverend Blackstone as the true “father of Zionism.”
Another hero in the long line of Christian Zionists, the liberal theologian and Time magazine cover boy Reinhold Niebuhr, also emerges in vivid terms in Goldman’s book. His implacable opposition to all forms of anti-Semitism and unwavering support for the new State of Israel recall an earlier era when the great majority of American Protestants, mainline as well as fundamentalists, identified with the Jewish people in their 20th-century suffering and survival. Goldman does little to explain the defection of liberal denominations from instinctive support for the Jewish state other than a cursory reference to Israel’s transition from David to Goliath in the wake of sweeping victory in the 1967 War. Maintaining a consistently nonideological tone, he declines comment on the Christian left’s postwar embrace of anti-colonialist ideology and the cult of victimhood as a contributing factor to recent participation in the BDS movement and other forms of anti-Zionist agitation.
The post-1980 emergence of ardently pro-Israel, outspokenly conservative evangelical celebrities and media stars such as Jerry Falwell (founder of the Moral Majority) and John Hagee (founder of the million-member Christians United for Israel) has been so widely discussed that the development receives only cursory attention from Goldman. His major contribution comes in placing the Israel obsession of today’s Christian conservatives in proper context, with religious leaders from the earliest days of Puritan settlement suggesting that America had been specially blessed for its foreordained role in re-establishing Israel. Goldman affirms that “the idea of an American calling to help complete God’s plan for the Jews was not invented by the Christian right of the 1980s. On the contrary, it is a recurring theme of American thought….It is neither surprising nor sinister that this component of our national myth endures.”
Those who prefer to write off this “myth” as a comforting fairy tale might take a longer look at the improbable images from Israel’s parliament earlier this year. Nearly 2,000 years after destruction, dispersion, and exile, a devoutly Christian American vice president stood before the representatives of a powerful and prosperous Israel, in its newly recognized and restored capital of Jerusalem. He marked the occasion by delivering the appropriate blessing in passable—and untranslated—Hebrew: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.”