The presidencies of Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush provide helpful bookends on the complicated world of Evangelical-Jewish relations over the last 30 years. Carter, a devout Baptist and the first presidential candidate who self-identified as a “born-again evangelical,” brokered the Camp David Accords, and many informed observers say his respect for faith gave him a decisive advantage in bringing together Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin. In an interview with President Carter for a book on faith in the halls of power, he shared with me an interesting detail about the start of the negotiations at Camp David: “The first thing we did at Camp David was…[to] issue a call for worldwide prayer for peace….I drafted the prayer…I went in and got Sadat to approve it, and he approved it without any change. Begin, in typical meticulous fashion, edited it very carefully. But that was the start of it all.”
Carter’s personal friendship with Begin reflected a larger sense of camaraderie among the leaders I interviewed. Jews and Evangelicals have worked together on many issues. Michael Horowitz, for example, served as an official in the Reagan White House and befriended many Evangelicals inside the administration. While there, Horowitz championed the cause of Jews suffering human rights abuses in the Soviet Union. Later, Horowitz tapped those connections with various Evangelical public leaders, galvanizing their support for wider issues of international religious freedom. Working together, Jewish and Evangelical elites successfully lobbied the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act, which President Clinton signed into law in 1998. These kinds of alliances have cropped up time and again.
Many assume that Evangelicals and Jews stand shoulder to shoulder on foreign policy — especially regarding Israel — and are at odds on domestic concerns. The reality, though, is more complicated. Evangelical voters are among the most ardent supporters of Israel, some of whom feel this way because of a premillennialist theology. According to this, the return of Jesus — which will entail some trials and tribulations — is designed to give Jews a chance to embrace Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus’ return is often understood to take place in the Holy Land, which conditions Evangelicals’ attitudes toward Israel. This has been the theological touchstone of the popular Left Behind book series of recent years, written by two Evangelicals . Across the twelve volumes already published, authors Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye describe a cataclysmic apocalypse that will usher in the second coming of Christ. The confounding element is that most Evangelicals, like other Americans, cannot articulate what they believe about the end of the world. Either they are not certain, or they cannot specify the details of what they believe. In fact, Evangelicals’ support of Israel has less to do with apocalyptic theology and more to do with God’s preference for Israel and the Jews in the Bible.
Recent debates about Palestine, however, have challenged conventional assumptions. President Carter’s recent book, Peace Not Apartheid, articulates a sentiment held by many Evangelical leaders I interviewed that Palestine should be allowed to form an independent state. This, coupled with the rise of postmillennialist theology (especially among Presbyterians and other Reformed wings of Evangelicalism), has generated a wider spectrum of opinions about Israel, and the Jewish community in general.
At the same time, Jews and Evangelicals have worked together on domestic concerns. In 2000, they forged an important alliance that led to the passage of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. Indeed, international human rights have become a shared touchstone of foreign policy advocated by both.
As I interviewed numerous public leaders in different parts of American society, I found Jewish and Evangelical colleagues working together — on elite university campuses, in corporate life, and in the nonprofit sector. However, the significant Jewish presence in Hollywood makes it a particularly interesting case. There, friendships and partnerships have crossed the religious divide in significant measure. During conversations with some 50 accomplished directors, writers, producers, and actors, almost everyone talked about friendships with Jewish colleagues in the industry. Anti-Jewish tirades by Mel Gibson and other conservative Christians are quite unusual. Most Evangelicals in Hollywood distance themselves from such sentiments, and they often speak gingerly about Jewish leaders’ concerns over The Passion of the Christ . And in Hollywood especially, Evangelicals join their Jewish friends in voting for Democrats over Republicans.
In the current administration, many Jews — including some of those who have worked within his administration — find the prominence President Bush gives to his Evangelical faith disconcerting. But a look at the last 30 years shows that Jews and Evangelicals are working now more closely than ever before. It remains to be seen what this will mean for American society. It is possible, as some fear, that Evangelicals will parlay their power to triumph over smaller groups who disagree with them. By the same token, it could, as Tocqueville observed nearly 200 years ago, elicit a renewed sense of engaged citizenship where religion anchors a moral obligation for the common good.email print