Righting America

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The Christian Right, Dispensational Premillennialism, and Antisemitism | Righting America

by William Trollinger 

Chart of antisemitism over the course of the past ten years.
Bar Graph showing the rise in anti-semitic incidents in the United States: 2012 – 2021. Via the Anti-Defamation League.

A few years ago I was interviewed by a reporter for a national Jewish publication who wanted my take on the fact that white evangelicals – more than any other group of Americans (including Jews) – wholeheartedly support the state of Israel. I noted that one big reason for this is dispensational premillennialism, the prophetic schema developed by John Nelson Darby in the 19th century and used by many evangelicals to understand the books of Revelation and Daniel. According to Darby’s formula, the return of Jews to the Holy Land would be one indicator that we are living in the “last days,” just before the “rapture” (when Jesus will “return in the air” to retrieve true Christians from the Earth while leaving the rest to the mercies of the Antichrist.)

As I told him, the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 is proof positive for many evangelicals and fundamentalists that Jesus’ return to Earth is imminent. To go against Israel is to go against God’s divine plan – and those who do, will pay.

But it turns out that the reporter already had some knowledge of this, and he expressed pleasure over the fact that evangelicals’ wacky ideas about biblical prophecy translated into political support for Israel. I responded by pointing out that – according to dispensational premillennialism – the Antichrist’s seven year reign (the “tribulation”) will end with the return of Jesus and the saints, who will slaughter all those who have not accepted Jesus as savior. Jews included.

He laughed:  “Until I see Jesus coming over the hill, I won’t worry about it.” 

It is a clever phrase. Unbeknownst to me, it was not coined by my journalistic interlocutor. As I learned from Eric Alterman’s recent Nation article on American Jewish leaders and the Christian Right, it was invented by an American Israel Public Affairs Committee researcher in the late 20th century. In this excellent article (marred only by the erroneous claim that William Blackstone was the creator of dispensational premillennialism), the author documents how over the past few decades Christian Right leaders have – for all their support of Israel – repeatedly voiced antisemitic sentiments. From Alterman’s article:

  • John Hagee: Hitler was a “hunter” who God sent to convince “the Jewish people . . . to come back to Israel.”
  • Tim LaHaye: The Jews will be “destroyed by the anti-Christ in the time of the seven years of tribulation; a potential dictator [is] waiting in the wings somewhere in Europe who will make Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin look like choirboys.”
  • Jerry Falwell: “The Jews are returning to their land of unbelief. They are spiritually and desperately in need of their Messiah and Savior.” According to biblical prophecy, there will soon be an Israel-inspired “nuclear holocaust,” a holocaust that will coincide with Christ’s return to Earth: “WHAT A DAY THAT WILL BE!”

Antisemitism has been present in American fundamentalism from the movement’s beginnings in 1919. For example, and as I document in God’s Empire,  William Bell Riley – in many ways the father of the American fundamentalist movement – was a passionate promoter of dispensational premillennialism and (related) a tireless purveyor of the worst sort of anti-Semitic conspiratorialism. Convinced that there was a global Jewish conspiracy seeking to oppress the Gentile masses, in the 1930s Riley – who repeatedly claimed he was not an antisemite – was a fan of Adolf Hitler, whom he praised for rescuing Germany from the Jewish-Communist menace. As Riley saw it, 

If Hitler’s anticommunism involved oppression of the Jews, so be it. . . . The fact was, as Hitler correctly recognized, the Jews had earned their opprobrium: “Jewry, from the day that she crucified Jesus Christ until the present time, has given many occasions for her own rejection and for that opposition which she has politically pronounced persecution. Hear Hitler, who speaks from first-hand knowledge: ‘The Jew is the cause and beneficiary of our slavery. The Jew has caused our misery, and today he lives on our troubles. . . . He has ruined our race, rotted our morals, corrupted our traditions, and broken our power.’” (God’s Empire, 71-72)

Of course, such antisemitism did and does make its way down to (some) dispensational premillennialists at the local level. Take, for example, Mike Elliott. A graduate of Pensacola Bible Institute, Elliott started the Anchor Baptist Church here in Dayton, which he has pastored for the past 18 years. According to their statement of beliefs, Elliott preaches a classic dispensational premillennialism (rapture, tribulation, and the violent end of history). 

As reported by The Dayton Jewish Observerin his November 27 sermon Elliott asserted that

The Jews hate us. You do know that, right? They hate Christians. You are against everything they have, since they think we’re against their God when we’re actually for it . . . Israel is what it is today because the United States got involved in helping them get there, but they just hate us for some reason.

In a follow-up interview with the Observer, Elliott expressed frustration that his comments could be understood as antisemitic: “I just don’t understand that. That’s insane. I do not hate Jews. I love the Jewish nation.”

In his brilliant Nation article, Eric Alterman laments the fact that ”American Jewish leaders have spent so long genuflecting before the Christian right that even the most blatant anti-Semitism finds them unable to stand up or speak out.” Right. And this is frightening. Contra Mike Elliott, one can “love the Jewish nation” AND be an antisemite.  

As the past and present suggest, such a possibility is baked into dispensational premillennialism.

Note: This piece was re-published in the January 25 Dayton Jewish Observer.