Roots of American Christian Zionism. Part I
Long before John Locke set about writing his late 17th century works which laid the foundations for political liberalism in the Anglo-Saxon world (and the broader West), there existed the already deeply entrenched religious views of Martin Luther and John Calvin. The works of these two founding fathers of Protestantism greatly influenced the spiritual, cultural, political, social and economic Weltanschauung of Americans far more than anything written by Locke or any of the other social contract philosophers of the Enlightenment (e.g. Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant, et al.). This unique American worldview, or more specifically culture-soul, which arose on the rocky shores of New England during the first half of the 17th century, can indeed be classified as “Calvinist” as it exhibits many distinctly Calvinist traits such as the Protestant Ethic, staunch individualism, an obsession with the concept of God’s Chosen People, the belief in exceptionalism, a universal world mission, etcetera. However, there is a specific ideological catalyst within Calvinism which itself provided the foundation for the tradition of Christian Zionism to take root – a tradition which for the past 400 years has flourished in North America and indeed is flourishing today like never before among evangelical Christians, Neoconservatives and a variety of other groups. The ideological catalyst alluded to is Judeocentric prophecy interpretation. Without this fundamental ideological catalyst firmly in place (implanted as it was in early Protestant theology), it is highly doubtful whether the subsequent doctrine of Christian Zionism would have ever arisen – a doctrine which has had an enormous influence not only on American religion and politics but on American culture and identity as well.
Without question, the strongest advocates of Christian Zionism in the United States today are evangelical Christians. Here it is important to understand that the evangelicals are not only a religious group, but they are a highly mobilized political bloc who enjoy an enormous amount of support nationwide (especially in the South and Midwest), and thus they wield a great amount of political power. The defining characteristic or trait of evangelical Christians is not their belief in Jesus (which would make them no different from other nominal Christian groups) but rather their unconditional support for the modern terroristic state of Israel. Indeed, it is their unabashed Zionist fanaticism which has caused many to refer to evangelicals as “Christian Zionists” – and indeed, in the author’s opinion, these two terms (“evangelical” and “Christian Zionist”) are synonymous.
Understanding the two intertwined facts that (1) Christian Zionists possess a great deal of power in the U.S. and (2) they are absolutely fanatical when it comes to supporting Israel also helps one to understand why a pro-Jewish lobbying organization like AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) has so much political influence in the United States.
But then the following questions naturally arise: Why are there all of these Zionist Christians? Where did they come from? Why is Christian Zionism so prevalent in America, etc.? To answer these questions we must study both the historical and ideological bases of Judeocentric prophecy interpretation, as well as the Judeocentric tradition of biblical hermeneutics in general. We must therefore begin our study in the most obvious place: the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther.
The important thing to know about Luther with regard to Judeocentric prophecy interpretation is his absolute emphasis on biblical literalism – i.e. his insistence on the idea that when one reads and interprets the bible, it must be taken literally. Luther inaugurated this patently Protestant view which, it should be said, fundamentally differs from medieval hermeneutics. For example, medieval theologians tried to embrace as many approaches as possible when interpreting biblical texts – they were quite literally Catholic (i.e. universal) in this sense. They would interpret the bible metaphorically, allegorically, anagogically – as many ways as possible in order to extract every last drop of biblical “juice” or meaning from the text. But Luther went in a very different direction. He insisted on literalism. Thus, Luther insisted on interpreting all history through a narrow biblical lens. In other words, he insisted on looking to historical events for confirmations and clues to past and future prophecies.
As the unequivocal founder (or “first father”) of Protestantism, Luther had obviously made prime enemies with the Pope and the entire Catholic Church as a religious and political institution. Accordingly, Luther directed his most passionate attacks against Catholicism. Nevertheless, there was another very powerful religio-political force which Luther frequently denounced – the Ottoman Empire. And so, in his interpretation of biblical prophecy Luther considered the Antichrist as being a two-headed demonic entity, which is to say a “Turco-Catholic” Antichrist. Both Muslims and Catholics were considered to be two sides of the same satanic coin, as it were.
