America's Road to Jerusalem

The Impact of the Six-Day War on Protestant Politics

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Jason M. Olson
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , November
     2018.
     280 pages.
     $95.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781498581387.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In December 2017, the Trump administration added to its growing list of controversial foreign-policy choices by officially recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. White evangelicals responded with enthusiasm. This response was anticipated by the administration and was certainly part of Trump’s strategic calculus in making the move. Scholars of religion, too, foresaw the evangelical response to this move. Indeed, the varying levels of preoccupation with Israel present within American Protestantism is the subject of a considerable body of literature. Jason Olson enters this scholarly conversation with his book America’s Road to Jerusalem: The Impact of the Six Day War on Protestant Politics.

In this work, he proposes to trace the religio-historical lineage of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem back to the events of the Six Day War. He links these events by advancing an ambitious thesis. Namely, he argues that the outcome of the Six Day War in 1967 wholly reversed the balance of power in American Protestantism—a balance established through the events of the 1925 Scopes trial and, up until 1967, privileging mainline Protestants over their evangelical counterparts. According to Olson, the outcome of the Six Day War disrupted this balance by confirming premillennial, literalist translations of the Bible that took Israeli control over the biblical “homeland” as a prerequisite for the second coming of Christ. This vindication of the evangelical worldview, Olson argues, is what catapulted that group and its leaders to the forefront of American politics in the 1970s and beyond.

Although the causal link proposed by Olson is one stretching the fifty-year span from 1967 to 2017, almost the entirety of the book deals with historical events that occurred between 1965 and 1975. What emerges, then, is an account of Protestant reactions to a few major developments in modern Israel-Palestine relations, situated in the immediate context of Protestant-Jewish relations in the mid-20th century. Throughout this account, Olson gives constant attention to the relevant theological orientations and viewpoints. Indeed, this is where the work begins, with Olson providing a tour dhorizon (broad, general survey) of two “main variables” in Protestant theology (xii). These variables—views on sovereignty and views on covenant—become recurring themes as the book progresses.

The book proceeds in five chapters—each devoted to exploring Protestant attitudes toward a given “player” in the Six Day War either before, during, or after the war. Chapters 1 and 2 deal with the period before the Six Day War and survey the relationship of American Protestantism to American Jewry and to Israel respectively. In these chapters, Olson highlights the relative unimportance of Israel as a subject of conversation for these groups, as well as Jewish groups’ seeming preference for mainline Protestants as interlocutors in Protestant-Jewish dialogue before 1967. In chapters 3 and 4, Olson examines American Protestants’ responses to Israel’s military victory in the Six Day War and subsequent occupation of the West Bank. Critically, Olson uses these chapters to establish that the outcome of the Six Day War vindicated the evangelical viewpoint. In the last chapter, Olson turns to Protestant attitudes toward Palestinians.

It is in this final chapter that Olson perhaps makes his most novel contribution, as the extant literature has not dwelled significantly on the Palestinian people as a subject of Protestant opinion. Olson demonstrates that the Six Day War increased the degree to which evangelicals (particularly fundamentalists) viewed Palestinians as inhibitors of Israeli sovereignty—and therefore inhibitors of God’s will. For mainline Protestants (particularly liberation theologians), on the other hand, the events of the Six Day War resulted in a reversal of their traditional view of Israel as oppressed. In the Six Day War and the occupation that followed it, Israel emerged as oppressor. Given that mainline Protestant ethics tend toward a preference for oppressed peoples, this group became a more steadfast ally of Palestinians than they had been prior to 1967.

As compelling as these contributions may be, however, they are ultimately insufficient to proving Olson’s primary thesis concerning the transposition of power in American Protestantism. Although he repeatedly asserts a causal relationship between the Six Day War and evangelical ascendance, he seems to suppose this ascendance as fact and devotes very little space to proving the veracity of his claim. The sparse attention paid to this argument is particularly glaring given that Olson’s claim positions the Six Day War as a catalyst in this power shift without so much as a sidelong glance at other contributing factors. For example, this account does not include a single mention of the evangelical response to school desegregation, abortion, or any other issue against which this group mobilized.

Furthermore, Olson’s analysis is undermined by his somewhat artificial understanding of anti-Semitism. He seems to frequently conflate anti-Semitism with a lack of support for Israeli foreign policy. This miscalculation makes space for some problematic assessments, such as Olson’s description of evangelical leader Carl McIntire’s relationship to the Anti-Defamation League. In this description, Olson states: “McIntire still supported Israel … despite the aggressiveness of the ADL against him. In other words, because of the vigorous way in which a Jewish organization, the ADL, fought him and sought to limit his freedom of speech, it is not unreasonable that McIntire could have become an anti-Semite” (16).

Ultimately, Olson falls short of his ambitious thesis, but is nevertheless able to provide insight into elite-level responses within American Protestantism to the Six Day War and the events that most immediately served as its religio-historical context. Those interested in a theologically engrossed account of such developments may find America’s Road to Jerusalem of interest..

About the Reviewer(s): 

Becca Peach is a graduate student in the political science PhD program at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Date of Review: 
April 26, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jason M. Olson received his doctorate in Near Eastern and Judaic studies from Brandeis University.

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