by Emily McGowin
Emily Hunter McGowin has a PhD in theology from the University of Dayton and MDiv from Truett Seminary. Her work is at the intersection of religion, theology, and ethnography. Her first book, Quivering Families: The Quiverfull Movement and Evangelical Theology of the Family, will be published by Fortress Press in May 2018. Her work has also appeared in Ecclesial Practices, New Blackfriars, and a collection of essays, Angels on Earth: Mothering, Religion, and Spirituality. Emily is a regular speaker in Denver, CO, where she is theologian-in-residence at Church of the Resurrection. You can learn more about Emily at her website.
Charlottesville, Evangelicals, and Anti-Semitism
There’s a very large evangelical church where I live that is known for its ardent support for the nation of Israel. Every year the church hosts a large public event featuring a speaker on the topic “God’s plan for Israel.” They celebrate with an evening in honor of Israel with Israeli food, music, and dancing. They also send teams to Israel multiple times a year in order to send a message of “unconditional love and support for Israel.” The teams visit holy sites, perform for Israeli citizens, and visit with Zionist leaders. Their devotion to Israel even makes it into their statement of faith. Naturally, I watched with interest to see how the church’s leadership might respond to the reports coming out of Charlottesville, VA.
As most know by now, on August 11 and 12, hundreds of white supremacists converged on Charlottesville, VA for a “Unite the Right” rally. They were met by a large group of counter-protestors, including religious leaders, members of antifa, representatives of Black Lives Matter, and unaffiliated citizens of Charlottesville. In the end, 35 people were injured and three people died, including 32 year-old Heather Heyer, who was killed when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors. Two Virginia State Police also died in a helicopter crash. They had been monitoring events from the air.
Widely circulated footage of the weekend’s events showed the anti-Semitism of the rally on full display. Armed marchers were throwing Nazi salutes and chanting, “Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and soil” (an English translation of the Nazi slogan Blut und Boden). They held signs that read, “Jewish media is going down” and “Jews are Satan’s children.” They displayed swastikas on banners, flags, and T-shirts. On Saturday, a faction of the marchers surrounded Congregation Beth Israel during Sabbath worship, threatening to burn down the synagogue. Fear and hatred of Jews was the dominant theme of the rally, as well as a core tenet of many participating organizations.
The publicity received by the “Unite the Right” rally and the violence it precipitated led some evangelical leaders and churches to issue statements condemning white supremacy and hatred. But few called out the marchers’ anti-Semitism directly. I wondered: What would my Israel-supporting local megachurch have to say?
The answer: nothing. There were no announcements in church, no mentions in sermons, and nothing on Twitter, Facebook, or the church website. And they weren’t the only ones. Many evangelical leaders and churches that would typically trumpet the cause of Israel were silent about the virulent anti-Semitism on display in Charlottesville. Also troubling was the lack of response to President Trump’s “blame on both sides” rationalization.
Of course, Christianity has been implicated in anti-Semitism almost from the beginning. Early church fathers often blamed “the Jews” for killing Christ. Christian leaders like John Chrysostom, Jerome, and Martin Luther openly promoted anti-Semitism (with the writings of the latter contributing to the anti-Semitic furor that ultimately led to the Holocaust). Jews throughout Christian Medieval Europe were subject to humiliating restrictions and forced to live in ghettos or even be expelled from their communities. Following the horrors of the Holocaust, though, many Christian thinkers, churches, and denominations became self-critical about the anti-Semitism in their traditions and sought to root it out.
Yet, the white evangelical relationship with Jews and Jewishness is distinctive. As Robert O. Smith has documented in his book, More Desired Than Our Own Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism, when the Puritans came to the New World they brought with them a “Judeo-centric” interpretation of prophecy. They understood the Jewish people to be divinely ordained allies against the perceived evils of Catholicism and Islam, as well as the symbolic referent for their own covenant with God in America. This led to the view of America as a “redeemer nation” like Israel. This American affinity for Israel and Judeo-centric prophetic interpretation was later popularized by the dispensational premillennial interpretation of the Bible (spread first by the Scofield Reference Bible and popular Bible conferences and, much later, the Left Behind series).
When Jerry Falwell and his evangelical colleagues founded the Moral Majority in 1979—the beginning of the activist Religious Right—the sixth plank in their platform articulated support for the state of Israel. Falwell often declared in his preaching: “To stand against Israel is to stand against God.” Many white evangelicals today have adopted the same position, seeing their political support of Israel closely linked to faithful Christian practice. Because these evangelicals understand the nation of Israel to occupy an irrevocable place in God’s plans, they are some of the most vocal backers of the nation of Israel, even as they also seek the religious conversion of Jews to Christianity.
But, if evangelical Christians are so committed to the nation of Israel, why were so many silent about this nationally publicized anti-Semitic event in Charlottesville, not to mention the surge in anti-Semitism nationwide over the past year?
Smith demonstrates that the premillennial dispensational interpretation of scripture often leads practitioners to see Jews less like real people and more like symbols in their eschatological narrative. It is possible, therefore, that many evangelicals who offer full-throated support for the nation of Israel still see Jewish people simply as supporting actors in the Christian story. Many evangelicals are eager to trumpet the cause of Israel as a national player in their eschatology, but they are not as concerned with individual Jews, and their safety and well-being in America. The aftermath of Charlottesville has made clear that the ideological, political, and even financial support for Israel does not translate into evangelical solidarity against anti-Semitism. Perhaps this is especially true when such solidarity would require acknowledging the failed moral leadership of Donald Trump, for whom 81% of them voted.