Regarding the Jews, it is well known that Luther became notoriously anti-Jewish later in life, going so far as to publish a work in 1543 entitled On the Jews and Their Lies. Nevertheless, Luther was the first theologian to advance the notion of Jewish national conversion – a belief that still persists among some Christian Zionists. Those who subscribe to the doctrine of Jewish national conversion essentially believe that preceding Christ’s return, there will be a mass conversion of Jews to Christianity, and that this conversion will actually hasten the Second Coming of Christ. It must be stressed that John Calvin also believed in the idea of Jewish national conversion, in addition to all of the other biblical-literalist ideas advanced by Luther.
Now then, many of the English followers of Luther and Calvin were absolutely captivated by the prospect of a Jewish national conversion – and it is precisely in England where Christian Zionism first rears its head as a popular religious force. It was on account of the pro-Jewish advocacy and intellectual influence of a number of English Christian Zionists that Oliver Cromwell was persuaded to reverse the centuries-old prohibition on Jews entering England, which had been enacted in 1290 by King Edward I. Thus, in 1657 Jews were once again permitted (and even encouraged) to settle in England.
The English Puritans were, needless to say, very elated to see the Jews return. They interpreted this historical event in the same way Luther or Calvin would – as a clear sign from God which would mark the imminent return of Christ. And so they immediately began trying to convert as many Jews to Protestantism as possible, only to find (to their great chagrin) that they were in fact converting no one. The Puritans soon discovered that the conversion of a single Jew was something which was extremely rare. Moreover, they soon realized that the Jews only wanted to be left alone – they wanted to remain in their own communities, maintain their own culture and traditions, to conduct business and to go about their lives. In other words, the Jews wanted to remain Jews. This fact greatly disappointed the English Puritans because, quite clearly, their apocalyptic hopes were “riding” on a different outcome (as it were) and were thus not being fulfilled in a literal way. And so, their hermeneutical interpretation changed from having a strong emphasis on literalism to favoring a more allegorical interpretation along the lines of preterism. (Preterist theology maintains that the prophecies described in the bible are not really prophecies but sets of allegories for events which have already occurred.)
Thus, preterist interpretations started to arise among the Puritans of England, and philology began to be used in hermeneutics by leading European philosophers like Hobbes, Grotius, Spinoza and others. It is important to stress, at this point, that on account of the relative isolation of the American colonies from the events taking place in England, the turning away from literalism in hermeneutics did not take hold in America. If anything, the intertwined ideas of biblical literalism and pro-Jewish sentiment would only grow stronger becoming a staple of American religion, thereby distinguishing it greatly from its British counterpart.
In his famous 1630 “City upon a Hill” speech, John Winthrop (the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) compared his fellow Puritan settlers to the Jews of the Old Testament. Winthrop stated that, like the Jews, the Puritans were expelled from their homes in England; like the Jews, they were persecuted; and like the Jews, they had a special covenant with God, which is to say that the Puritans believed they were given a special mission by God and that they had a special or “exceptional” role to play in history. This 1630 speech by Winthrop – which was actually just one part of his sermon, entitled “A Model of Christian Charity” – constituted the beginning of what would emerge to create not only Christian Zionism but a general kind of ethos in America, and a general idea of American exceptionalism.
The next major “American” figure to mention after Gov. John Winthrop is the Reverend John Cotton (1585-1652). Beginning in 1639 Cotton delivered a number of millenarian and Judeocentric speeches which also tied in the idea that the people of the New England colonies were a special people who possessed a special divinely ordained mission from God – that they were “Chosen,” just as the Old Testament Israelites had been “Chosen.” This line of thought was developed further in the work of one of Cotton’s close friends and associates (who happened also to possess a rather strange first name): the Reverend Increase Mather (1639-1723).
In 1669 Mather published a book entitled The Mystery of Israel’s Salvation. In this work, Mather insisted on a literalist interpretation of biblical prophecy and of the entire bible in general. A man of considerable erudition, Increase Mather was definitely aware of the anti-literalist (preterist) trends which were gaining ground in England (trends with which he strongly disagreed), and so he committed himself to defending biblical literalism against all other tendencies. Mather strongly believed that if one does not interpret the bible literally – if people allow themselves to get caught up in metaphor and allegory – then eventually the concept of religious faith will lose its entire meaning. Mather also repeated in his work many of the same themes of his Christian Zionist predecessors, going all the way back to Calvin and Luther. Themes such as: Jewish national conversion paving the way for the return of Christ, the destruction of the Catholic Church, the return of the Jews to Palestine and the concomitant destruction of Islam which would accompany the return, etc.
