On September 13, evangelical pastor John Hagee stood before San Antonio’s Cornerstone Church — which seats 5,400 people and is televised to millions more — and told congregants how to vote on November 3. “In the forthcoming presidential election let every bible-believing Christian go vote the bible,” he said, to the cheering and applause of a tightly packed crowd of mask-less worshipers (On October 4, news broke that Hagee has been diagnosed with Covid-19). He continued, “Take America back from the god of socialism that now threatens the very survival of this nation.”
Hagee was referring to President Donald Trump in all but name, a significant endorsement from someone whose sphere of influence extends far beyond his mega-church and its related school system. Hagee is the founder of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), an organization that claims 9 million members (a number that may or may not be inflated) and may be more influential with the right than the well-known American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). CUFI has tremendous reach among U.S. churches and exerts profound sway over the white evangelical Christian base that turned out en masse for Trump in 2016. “Christian Zionism,” the political ideology that animates the organization, is premised on an end-times prophecy which CUFI translates into a bloody, confrontational foreign policy that has made stunning strides over the past four years.
And this ideology is being used to mobilize a large base ahead of a crucial election. In mid-October, the organization will be showing its new documentary “Never Again?” in 800 theaters — in addition to churches—across the country, a move that critics say is likely aimed, at least in part, at encouraging U.S. churchgoers to support Trump. As Hagee and other Christian Zionists have used their perches to mobilize support for Trump, the president has showered them with policy wins, from the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem to violent belligerence towards Iran. During an intense election season that has been upended by news of Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis, it is impossible to fully grasp the contours of the 2020 contest, or the global role of the United States under Trump, without understanding this powerful political force.
“What’s underreported is the massive size of the Christian Zionist voting bloc and how much Trump is relying on it as a prospect to retake the White House,” says Stefanie Fox, the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace Action (JVP Action), a national organization that opposes the Israeli occupation. “That has been the reason and rationale for Trump’s very prominent anti-Palestinian agenda from day one.”
Jonathan Brenneman, a Palestinian-American organizer with Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA), a Christian organization that advocates for the rights of Palestinians, tells In These Times, “After Trump was elected, Christian Zionism might be the main framework the majority of Americans think of Palestine with. Christian Zionism is in the air we breathe.”
What is Christian Zionism?
The modern political ideology of Christian Zionism is, in most cases, premised on the prophecy that the migration of Jews to Israel is a necessary prerequisite for the second coming of Jesus Christ. Upon the rapture, Jews will either convert to Christianity or go to Hell, according to this belief system, which is most closely associated with evangelical, charismatic or pentecostal strains of Christianity. In a February 2018 sermon, Hagee put it this way: “God has a set time to do everything, and Israel is God’s prophetic clock for doing it. Recognize this fact: that God’s clock only moves when the Jewish people are in the land of Israel, and when they are in the land, the clock starts ticking.”
In practice, this political ideology as exercised through CUFI has meant unbridled support for Israel “as a Jewish state,” alignment with the most far-right political forces in Israeli society, and backing of the ethnic cleansing and killing of Palestinians. While strains of Christian Zionism vary, Hagee holds that the rapture will be preceded by a cataclysmic war, a belief that makes him enthusiastic about conflict and confrontation with Palestinians, as well as with Iran and its allies. In 2005, Hagee declared that “it is time for America to embrace the words of Senator Joseph Lieberman and consider a military preemptive strike against Iran to prevent a nuclear holocaust in Israel and a nuclear attack in America.”
The anti-Palestinian, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim ethos embedded in the Christian Zionism of groups like CUFI is well documented. “It applies biblical prophecy to a modern nation state and transforms a 70-year struggle for political and human rights into a mythic, ahistorical, world-ending religious conflict,” says JVP Action’s Fox. “That’s super dehumanizing to Palestinians, Muslims and Jews, but also is extremely dangerous when you are using the tools of statecraft to basically pursue the end of the world.”
