The New Christian Zionism

Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land

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Editor(s): 
Gerald R. McDermott
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic Press
    , April
     2016.
     352 pages.
     $26.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780830851386.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Israel occupies a prominent role in the American popular imagination, in public debate, and in the political arena. It behooves us, then, to understand why, what this says about America, and why it matters.

Gerald McDermott’s edited volume fits well into this important process. It is doubly important because of the community the book discusses: American evangelicals, who believe that Jewish sovereignty in Israel is part of God’s plan for Christians and thus for the world. Since the Reagan era, evangelicals have emerged as an increasingly powerful force in politics and policymaking. Under the Trump administration, they have become even more influential. 

The purpose of the book, as McDermott lays out in the introduction, is to reinvigorate the evangelical-Israel-Jewish relationship by reaching back to pre-dispensationalist thinkers to rethink what Christian Zionism means and entails. It is necessary at this particular moment because Israel is perceived to be under attack from many quarters. Per the introduction, “it is time for Christians, not just Jews, to make a case for the Jewish people and their land” (12). 

The rest of the chapters lay out a series of legal, moral, political, and theological reasons for Israel’s existence as a Jewish state and for Christian Zionism’s support for it as such. They are well-informed, with references to religious and temporal scholarship on Israel, Zionism, and Jewish history. They are scholarly, too, in their argumentation: laying out a series of arguments and then showing why they are problematic or wrong, providing evidence for their own claims. This makes for an informative study.

Some of the discussion is incomplete. For example, the emphasis in the explanation of Zionism as a historical process focuses on the influence of Western nationalisms in the 19th century. But Zionism as a movement was driven primarily by eastern European nationalisms, in Poland, Lithuania, and Russia. The early Zionist leaders were almost all from this part of the continent, and they believed deeply in those eastern variants, from their secular orientation, through their collectivist culture, to their emphasis on manual labor as the key to national redemption. This is key to understanding why Israel used to be more suspicious of Christian Zionism, which emphasizes religion. As time passed and old ideas faded away, the new generation of Israel’s leadership is more embracing of the focus on religion. 

There is also a tendency to talk about Israel and the Jewish people in religious terms as a contrast to thinking of Jews as a racial group. Race, though, has by now long been seen as a social construct, imposed by hegemonic groups to support their sense of superiority over inferior communities, so the argument loses some coherence.

In addition, Jewishness is more than religion; it is also a peoplehood. Per the major Pew Research Survey in 2013, 78 percent of American Jews call themselves Jews by religion, while 22 percent say they are Jews of no religion. At the same time, among all Jews 62 percent say being Jewish is a matter of ancestry and culture, 15 percent say it is a matter of religion, and 23 percent say it is both. In Israel, most Jews identify as secular (in the high forties), while the practice of Jewish culture and living in the Land of Israel are seen as important components of being Jewish. 

Thinking of Christian Zionism is inherently a political and social exercise as well as a theological and religious one. It is thus noteworthy that the volume ignores the connection to politics and the diversity within the Jewish community. As evangelicals have become increasingly tied to the Republican Party, and to a more conservative and xenophobic GOP, they may push themselves away from the majority of American Jews who identify strongly with the Democratic Party. 

In addition, growing recognition and embrace of ethnic and social differences among Jews combined with the discomfort the bulk of the Jewish community feels regarding recent political and social trends in Israel, as well as opposition to the occupation, is at odds with the emphasis on focusing on “Israel” as a monolithic entity—a single entity that encompasses the State, the Land, and the Jewish people. Given the increasing polarization in American politics, this will put Christian Zionism in the distinct position of opposing the ideas and priorities of the bulk of American Jewry.

There is an urgent need to think about the effects of these complexities. What will Israel advocacy look like if it is Christians, not Jews, leading the effort? What kind of argument can Christian Zionists make about the Jewish state if Jews disagree with their characterization of the state? If American Jews are currently in the process of thinking through their connection to the Jewish state, and what it means to be a Jewish state, what right and role do Christians have in that process? 

At the same time, Israel since 2009 has been under the hegemony of the neo-nationalist religious-right. This group has sought to redefine what it means to be Israel and to be a Jewish state, in the political realm by shrinking space for liberals and critics, and in the identity realm by narrowing the definition of who gets to belong in the Jewish community and in the Jewish state.

The neo-nationalist right’s dominance is likely to endure for the near future. But if Christian Zionism ties itself too closely to that group because of shared understandings and priorities of the moment, what will happen if the changes in Israel change the government and Israel’s priorities? Is Christian Zionism prepared to promote itself as different from both American Jewry and Israel itself?

That the book does not answer all these questions does not undermine its value, though. It is a useful text for thinking about these questions. And both scholars and practitioners surely need to think more carefully about them as changes in America and in Israel, and indeed across the world, shape our understanding of who “we” are, who “they” are, and how we should relate to each other.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brent E. Sasley is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas, Arlington.

Date of Review: 
November 14, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gerald R. McDermott is Anglican Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. He is also associate pastor at Christ the King Anglican Church. His books include The Other Jonathan Edwards: Readings in Love, Society, and Justice (with Ronald Story), The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (with Michael McClymond), A Trinitarian Theology of Religions (with Harold Netland), Cancer: A Medical and Spiritual Guide (with William Fintel, MD), Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods, and World Religions: An Indispensable Guide.

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