A good friend of mine who is very rightly a vehement opponent of Zionism recently told me that the fact that so many Americans belonged to Christian Zionist fundamentalist megachurches made her despair if it would ever be possible to mobilize sufficient numbers of Americans to oppose and actually end our government's support for the government of Israel. Is her despair warranted or not? That's what this article is about.
When I raised this question with another very good friend of mine, Dave Stratman, he suggested I re-read some relevant sections of a book the two of us had read together many years ago, The making of the English working class, by E.P. Thompson, which devotes more than 800 pages to a detailed look at the English working class in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Here are two paragraphs from that book (pg 388) that summarize a wealth of historical information and that, assuming some important perspective on here-and-now can be gleaned from there-and-then, seem very helpful for putting American Christian Zionism in perspective:
In the United States, the working class began unwillingly entering into the Valley of Humiliations in the mid 1970s. This was when the ruling elite, frightened out of its wits by the radical upheavals of the "1960s," initiated a counterrevolution to make more controllable the wildcat striking workers (some of whom in 1971 shut down the entire U.S. postal system forcing soldiers to sort the mail), and the "uppity" blacks refusing to obey Jim Crow and rebelling in the inner cities and cheering Muhammad Ali's declaration that "No Vietcong ever called me a nigger," and the audacious welfare mothers demanding nobody be below the poverty line, and the rebellious anti-Vietnam war students shutting down universities.
The corporate/government elite blamed the upheavals on the rising expectations of Americans that stemmed from the fact that there was greater economic equality than ever before and as a result people felt economically and psychologically secure enough to devote time and energy not only to personal survival but to the larger cause of making society even more equal and more democratic. The rulers' solution was to dramatically lower people's expectations in life and make them feel much more insecure economically and psychologically. An oft-cited Business Week editorial proclaimed on October 12, 1974:
Thus the one thing that all major policy initiatives since that time have had in common is that they have made people more insecure: high stakes testing makes school children insecure about ever getting or even deserving a decent job; market-driven health care makes people worry about quitting a job they hate or going on strike for fear they'll lose their health insurance and it makes the sick and elderly fear not getting crucial medical care when they need it; President Reagan's firing of the striking air traffic controllers changed the "rules of the game" so that workers now fear being fired if they dare to go on strike; NAFTA and similar policies make workers fear that if they don't accept cuts in wages and benefits their employer will relocate the company to a foreign country with much cheaper labor; skyrocketing college tuitions have saddled college graduates with student loans that make them debt-slaves; and austerity budget cutting to "pay back the debts"--the latest policy initiative--forces people to abandon hope of making things better because they're forced to fight just to keep things from getting much worse.
We've been living in the Valley of Humiliations for four decades. Many of us have known nothing else. It is not unreasonable to think that this is why there has been a rise of fundamentalist and apocalyptic religions that, with very emotional pitches by skilled orator pastors, give hope for good times to come in a world different from the depressing one here on earth.
Nor is it unreasonable to believe that when people regain hope that they can make good times come to our world here on earth, they will, as the English working class did on such occasions, set aside religious revivalism.
If the above analysis is true, then it would imply that a growing revolutionary movement for a good world--an egalitarian world based on mutual aid--would, by its very existence, give people in Christian fundamentalist churches renewed hope for making the earthly world better and thereby induce many of them to set aside their loyalty to fundamentalist preachers who tell them how and what to think, in apocalyptic other-worldly terms.
Who Are the Megachurch Congregants?
Now let's take a look at the fundamentalist megachurch phenomenon in the United States to see if the facts about it fit with the above analysis or not.
How do these facts relate to the question this article is trying to answer: "Will it ever be possible to mobilize sufficient numbers of Americans to oppose and actually end our government's support for the government of Israel? Is despair warranted or not?"
First, consider the size of the megachurch following, which is about 5 million* people. As of 2010 there were, in contrast, about 235 million Americans 18 or over in age. The megachurch congregants are a very small minority of Americans. If almost all megachurch congregants vehemently supported Zionism (a big if, as we shall see) and all 5.3 million adult American Jews also vehemently supported Zionism (another very big if**) and everybody else (non-megachurch congregants and non-Jews) was neutral except for a mere 10% of them who vehemently opposed Zionism, then there would be 10.3 million vehement supporters of Zionism and 22.4 million vehement opponents of Zionism. If it were just a question of numerical strength, who do you think would win that fight?
The reason I think many megachurch congregants would not be vehement pro-zionists if and when the issue came to a head is this. They are not in their megachurch because of the crazy Zionist preaching. As the survey facts above indicate, megachurch congregants are in the church for much more immediate and "earthly" reasons, things like being single and looking for a mate, and enjoying the "music/arts, social and community outreach and adult-oriented programs."
