God's Country

Christian Zionism in America

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Samuel Goldman
Haney Foundation Series
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , February
     2018.
     248 pages.
     $34.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780812250039.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Samuel Goldman’s major achievement in this valuable survey is to show that Christian Zionism is not synonymous with premillennial dispensationalism, the movement founded in Britain by John Nelson Darby in the mid-19th century, transplanted to America shortly thereafter, and embraced by Jerry Falwell, John Hagee, Hal Lindsey, and other exemplars of the contemporary Christian Right in the late 20th century and early 21st century. From the 17th century on, American history has been filled with Christian Zionists—that is, with persons whose support for “a Jewish state in some portion of the Promised Land” rests mainly on “Christian beliefs, doctrines, or texts” rather than on diplomatic considerations (4).

The first third of Goldman's study extends from the colonial period through the mid-19th century. The central figures here are the New England Puritans Increase Mather and Jonathan Edwards, the revolutionary-era preachers George Duffield and David Austin, and Elias Boudinot, whose many duties included presiding over the Continental Congress, directing the US mint, and serving as president of the American Bible Society. These individuals, all millenarians, held that God's ancient people remained his chosen people still, that the twelve tribes of Israel would return to the Promised Land in accordance with repatriationist prophecies in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Jeremiah 23:1-8, Isaiah 11:11-16, Ezekiel 37:15-28), and that a Jewish-Christian Jerusalem would be the capital of the millennial kingdom. 

The middle portion of Goldman’s book begins with the advent of premillennial dispensationalism in America and continues through the creation of the modern state of Israel, the “God's Country” of the book's title. American dispensationalists like Cyrus I. Scofield (d. 1921) and William E. Blackstone (d. 1935) accepted Darby's forecast that the return of the Jews to Palestine was the prelude to the rapture, the tribulation, and the battle of Armageddon, the three apocalyptic events that would conclude the sixth dispensation and lead directly to the second coming of Jesus and the commencement of the seventh or millennial dispensation. But in contrast to Darby, these men lived at a time when various geopolitical factors (secular Zionism, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the British capture of Jerusalem) indicated that “Jewish restoration was a diplomatic and logistical problem that could be resolved by acts of state” rather than through miraculous divine intervention (68). Yet despite their growing prominence during the first half of the 20th century, dispensationalists were not yet the “public faces of Christian Zionism” in America (124). That status belonged to mainstream Protestants like the Unitarian John Haynes Holmes (d. 1964), the Methodist Franklin Littell (d. 2009), and especially the Neo-Orthodox theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (d. 1971), who receives more attention in Goldman's study than any other figure. These and other mainliners did not share the dispensationalists' interest in the fulfillment of biblical prophecy or their expectation of eventual Jewish conversion. They thought that biblical prophecies “were a way of articulating psychological and political insights rather than a forecast of events to come” (115), and they advocated the creation of a Jewish homeland as “a refuge from persecution, an outpost of Judeo-Christian civilization, and a bastion of liberal democracy” (10) and as “part of ... a righteous world order” (100).

The final third of the book covers the past seventy-five years of American Zionist history. The decisive event during this period was Israel's expansionist victory in the Six-Day War (1967). Dispensationalists saw the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as confirmation of God's ancient promise that the children of Israel would possess all the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River; mainstream Protestants, however, “drifted away from Israel, which they increasingly regarded as an outpost of imperialism, colonialism, and other sins” (146). The mainline retreat from Christian Zionism left the field open to the dispensationalists, who soon formed an alliance—perhaps an unholy alliance—with the Likud party and its Jewish-American sympathizers. 

All books have weaknesses, and God's Country is no exception. Goldman has little interest in explaining, first, how Christian Zionists interpreted unsettling New Testament passages like Matthew 27:25 (“his blood be on us and on our children”) and Acts 2:23 (where Peter says that the Jews “crucified” Jesus “by the hands of the wicked”); second, what Christian Zionists said about the ten lost tribes of Israel, who are explicitly included in Jeremiah 23:1-8 and other repatriationist prophecies in the Hebrew Bible; and third, what Christian duties, if any, Christian Zionists expected Jews to perform once they returned to Palestine. Moreover, he pays little attention to the rationales of American Protestants who were opposed to Jewish restoration. 

These weaknesses are sins of omission rather than sins of commission—that is, they are points that Goldman fails to discuss fully rather than points that he discusses wrongly. What he does in this book he does well.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Richard W. Cogley is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Samuel Goldman teaches political science and is Executive Director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at the George Washington University. He is also literary editor of Modern Age.

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