Evangelical leader Pat Robertson addresses a crowd of thousands of evangelical Christians who gathered in Israel.
Nearly three decades after leaving his job as a marketing manager at Colgate-Palmolive, Ed McAteer, considered one of the godfathers of the modern Religious Right, still sounds like a salesman. In a well-honed patter, he tells of introducing Jerry Falwell to then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, discussing spiritual matters with Jesse Helms and John Ashcroft, and helping organize the evangelical movement that has become the most powerful grassroots component of the Republican Party. But no subject excites the 76-year-old born-again Baptist more than his unequivocal love for the Jewish people and the state of Israel, and his increasingly influential role as one of the nation's leading "Christian Zionists."
The passion of McAteer, a gregarious man with a toothy smile and thinning wisps of brushed-back hair, is evident during a prayer breakfast in May for more than 200 people at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. "I am delighted and thrilled and just pumped up to be here," McAteer tells the crowd in a Tennessee drawl, nearly bouncing behind a podium backed by brightly colored banners celebrating the biblical tribes of Israel. Before him sits the self-described inner circle of Christian Zionism: pastors, preachers, and religious activists who quietly but effectively lobby for Israel. With a born-again Christian in the White House and events in the Middle East spinning out of control, McAteer recognizes the power of those in the room to influence U.S. policy on behalf of Israel. "The best friends that Israel has are those people who believe the Bible does not contain the word of God, but that the Bible is the word of God," he announces to the faithful.
When McAteer left the business world in 1976 to help organize the Christian right, the idea of the Israeli government working hand in hand with conservative Christians would have been difficult to imagine. At that time, some evangelical groups were openly anti-Semitic and associated with the John Birch Society and other far-right groups. Today, though, Christian conservatives provide Israel—and in particular the hard-line Likud Party of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon—with its most important political support in the United States. They oppose Israel ceding land to the Palestinians and are pressuring the Bush administration to close Palestinian offices in the United States. They also have close ties to GOP congressional leaders and to a group of high-ranking hawks in the Pentagon—led by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz—that some D.C. insiders call the "Kosher Nostra." "They are very vocal and have shifted the center of gravity toward Israel and against concessions," says Doug Bandow, an evangelical who serves as a senior fellow at the conservative Cato Institute. "It colors the environment in which decisions are being made." Indeed, thanks to the top-level connections and grassroots activism of evangelical Christians, U.S. policy in the Middle East has never been so closely aligned with Israel as it is under the administration of George W. Bush. As the conflict in the Mideast has heated up, even some of the Jewish state's most ardent supporters have been surprised by the president's strong pro-Israel stance.
Given the influence of conservative Chris-tians, it's no surprise that the Israeli Embas-sy has an "Office of Interreligious Affairs" that hosts monthly briefings for evangelicals, welcomes church bus tours, and organizes breakfasts. Church leaders listening to McAteer this morning have flown to Washington at their own expense to represent congregations as far-flung as California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Florida. They wear American and Israeli flag pins they received at the door from embassy officials, and each will take home a short video showing Israeli soldiers fraternizing with monks last spring outside the besieged Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem. Following a rousing rendition of the "Star-Spangled Banner," they sing "Hatikva," the Israeli national anthem, and listen to several Christian compositions, including a Pat Boone original, "Israel O Blessed Israel."
In public, Israeli diplomats usually speak in the secular language of international politics, but here before a group of Christian
believers they talk of biblical prophecy. "It is no coincidence that our prayers for Christians and Jews complement each other," Moshe Fox, the embassy's minister of public affairs, tells the audience. He quotes extensively from the Old Testament, in which God promises the Jews a land flowing with milk and honey, before adding, "I call on you to carry this prayer and help turn this divine promise into a reality."
Those gathered at the embassy are eager to take up the call. As they see it, America and Israel are both engaged in a religious war against terrorism. That makes the two countries natural allies, says Gary Bauer, head of the Campaign for Working Families, who follows McAteer to the podium. "I have been asked over and over again with this puzzlement, 'Why are you standing with Israel, Mr. Bauer, you, an evangelical Christian?'" he says, his short stature belied by a delivery honed during his 2000 presidential campaign. "Well my goodness, why would we not stand with Israel? Why would we not stand with the nation in the Middle East that is a democracy? Why would we not stand with the nation about which God says, 'If you bless it I will bless you, and if you curse it I will curse you'? That's good enough for me. I don't need anything else."
"Amen," replies his audience, some nodding their heads in agreement, their eyes closed. Many attending the breakfast are part of a significant wing of the evangelical movement known as "dispensationalists." They work to support Israel, ironically, because they believe it will lead to the ultimate triumph of Christianity. For them, the ongoing crisis in the Mideast has been prophe-sized in the Bible: After Jews reclaim the Holy Land, nonbelievers—including Jews and Muslims—will perish in Armageddon, and Jesus will return as the Messiah to lead his followers to heaven. "I've read the end of the book," says evangelist Janet Parshall, another speaker, whose daily radio program is syndicated to 3.5 million Christian listeners nationwide. "I know what happens."
IN WASHINGTON, the "Israel lobby" has traditionally been synonymous with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), an organization headed and largely directed by American Jews. Rightfully considered to be one of the most powerful organizations in the capital, AIPAC has 130 employees, including seven full-time lobbyists, and its members shower Democrats and Republicans with millions of dollars in political contributions. In recent years, though, evangelicals—who dwarf the number of American Jews—have played an increasingly important role in building political support for Israel.
The active alliance between evangelical Christians, American Jewish organizations, and conservative Israeli leaders dates to the tenure of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who took office in 1977. Begin and his Likud Party used religious arguments to justify confiscation of Arab land and shared in common with American evangelicals—though not most American Jews—highly conservative views on social questions like abortion and welfare. Begin cultivated ties to emerging evangelical leaders like the Reverend Jerry Falwell, honoring him with a dinner in New York in 1980 and presenting him with a Learjet for his efforts on behalf of Israel. Since then, all subsequent Likud prime ministers have carefully strengthened ties to American evangelicals. In 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu created the Israel Christian Advocacy Council and flew 17 Christian leaders to Israel, where they signed a pledge that "America never, never desert Israel." And in December 2000, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, aleading hawk in the Bush administration, spoke to thousands of supporters of Israel at an April rally.
Evangelicals "are fervently pro-Israel within the high councils of the Republican Party," says a former Christian Coalition lobbyist, "and their views have probably sharpened the president's own thinking."
Sharon addressed a group of 1,500 Christian Zionists who had traveled to Jerusalem, saying, "We regard you to be one of our best friends in the world."