Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been one of the most beloved Israeli politicians in the history of Christian Zionism. It has been a religio-political match made in heaven, with Christian Right leaders providing Netanyahu with money in Israel and political clout in the U.S., and the Israeli leader putting up with an Evangelical end-times theology.
But while Netanyahu is still in office, his Christian Zionist dance partners have changed. They no longer adhere to the fantastical, but generally passive end-times theology from which Christian Zionism emerged. Today’s Christian Zionists hail from apostolic and prophetic movements such as the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), a demon-haunted new generation of American religio-politics, which may change the terms of the American-Israeli right-wing partnership in the bargain.
It was Jerry Falwell who brokered the unlikely political partnership between American fundamentalists and Israeli politicians during the administration of Menachem Begin, founder of the Likud Party. The evangelical end-time prophecy narrative—well captured in books like Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth and The Left Behind series co-authored by Tim LaHaye, one of the founders of the Moral Majority—was central to this alliance. In this interpretation of biblical prophecy, believers are raptured, or suddenly snatched to heaven, prior to the seven years before Jesus’ return, a time when the anti-Christ will rule over the earth in the Great Tribulation.
Today, the most prominent organization in Christian Zionism is Christians United for Israel (CUFI), led by controversial pastor John Hagee. CUFI has moved tens of millions of dollars from the U.S. to Israel, but is not required to disclose its activities because it is technically a church, registered in Texas as “CUFI Church Association” with a mission to “proclaim Christ to the world.” Hagee’s theology is somewhat consistent with Lindsey’s and LaHaye’s: In his fiery dispensationalist sermons, he teaches that the Rapture could take place at any minute.
While the futuristic end times prophecy narrative predicts a grim outcome for Jews, this is essentially a “passive” tale that requires supernatural intervention and that many Jewish leaders don’t take seriously. Often, they would literally laugh it off. One common joke is “When the Messiah comes, we’ll just ask if he’s been here before or not.”
But Christian Zionism has recently been transformed by a new generation with a radically different theology that actively seeks to proselytize in Israel, Eastern Europe, and South America, and which promotes an aggressive Christian nationalism in the U.S. Today’s Christian Zionism is dominated by the Charismatic/Pentecostal sector of Christianity, with the NAR first and foremost. Several CUFI directors, past and present, are part of the NAR leadership, and NAR spokespeople have gained prominence in Christian Zionist circles.
Get to know the NAR: they are the future of the Christian Right. Their leaders describe themselves as modern day “apostles and prophets,” anointed by God to reform the church in preparation for the end times. This is a triumphalist theology, one in which the adherents believe they will exercise “dominion” over all of American society, be victorious over their opponents on earth, and convert all the Jews.
For fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell, the prerequisite for the second coming was the physical restoration of Israel or the return of unconverted Jews to modern day Israel. But for the apostles and prophets of the NAR, the prerequisite for the second coming is the spiritual restoration, or conversion of Jews to their brand of Christianity. The result has been the development of Messianic communities and missionary training centers around the world.
Moreover, while fundamentalists look to the scriptures for secret meaning in current events and messages from God, the modern-day apostles and prophets claim to be the bearers of God’s direct ongoing revelation. The results can be bizarre. The leading thinker of the NAR, C. Peter Wagner, stated on NPR in 2011 that the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima was a result of the Japanese emperor having had sex with the sun goddess, that there is “a lot of demonic control” in Congress (and that demons can possess entire cities as well), that it is important to cast spells to protect politicians from witchcraft, and that non-Christian religions “are part of the kingdom of darkness.” All in one hour with Terry Gross.
And yet, the NAR is not on the fringe, but at the center of today’s Republican Party. The Response, a massive Houston prayer event hosted by Rick Perry in 2011, was led by prominent NAR apostles and prophets joined by other Christian Right leaders. Perry’s event was patterned after and led by leaders from TheCall events hosted around the world by “prophet” Lou Engle and Mike Bickle, head of the International House of Prayer (IHOP). These events focus on fighting abortion and gay rights, and on proselytizing Jews in order to bring about the second coming. Engle’s events include one held in Jerusalem and another in Uganda, where local apostles in the movement spoke in support of the “Kill-the-Gays” bill then under consideration by the Ugandan Parliament.
Other Republican politicians have looked to this religio-political movement for support as well, including Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Sam Brownback, Duke Aiona of Hawaii, Katherine Harris of Florida, and many more. One of the NAR’s training centers, the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute (MJBI) in Dallas, featured President George W. Bush as the keynote speaker at its annual fundraising gala.
The NAR has steadily taken over the world of Christian Zionism. The “prayer for Israel” at Rick Perry’s event was not led by John Hagee but by Apostle Don Finto, the author of the classic text on supporting Messianic communities (i.e. converted Jews with NAR-style evangelical beliefs). Finto openly called for the conversion of Jews, and was joined by the rabbi of one of the nation’s most prominent Messianic congregations. This call for the conversion of Jews was repeated at a more recent similar event hosted in Louisiana by Gov. Bobby Jindal and also featuring NAR apostles.
Another key NAR player in Christian Zionism is Finto’s disciple, Robert Stearns. Stearns was one of the original directors of CUFI and his ministry has prominently featured endorsements by Bibi and other Jewish leaders. He is also the co-founder and leader of the single largest international Christian Zionist event, the Day of Prayer for the Peace of Jerusalem (DPPJ), held annually and involving thousands of churches worldwide praying that Israel fulfill its God-given mandate. That mandate is clear in Stearns' celebration of the growing number of the Messianic movement in Israel, and his exclamation that these converted Jews are like "our elder brother risen from the dead!"
These changes were evident earlier this month, when Netanyahu spoke to the U.S. Congress on March 3.
Christian Zionists activists were primed and ready. CUFI had long taught that it is part of a modern reenactment of the Old Testament Book of Esther, in which an insider (Esther, a secret Jew in the king’s palace) and a cunning outsider (Mordechai, her uncle) save the Jews of Shushan (today’s Iran) from the plot of wicked Haman. It was a nice coincidence that the Netanyahu speech was the day before the Jewish holiday of Purim, which commemorates these events. Prior to his speech, one of the nation’s largest Christian magazine publishers, Charisma, featured a call for American Christian Zionists to play Esther to Bibi’s Mordechai. The writer? Robert Stearns.
In 2011, I wrote that the NAR’s proselytizing network is teaching millions of Christians that Jews are spiritually dead and Judaism is a rebellion against God, representing a reversal of progress that had been made in interfaith dialogue and acceptance since the Holocaust. Four years later, the NAR is now at the center of Christian Zionism, itself a crucial part of the shifting, increasingly partisan US-Israel relationship.
Ironically, the term “anti-Semitism” has been frequently used to describe those who object to Israeli politics, while Christian Zionists, who hold views denigrating Jews’ spiritual lives and which would have been considered anti-Semitic years ago, are described as “philo-Semitic” defenders of Israel. This paradox has not only been tolerated by Jewish right-wing leaders, but Christian Zionists allies have, with their blessing, been commissioned to teach about the Holocaust, fight anti-Semitism on campuses, and represent Israeli interests to governments in nations around the globe.
But today’s New Apostolic leaders bring another challenge to Netanyahu and Israeli allies of Christian Zionists. Progressives have long complained that right-wing Israelis have made a “deal with the devil” in accepting support from messianic Christian Zionists. But that was, to coin a phrase, the devil they knew. The question now is whether right-wing Jews will continue to partner with a group that actively seeks their conversion, believes that politicians are possessed by demons, and is spending millions of dollars each year to create a theocracy in the United States. Netanyahu is still Prime Minister, but the game he is playing has changed.