by Daniel G. Hummel
Daniel G. Hummel works at Upper House, a Christian study center on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is an honorary research fellow at UW-Madison. He is the author of Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, and U.S.-Israeli Relations (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).
Why do so many evangelicals support Israel? The question has been asked and answered so many times that we can offer at least a few generalized explanations. Dispensational theology is one common answer, with its peculiar emphasis on God’s covenants with “Abraham’s seed” and literal readings of biblical prophecy. A second related explanation is that Christian support for Israel is linked to missionary efforts to convert Jews to Christianity. By befriending Jews, this explanation goes, opportunities for conversion multiply. These two answers often dovetail in the details of most dispensational end-times scenarios that require the mass conversion of the Jewish people as part of prophecy fulfillment. Other scholars point to a form of religio-nationalism that is uniquely American and Protestant in origin, while still others highlight Islamophobia or American-Israeli cultural affinity.
In my recent book on the subject, Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, and U.S.-Israeli Relations (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), I make the case that the answer to “why do so many evangelicals support Israel?” has to always be qualified with the follow-up: “when and who are you talking about?” Not only are there multiple roads to Christian Zionism, but there has been a definite historical progression in Christian Zionist motives. In my book, I focus on the past 70 years (since 1948) and almost exclusively on white, North American evangelicals (a category that comes to include, by the end of the twentieth century, fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and charismatics, in addition to self-identified evangelicals). I have found at least three distinct generations of Christian Zionism, with three related but distinct sets of motives.
It would take too long to describe here the entire arc of this argument. Instead, I want to illustrate how, within a single individual, the motives for Christian Zionism can change over time. I will take the example of John Hagee, currently the most prominent and influential Christian Zionist in the United States. Hagee is the founder and president of Christians United for Israel, a lobbying group that now claims more than 7 million members. In recent years, CUFI’s annual Washington D.C. summit has attracted keynote speakers such as Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, and Nikki Haley. Hagee’s personal arc helps illustrate a larger development in Christian Zionism over the last 30 years: a trajectory originating in dispensational theology, but which is now based in a type of “blessing theology” that has no necessary linkage to dispensationalism.
Hagee’s history with Christian Zionism stretches back to the early 1980s. Born and raised in southeast Texas, Hagee comes from a long line of Methodist preachers steeped in dispensationalism. At the age of 8, he wrote, his father told him that the day Israel declared its independence was “the most important day of the twentieth century. God’s promise to bring the Jewish people back to Israel is being fulfilled before our eyes.” Hagee completed his theological training at Southwestern Assemblies of God University, and founded his first church in 1966. He later founded the non-denominational Church on Castle Hills (later Cornerstone Church), which soon grew into a megachurch complex with thousands of weekly attendees.
Visiting Israel with his second wife, Diana, in 1978, Hagee had an awakening: “We went as tourists but came home as Zionists.” Hagee ordered “$150 of books” on Jerusalem, and in the remainder of the trip he read Catholic priest Edward Flannery’s The Anguish of the Jews (1965) and Jewish philosopher Dagobert Runes’ The War Against the Jew (1968), both documenting the church’s history of anti-Judaism and indicting it for the rise of racial antisemitism. These books, he recounted, “became the intellectual foundation of my life’s work from that moment forward.” By the time he was once again flying over the Atlantic, Hagee was “jotting down notes on what I could do to bring Christians and Jews together—without starting a riot.”
In response to news reports speculating that the U.S. might “abandon” Israel after it bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in June 1981, Hagee organized an interreligious “Night to Honor Israel” at his San Antonio church. No mere worship service, the event was a blend of American and Israeli nationalism. A color guard presented both national flags while the crowd sang the Star-Spangled Banner and Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem. Interspersed between speeches were slots for “U.S. Patriotic and Israeli music,” as well as an offering collection for the Israel Emergency Fund, which sent $10,000 to Israeli hospitals.
“A Night to Honor Israel” was Hagee’s ticket into the wider world of Christian Zionism. Saul Silverman, the Jewish national director of the events, praised the Israeli government for being “beautifully related” to Hagee by sending diplomats and lending official support. Hagee also befriended a diverse set of rabbis, from Reform rabbi Ron Kronish, founder of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, to Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg of the Congregation Rodfei Shalom, an Orthodox synagogue in San Antonio. A frequent speaker at early events was Hagee’s high school football coach, Herman Goldberg, who typified for the Pentecostal preacher the best of Judeo-Christian values.
In the 1990s, Hagee published a trilogy of prophecy books in the 1990s — The Beginning of the End (1996), Final Dawn Over Jerusalem (1998), and From Daniel to Doomsday: The Countdown Has Begun (1999) — which landed him on The New York Times Best Seller List. In the same mold as dispensationalists before him, Hagee used prophecy to warn Americans that God would soon be sending his judgment on a secularizing America. Previous prophecy-oriented Zionists like Hagee found almost no political success in the Christian Zionist movement. Hagee, however, possessed the allies—and the longevity—that gave him a prominent role in Christian Zionist circles.