This ideology is often dressed up as philo-Semitism, or extreme love of Jews. (Elan Carr, the State Department’s Special Envoy for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism, boasted at an event in Tel Aviv in 2019 that the United States is “still the most philo-Semitic country in world history.”) But critics note that lurking beneath this supposed adoration is a profound instrumentalization of Jews. “Christian Zionists essentially think all Jewish people are caricatures of the ancient Israelites — a caricature they associate, in turn, with the modern state of Israel — and that the loyalty of all Jews is, or should be, to Israel,” says Ben Lorber, a research analyst for Political Research Associates, a social justice think tank. “Tied in with this, there is a palpable sense in which they despise Jews in the diaspora, especially liberal Jews.”
Hagee has caught criticism for some of his overtly anti-Semitic messages. In a late-1990s sermon, he argued that Hitler had enacted God’s will by expelling Jews from Europe and forcing them to Israel. “Then god sent a hunter,” he preached. “A hunter is someone with a gun and he forces you. Hitler was a hunter.” Hagee has maintained that the speech was mischaracterized and taken out of context, but he delivered it again sometime “between September 24, 2005 and January 1, 2006,” according to a Huffington Post report. Meanwhile, a similar message has echoed throughout his other work. In a 2006 book Jerusalem Countdown, Hagee said Jews bear the blame for anti-Semitism because of an old curse on the ancient Hebrews, resulting from idol worship. And in a show of profound disrespect to the West Africans hit hardest by the Ebola crisis, Hagee said in 2014 that the disease was an example of God punishing former President Barack Obama for “dividing Jerusalem.”
Taher Herzallah, an organizer with American Muslims for Palestine, a group that has participated in interfaith efforts to mobilize against CUFI, told In These Times it is important to also pay attention to the anti-Muslim racism is built into the organization’s teachings. “They use this counter-terrorism narrative,” he says. “It’s this idea that there is this Islamic heathen, that we have to protect Israel from the Islamic world, that Israel is a beacon of light in a region of darkness. You hear that kind of racist language a lot.”
While CUFI isn’t the only Christian Zionist organization, it is the most powerful, and it appears to exert considerable influence over a base that is already highly favorable to its goals. A LifeWay Research poll conducted in September 2017 found that 80% of evangelicals believe that the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948 and migration of Jews there “were fulfillments of Bible prophecy that show we are getting closer to the return of Jesus Christ.”
CUFI, however, has its critics among progressive Christians, who argue that the organization is not a natural outgrowth of Christianity, but a cynical political project that is using Christianity to justify a belligerent and violent foreign policy. “U.S. empire has always tried to use Christianity to justify its horrific settler colonialism,” says Rochelle Watson, organizer with FOSNA. “You can see a modern-day version of that with CUFI. Yes, this is about the right and Trump and a shared political project, but it’s also part of such a long continuation.”
A Christian Zionist foreign policy
Alignment with CUFI’s strain of Christian Zionism is one of the constant threads throughout Trump’s foreign policy actions and proclamations. On a Rosh Hashanah call in mid-September, Trump told American Jewish leaders, “We love your country,” an implicit assertion that all Jews are Israelis, consistent with both a common Christian Zionist axiom and an anti-Semitic dual loyalty trope. (Trump has made similar statements in the past.)
But more important than words, Trump has gone even beyond the usual bipartisan, unconditional U.S. support for Israel. In 2018, at Trump’s ceremony marking the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem — a clear provocation against Palestinians and gift to the far-right government of Benjamin Netanyahu — Hagee gave the benediction (Hagee claimed in a sermon to have counseled Trump to undertake this move). Close Trump associate and evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress — who has unleashed anti-LGBTQ invectives and said Jews are going to Hell — delivered the prayer. In August 2020, at a campaign rally in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Trump declared that he moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognized Jerusalem “for the evangelicals.”