Here's a personal anecdote that reflects this point. In 2006 when I worked at the Harvard School of Public Health I and some others decided to collect signatures at the school for a very strongly worded statement in support of the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees. Lots of people signed, including a woman who worked with me. This woman read the statement and thought about it and decided that she agreed with it, that it reflected her basic values. But a few days later this woman asked me to cross her signature out. I said ok, but asked how come she changed her mind. She said she had mentioned it to her pastor (in a fundamentalist Christian church) and he told her not to sign. She didn't even know why she shouldn't sign, just that she was told not to. Quite clearly her attraction to this pastor and his church had absolutely nothing to do with any pro-Zionist thinking on her part!
So, even in the worst case scenario that the megachurch congregants all continue to vehemently support Zionism, opponents of Zionism can easily outnumber them, by more than 2 to 1. Furthermore, despite the fanatical pro-Zionism of some of these megachurch and fundamentalist preachers, it does not at all follow that all or even most of their congregants will fight for Zionism when push comes to shove and their loyalty to their minister is weakened by the presence of a revolutionary egalitarian movement that gives them hope for making a better world in the here-and-now on earth.
Second, consider that the megachurch congregants are "more educated and affluent" than at other churches. As I discuss here, the way Americans will stop the U.S. government from supporting Israel's government will be by making a revolution, a revolution driven far more by their concern with domestic issues than foreign policy issues; but once ordinary Americans are finally in a position to obtain all the relevant information about Palestine and Israel and Zionism and they (as opposed to the American plutocracy) are in a position for the first time to determine their foreign policy, they will conclude that they don't want to support Zionism because it is really a terribly unjust ethnic cleansing project. This revolutionary movement will gain most of its support from the have-nots and the have-littles, and much less support from the have-mores. This means that the wealthier congregants of the megachurches are not going to be the main people that the revolutionary movement needs to recruit. We should certainly not despair, therefore, if this small minority of the American population will be among the last to support the revolutionary movement.
Third, consider that two thirds (versus only one third in Protestant churchs) of megachurch congregants are (as of 2009 when the survey was done) under 45 years of age. These are people who were born after 1964 and who were not old enough to have participated in or truly experienced the hopefulness about making a more equal and democratic society that made the "1960s" so different from today. These people, on the contrary, have known nothing but life in the Valley of Humiliations. They may be better off than others, but they are burdened with student loans greater than anything their parents ever endured and their lives are often one paycheck or job layoff or medical expense or home foreclosure away from disaster. In the absence of a serious and hope-inspiring revolutionary movement, these people find some solace and community and a kind of spiritual hope for a better future at their megachurch with its skilled preacher orator.
Fourth, consider that not all megachurch pastors are Christian Zionists. Take for exmple the 3,000 member NorthWood Church of Texas and its pastor, Bob Roberts, Jr. This is a fundamentalist megachurch indeed. In it's online statement of beliefs we read:
And yet, the NorthWood church's pastor explicitly rejects Christian Zionism, as can be seen in this video (start listening at time 25:00 for a few minutes) of a talk he gave at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference organized by Palestinian Christians at Bethlehem Bible College in Bethlehem, Palestine. Pastor Bob Roberts engages in outreach to Muslims (as reported here) for which he is attacked sharply by pro-Israel elements like this one, which condemns Roberts for speaking at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference with this paragraph:
In summary, even in the worst case scenario that virtually all megachurchs are led by Christian Zionists and that all of their congregants continue to blindly follow their pro-Zionist and anti-revolutionary pastors, we should nevertheless not despair because we can still outnumber them. Furthermore, the far more likely case is that if we build a hope-inspiring revolutionary movement, we can expect to gain the support of a good many people who, like the woman where I worked who asked to have her signature crossed out, do support our values and will, when the time comes to take a side, take our side.
* It is hard to estimate how many Americans are true believer Christian Zionists. I am using the number 5 million because it is the frequently cited estimate of the number of megachurch congregants, on the assumption (for the sake of argument only, actually) that Christian Zionists and megachurch congregants are the same set of people. Obviously not all megachurch congregants are Christian Zionists and not all Christian Zionists are megachurch congregants, so the 5 million estimate for the number of Christian Zionists could be too large or too small. A commenter on this article said she heard there were 40 million American Christian Zionists. This 40 million number is, however, the estimated number of American Evangelical Christians. The megachuches are indeed associated with Evangelical Christianity, but it is not at all clear that all or even most Evangelical Christians are Christian Zionists or that the ones who are will remain so forever. As evidence for this, I cite the following information about Evangelical Christians--the differences among them on this issue and how their views can change:
** Many American Jews, even if they support the Zionist idea of a Jewish state at one level, also feel that what the Zionist state actually does to enforce its ethnic cleansing essence is wrong: most American Jews oppose Jewish settlements in the West Bank and only 38% [just 26% among those 18 to 29 years old] believe the Israeli government is making a "sincere effort" to come to a peace settlement.
Postscript December 17, 2015 Video: Prominent Evangelical Christians Are Worrying Christian Zionists Over Israel
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