Meanwhile, back in England, there was not only a growing sense of anti-literalism taking root, but there was also a growing indifference to the overall destiny (spiritual or otherwise) of the New England colonists themselves. For example, in 1634 the well-read English bible scholar Joseph Mead (1586-1639), when asked for his opinion of the New England colonists, essentially said that he wished the colonists well but he did not think that the colonies – or more specifically, North America – had any importance in an eschatological sense. Mead even went as far as to say that he believed America was the land to which Satan and his armies had fled at some point in the remote past, because Christ’s message (which had been spread throughout the rest of the known world) had not been received by the indigenous peoples prior to the arrival of the Europeans. So according to Mead’s embarrassingly simple logic, Satan had retreated into the vast American wilderness in order to prevent the Indians from coming to Christ – and this would then explain the fact that the Indians had no clue as to who Christ was or what Christianity was all about.
Here, one should understand that at this time in history, when Mead made his judgment on North America, there already existed widespread speculation among Christian settlers as to the biblical origins of American Indians – because at this time, it was still believed by most Christians that the origin of every race, tribe and people on earth could be found in the pages of the Book of Genesis. The “discovery” of indigenous non-White peoples in the New World presented the Christian theologians with a great conundrum. It was not enough to simply state that the indigenous peoples had always lived in North America; a formal explanation would be required. So, many began to assume that the Indians might have been the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. However, speculation about this eventually died out after countless attempts to convert the Indians had completely failed. In time, Joseph Mead’s negative view of North America and its indigenous population eventually found a significant base of support in England. Some people began to believe that the New World was in fact Satan’s den and that the Indians were nothing more than reincarnated “Canaanite” heathens, i.e. savage, idol-worshipping pawns of Satan.
It was only after Joseph Mead had been dead for more than half a century that a few New England colonists began responding (in the 1690s) to what he had said about America all those decades before. One of the New England respondents was Judge Samuel Sewall (1652-1730). Essentially Sewall stated in his response that he not only disagreed with the late Joseph Mead’s view that America would have no place in the Millennium (i.e. millennial reign of Christ), but Sewall went so far as to say that America would host the actual physical location of the future New Jerusalem. Accompanying this assertion was an unmistakable expression of colonial patriotism, as Sewall was unquestionably offended by Mead’s statements. Another New England respondent was the famous colonial preacher and polymath Cotton Mather (1663-1728) – the son of Increase Mather and grandson of John Cotton. In his response to Mead, Cotton Mather did not exhibit as much patriotism as Sewall. For example, he did not dare espouse the unorthodox view that the future seat of Christ’s Kingdom on earth would be located in America. Nevertheless, Mather did state that it was unreasonable to believe that, upon Christ’s return, America would have no role to play in the coming Millennium.
Overall, in these responses one could clearly detect an emerging, nascent American nationalism mixing with the older Puritan tradition of Judeocentric prophecy interpretation. Indeed, both American patriotism and Judeocentrism coalesced to create an unmistakable civic religion in what would become the United States.
The person of Cotton Mather should be discussed here a bit further because, in all honesty, he was quite an interesting historical figure and one who is perhaps underestimated in his contribution to helping form American identity. As a prolific author and confirmed polymath, Cotton Mather was interested and knowledgeable in a wide variety of subjects, and one of these subjects was Islam. He was very interested in Islamic culture, history, the Ottoman Empire, etc. It should be said that at this time in colonial history it was very popular to read the narratives of those who had been abducted and taken captive by the various American Indian tribes. Thus in a similar fashion (due to his great knowledge of Muslim cultures), Mather produced a number of popular stories on the experiences of Anglo-American sailors who had been taken captive by the infamous Barbary pirates.