The embassy move wasn’t the only gesture Trump has made (and importantly, is a cause that, at least in theory, has been taken up by Democrats — including Joe Biden — long before Trump’s tenure). In March 2019, Trump signed a proclamation recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights, and in January 2020 formally unrolled his so-called “deal of the century,” which would further entrench Israel’s ethnic cleansing, dispossession and occupation of Palestinians. Trump’s much-trumpeted “Abraham Accords” normalizing relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, in their name directly imply that the United States is a Christian country that is entering into agreements with countries of other Abrahamic religions. Hagee was resplendent upon their signing: “Another historic day as we watch the sons of Abraham come together to sign the Abraham Accords with Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates,” he declared on Twitter. Yet, as Palestinian-American scholar Noura Erakat pointed out, the agreements “reflect a geopolitical alliance among repressive regimes to expand the U.S. sphere of influence in the Middle East,” in part to protect weapons flows, and comes at the expense of Yemenis, Palestinians and all people subject to these repressive governments.
The influence of Christian Zionism on the Trump administration’s foreign policy goes beyond Israel and Palestine. CUFI is an enthusiastic cheerleader of ratcheting up of tensions with Iran, praising Trump’s January 2020 assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force and a ranking official of Iran, which nearly brought the United States into direct war with the country. CUFI has been a vociferous supporter of Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions against Iran, which have devastated people in Iran and worsened Covid-19 deaths. It also supports U.S. sanctions ostensibly targeting Hezbollah, which have made Lebanon’s multiple, overlapping crises far worse.
Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, a grassroots organization, cautions against viewing these policies as solely the result of the influence of one organization. Instead, she says, it’s important to identify the “shared interests around white nationalism and ethno-nationalism. CUFI is part of that equation.”
“There’s a long history of the coalescing between right-wing forces under Zionism,” says Kiswani. The Trump administration has not only emboldened white nationalists and the Christian right domestically, but also partnered with other enthno-nationalist states like Israel. Meanwhile, there is also a “shared interest between the ethno-nationalism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a white Christian base,” she argues.
Some say this political partnership is also premised on something both common and mundane in U.S. politics: Trump’s efforts to mobilize a base in support of himself. “I’m not going to try to get inside Trump’s head,” Steven Gardiner, assistant research director for Political Research Associates and author of a new report on Christian Zionism, told In These Times. “But it’s clear from his actions that whatever his beliefs are, he’s pandering to the Christian Zionist base, and going above and beyond the kind of substantive support for Israel that comes in the ongoing financial and military support and military alliance in the region.” Gardiner includes Trump’s bellicose policies towards Iran within this larger trend. “For the Christian Zionist world,” he says, “Iran is the new devil in play for them.”
This does not mean, however, that Trump is not also trying to curry favor among more bipartisan pro-Israel forces like AIPAC (CUFI mostly draws its support from the right). According to Gardiner, “AIPAC has been more or less non-partisan, or at least willing to ally themselves with anyone who could conceivably be an ally of Israel. Christian Zionists, on the other hand, foreground the very acts that are going to antagonize not just American liberals, but liberal Jews in the diaspora in particular.”
“In terms of mobilizing voters,” Gardiner continues, “It’s the Christian Zionists that are going to get themselves into hundreds of churches, not AIPAC. If you’re a ‘good’ politician, you can do two things with the same action: appeal to AIPAC and Christian Zionists. There’s no reason you wouldn’t.” AIPAC, for its part, has allied with Christian Zionists, and had Hagee speak at its 2007 summit. And both AIPAC and CUFI have rallied around similar and overlapping aims, including the criminalization of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.
While it is difficult to know what Trump actually believes, and there are reports that he has mocked his Christian supporters, it is undeniable that he’s filled his administration with staunch Christian Zionists. Speaking at CUFI’s 2019 summit, Vice President Mike Pence rattled off the Trump administration’s hawkish record to resounding applause and trumpeted his close relationship with CUFI. Addressing the group’s summit in 2017, Pence declared, “For my part, like all of you, my passion for Israel springs from my Christian faith.”
CUFI mobilized aggressively in support of Mike Pompeo’s confirmation as Secretary of State. “The bipartisan vote in favor of the nomination comes on the heels of a rigorous grassroots and lobbying campaign waged by the Christian Zionist group,” boasts a statement from the organization. Pompeo has, in turn, signaled his stalwart support for this bloc. At the recent Republican National Convention, Pompeo delivered his speech from the roof of the King David hotel in Jerusalem, earning him the Washington Post headline, “Pompeo’s Christian Zionism takes center stage.”