By the early 2000s, Hagee was part of a distinctly Pentecostal wing in the Christian Right, along with Rod Parsley, pastor of World Harvest Church, Christian Broadcasting Network executive Michael Little, and Bishop Keith A. Butler, founder of Word of Faith Christian Center in Michigan. Each developed an understanding of Israel’s role in prophecy that included elements of dispensationalism. But just as crucially, the note of prosperity preaching that had been part of Hagee’s more general ministry in San Antonio became more pronounced. He preached a politically conservative Christianity that combined a Pentecostal emphasis on the gifts of the Holy Spirit with the teachings of the prosperity gospel, promising God’s followers wealth and happiness in return for faith. Christian Zionists before Hagee had combined this basic theme of God blessing those who blessed Israel into their rationale for support. But previous leaders like Jerry Falwell rejected prosperity gospel teachings as “bad doctrine” and regarded it as crass materialism. Hagee, more than any Christian Zionist before him, began to bind prosperity theology and Genesis 12:3 together and placed them at the center of his thinking about Israel.
This prosperity-oriented understanding of Israel was deeply tied to Hagee’s broader shift in ministry. In the years leading up to his founding of Christians United for Israel in 2006, Hagee published a slew of prosperity books: Mastering Your Money (2003); The Seven Secrets: Uncovering Genuine Greatness (2004), The Life Plan Study Bible: God’s Keys to Personal Success (2004); and Life Lessons to Live By: 52 Weeks of God’s Keys to Personal Success (2005). Hagee sought to unite Christians around a program to unleash God’s blessings by fulfilling the covenantal commands of scripture. With individual and national keys to success, as decoded from the Bible, the American people and the church would find unprecedented material and spiritual flourishing.
Hagee defined more precisely than any other Christian Zionist the calculus of blessing—the measurable balance of God’s material, physical, and financial blessings that followers would accrue through prayer and right living—that was at work in Christian support for Israel. The economy of blessings was laid out in Genesis 12:3, when God tells Abram “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse, and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Hagee elaborated on this passage in his annotated study bible, asserting that this verse was “the one purpose of God for humans in to which all of God’s programs and works fit.” Hagee approached the Abrahamic covenant, and the duties it entailed, from the calculus of the prosperity gospel, arguing that support for Israel was crucial for the United States and individual Americans to accrue God’s favor. “God is going to judge us on how we treat Israel and the Jewish people,” Hagee warned in a sermon series on Israel. “Are you listening Washington? Are you listening Senators? Are you listening Congressmen? There’s a God who’s watching you! Pay Attention!” Hagee tracked the rise and fall of nations in relation to “God’s Mandate to Bless Israel.” The early church, he insisted, found success in relation to its treatment of the Jewish people. “Several combined scriptures verify that prosperity (Genesis 12:3; Psalm 122:6), divine healing (Luke 7:1–5), and salvation and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10) came first to Gentiles who blessed the Jewish people and the nation of Israel in a practical manner,” he wrote in 2007.
Combining prophecy and prosperity, Hagee expanded his influence beyond the evangelical Christian Right and into Pentecostal and charismatic circles. Hagee speculated about the prophetic significance of current events, but his political activism operated with all of the transactional logic of the Genesis 12:3 mandate: “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
This was no vague or generalized promise for good things to happen to those who were good to Israel, but a well-defined process to curry God’s favor. Writing in his study bible, Hagee declared “God’s policy of anti-Semitism is established beyond all doubt in these verses [Genesis 12:1-3]. He has promised to pour out His blessings on those who bless the Jewish people and Israel, and He has promised to curse those who are anti-Semitic.”
Hagee culled the Bible and history for case studies: Laban, who employed the patriarch Jacob and declared “the LORD has blessed me for your sake (Genesis 30:27); Joseph, whose captivity in Egypt allowed “The Gentile world [to be] spared from starvation because of one Jewish slave who became prime minister [sic]”; George Washington, who accepted funds from Jewish banker Hyam Solomon and turned the tide of the Revolutionary War. It was up to Christians to prompt God’s blessings, and the Bible explained the process clearly.
By 2006, Hagee’s case for Christian Zionism was overwhelmingly framed in terms of blessings and curses. This placed him directly in the mainstream of global Pentecostalism, too, which contains a significant Christian Zionist movement that also focuses on blessings and curses in the context of prosperity teachings.
What does Hagee’s evolving theology on Israel tell us? First, Hagee has never ditched his dispensational framework, so we cannot speak of a drastic change, as if he dropped one rationale in order to pick up another. Yet the two arguments do not entirely cohere, which is perhaps a reminder that people are rarely completely consistent in their thinking. The same is true for Christian Zionists. That said, his evolution on Israel was part of a larger evolution in his ministry to more explicitly preach a prosperity gospel. Israel is never an issue that evangelicals treat in isolation.
Second, and more importantly for historians, explanations of Christian Zionism fall short unless they pay close attention to the theological, political, and social contexts of the specific Christian Zionists in question. Writings of dispensational theologians (from John Nelson Darby to Hal Lindsey) do hardly any work on their own to explain Hagee’s current relationship to Israel. The same is true of Jerry Falwell’s views, a contemporary of Hagee’s but hardly a Pentecostal. Instead, qualifying any discussion of Christian Zionism with the follow-up of “when and who are we talking about?” is the first step to painting a more accurate picture of Christian Zionism, and thus a more enlightening history of American religion and politics.