Consequently, Cotton Mather’s writing contributed quite significantly to the formation of early American nationalism. For example, he would write about the various trials and degradations suffered by the American captives, and of the great need for them to persevere and hold on to their Christian faith. So these stories served to confirm and consolidate American national identity, and to foster an already growing sense of patriotism in the colonies.
As Cotton Mather grew older he became more acquainted with the non-literalist trends and hermeneutics back in England. And he saw that many people had been routinely disappointed with the literalist interpretations of various ministers – which is to say, many had become disappointed with those ministers who, based on their own literal interpretations of biblical text, had predicted that the Millennium would arrive on such and such a date. For example, some pastors predicted the Millennium would come in 1697, others said it would come in 1716, etc. Needless to say they were all proven wrong. At that point, after seeing the late 17th and early 18th century “great disappointments” among the religious masses, Cotton Mather began to question whether a purely literal approach to interpreting biblical prophecy was correct. Thus, Mather tried to establish something of a hybrid approach. Toward the end of his life, however, he became a convinced pre-millennialist like Joseph Mead, which is to say that Mather no longer believed the Jews had to be converted as a precondition prior to Christ’s return, and that the only thing preventing the events of the Apocalypse from being set in motion is the Will of God. In other words, Christ could return at any moment and there are no essential preconditions for the Second Coming.
In any event, by the mid-eighteenth century, after more than a century of Judeocentric indoctrination and pulpit-based propaganda, the English colonists of North America (and especially those in New England) began to see themselves as Jews, which is to say they began to strongly identify themselves as a Second Israel. This belief comes out especially strong in the years leading up to the American War of Independence – to form what the historian Nathan Hatch refers to as civil millenarianism. What Hatch means by the term “civil millenarianism” is that the idea of civic or patriotic duty and political involvement eventually coalesced with millenarian prophecy to create a civic belief system in which one’s political and national identity combines with one’s religious beliefs. And indeed, this was a phenomenon which was occurring to an enormous extent throughout New England and, by extension, throughout all of the other colonies as well – because, compared to all of the other colonies, New England dominated in terms of intellectual influence. So it is important for the reader to comprehend that practically all of these early “American” ideas and works have their origins in the long-deceased minds of New England’s foremost religious zealots.
And so, as we pass into the second half of the eighteenth century, when the British government intensified its perceived “tyranny” against the considerably free and prosperous colonials (via the Stamp Act, the Tea Act, etc.), the long-established tradition of Judeocentric prophecy interpretation (as well as the age-old belief in the “Turco-Catholic” Antichrist) was easily combined with American civil millenarianism in such a way as to portray the British government – and the embodiment of that government, King George III – as being the Antichrist or Satan incarnate. Naturally then, the eventual war against Britain came to be seen by many of those descended from Puritan stock as a grand cosmic, apocalyptic struggle between the forces of Good and Evil.
Of course many traditional American historians like to emphasize the mainstream view that the founders of the United States were great admirers and followers of the ideas of John Locke, and that they all categorically believed in “libertarian” type principles which include religious tolerance among other “enlightened” views such as freedom of speech, civil rights, limited government, property rights, etc. However, this mainstream view is not at all accurate. The truth of the matter is that the influence of millenarian Puritanism (aka Judeocentrism aka Christian Zionism) on the ideological foundations of the United States is grossly understated and underrepresented in the historiography of the American experience. This is a tradition which fundamentally denies religious tolerance, denies minority rights and denies freedom of expression. And this is the tradition upon which the United States was fundamentally founded.
Indeed it was civil millenarianism, specifically, which was the driving ideological engine behind the so-called American “Revolution” (i.e. War of Independence). Then, upon independence, the civil millenarian idea became embedded in the American national identity and consciousness. In other words, it became a part of what it means to be “American.” Thus, more and more Americans, post-independence, came to view themselves as the New Israel, the New Chosen People, the holders of another covenant with God, the Redeemer Nation, the last bastion of freedom on earth, etc., etc. The “snowball” began rolling downhill, so to speak. Hence it takes no great effort for one to see how this kind of civil millenarian belief system led to the modern civic religion of American Exceptionalism and the patently false and hypocritical view that America stands for “freedom and democracy” around the world.