Fighting the Right
CUFI’s inner workings and expenditures are shrouded in secrecy. As San Antonio Current reporter Sanford Nowlin has pointed out, while the Citizens United for Israel Action Fund — CUFI’s lobbying arm — files 990 forms with the IRS, CUFI is included under Hagee’s church and offers no such disclosures. As a result, the action fund’s lobbying expenditures appear to be much lower than groups like AIPAC on paper, but it is difficult to know how much CUFI spends to wield political influence. In August, journalist Aiden Pink reported that CUFI “was awarded nearly $1.3 million in February 2019 for 10 week-long pilgrimages to the Holy Land, each containing 30 of what Concert documents call ‘influential Christian clerics from the U.S.’” According to the report, CUFI did not fully disclose those funds.
But all indicators suggest that the powerful machine of CUFI itself is pushing a right-wing political program in the lead-up to the presidential election.
“CUFI is mobilizing their massive base to turn out for Trump and his anti-Palestinian, anti-Jewish, anti-people of color agenda, and so their rollout of the film series across the country through congregations is 100% aimed at voter turnout and riling up the base and looking to Trump as a source of anti-Palestinian policy that will help them pursue their end times view of the world,” says Fox, referencing the upcoming screening of CUFI’s documentary, which the organization says is about “the horrors of anti-Semitism and the power of survival and redemption.”
Brenneman, for his part, finds it difficult to distinguish between CUFI’s advocacy for Trump and its general support for a right-wing program. “CUFI’s overall project has always been a political project — about pushing right-wing politics through in the name of Christianity,” he says.
To oppose this political effort, FOSNA is mobilizing its base to demand that local theaters pull the CUFI documentary. Brenneman underscores that “while Christians have a particular responsibility to denounce CUFI, all people of conscience should be wary of CUFI’s power, and challenge it.”
There is no shortage of opportunities to do so. In addition to the film screenings, there are Hagee’s overt remarks to help get Trump elected. In 2019, he told Mark Levin of Fox News, “If this next election is not a reelection of President Trump, our country is going to go into a socialist tailspin.” Beyond explicit endorsement, his church partners with and publicly lauds the Trump administration. In June 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic and related poverty and food crisis ravaged San Antonio, Hagee’s Cornerstone Church issued a press release announcing it had distributed “12,500 food boxes, totaling over 300,000 pounds, as part of the Trump Administration’s Farmers to Families program.”
CUFI has a vast outreach apparatus that includes campus organizing, a prayer network, trips to Israel and more — but this has not inoculated the organization from steep opposition. CUFI’s 2019 summit was met with boisterous protests led by an interfaith coalition. And Watson says FOSNA hopes to do more in the future to “reach broader progressive Christian movements” that might not be aware of the harms done by CUFI.
A key part of this, she says, is raising awareness among Christians who might not know about the group’s hateful politics. FOSNA is working with Black for Palestine, a grassroots effort, to reach out to Black churches specifically. In December of 2019, 477 Black clergy and activists signed an open letter arguing “the time is now for Black churches, clergy, faith leaders, and laypeople to cast aside the politics of Christian Zionism and link arms with our Palestinian neighbors and their allies in the global movement for freedom and justice.”
JVP Action, for its part, is working to counter this bloc in the upcoming election. “We have made this assessment that white evangelical Christian Zionists are a massive voting bloc and are helping pave the way for Trump’s reelection, and a driving foreign policy in Israel and Palestine,” says Fox. The group is planning to focus on ousting Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — both supporters of CUFI — and hopes to use this campaign to raise broader awareness about the harms of Christian Zionism.
“As a Jewish group,” Fox says, “our primary focus is on educating those who are not part of the bloc to understand what is going on and what is driving U.S. policy — to educate our own base and fellows of conscience. At the same time, we are in deep partnership long term with groups like FOSNA that are seeking to do the work inside of Christian community.”
“Both are necessary,” she says. “CUFI is absolutely bringing their all to the fight.”
As a 501©3 nonprofit publication, In These Times does not oppose or endorse candidates for political office.
Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.