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Tony Perkins Vult: The Conflation of Pilgrimage and Crusade in the Modern Evangelical Imagination | Righting America

by Matthew Merringer

Matthew Merringer is an M.A. Student at the University of Dayton in the Department of Religious Studies. He studies the history and politics of American Protestantism. His interests include radicals such as Dorothy Day, Jerry Falwell, and nativist preachers in the 19th Century. He finds the unique political imaginations crafted by these leaders help provide rubrics for understanding the daily practices of their followers. 

Photoshopped Images of Tony Perkins, courtesy of the author.

The subject of evangelicals and their interest in the political state of Israel is well documented. Scholars such as Matthew Avery Sutton have shown how, since the time of D.L. Moody, a significant number of American Protestants have made apocalyptic premillennialism a key feature of their faith and central to their political commitments. This prophetic vein of American religion continues to conflate American foreign policy in the Middle East with their Hal Lindsey/Tim LaHayeinspired perceptions of the end times.

You can hear support for the state of Israel in sermons from folks such as John Hagee (at the extreme end of the spectrum) but also in fellowship halls and Bible studies across the US. In fact, Hagee’s Christians United for Israel claims membership of over 10 million Americans as a “voice in defense of Israel.”  This particular act of political imagination (amongst other things) has often dictated how American Evangelicals have voted.

Politicians playing to religious conservatives’ ideas about the state of Israel is not new. In fact, politicians claiming to act according to the will of God on foreign policy positions is not new. You may remember that in 2003, George W. Bush was reported to have told the Palestinian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister that God told him to invade both Afghanistan and Iraq.  

What is new is the increasingly explicit connection between Evangelical rhetoric and the support for violent action. This was blindingly obvious in the January 06 insurrection, as Ken Camp in the Baptist Standard documented in his article, ”Christian nationalism clearly evident in Capitol riot.” 

One of the voices normalizing violence in the name of God is Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council(FRC). The FRC is a D.C.- based lobbying group which describes itself as a “research and educational organization dedicated to articulating and advancing a family-centered philosophy of public life.” Born out of Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, the FRC champions causes such as prolife, traditional “complementary” marriage, and health care “free of political and social agendas.”

And, Holy Land pilgrimages.

In just 2019, Americans accounted for 966,000 tourist entries into Israel. Many of these visitors are evangelicals who are part of tour groups that take them to places such as the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee, Mount of Olives, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and, of course, the Valley of Megiddo (claimed as the physical location of Jesus’s earthly return). 

While many of the tours are advertised with language smacking of American consumerism — all-expenses paid, luxury tour buses, and beautiful hotels — one must realize that these are not simply vacations for Evangelicals. 

These are religious pilgrimages. 

For millennia, Christians have been taking pilgrimages to the Holy Land to walk in the steps of Jesus. Many have partaken in the Christian Sacrament of Baptism (some for a second time) in the Jordan River, as Christ did. It is an incredibly powerful experience, and it has inspired many in the past to undertake pilgrimage. Including the medieval Crusaders. 

And for Evangelicals, who believe in the literal truth of Scripture, the Holy Land is a manifestation of the divine text, a tangible and empirical verification of the inerrancy of the Bible.

The FRC is now advertising its own all-expense paid pilgrimage. While the tour will hit all the usual religious spots, a prime selling point – made explicit in their own advertising – is that there will be much attention paid to Israeli military operations. As Perkins notes In his personal letter to prospective Holy Land pilgrims:

“Not only will it be an incredible time as your faith deepens, but you will gain a better understanding of Israel’s important role in current geopolitical affairs as you hear from several of Israel’s key leaders. Joining us on the trip will be Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Jerry Boykin, FRC’s Executive Vice President, former Commander of the U.S. Army’s Delta Force and former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. Key Israeli leaders will provide expert analysis of religious, political, and national security issues impacting their nation and the Middle East.”

One would assume for a religious pilgrimage you would see pastors, scholars, and archeologists as keynote speakers. 

But that is not the case with the Tony Perkins tour. 

Of the ten special guests, only two are pastors. Three are former/current US or Israeli military officials, two are former ambassadors (including Trump’s former bankruptcy lawyer, who parleyed those connections into an ambassadorship), and two are journalists (one a senior columnist for Breitbart). The final special guest is one Tony Perkins. 

For a trip meant to deepen faith, there is a disturbing number of non-religious speakers. Even more telling is the military presence, which includes Ari Sacher, who manages one of Israel’s missile defense projects, the Iron Dome. 

Conflation of military operations and religious pilgrimage is nothing new in Christianity. Famously, Pope Urban II – anxious about Muslim Turks and the recent split of the Church – sparked the Crusades with his 1095 CE speech at the Council of Clermont (as recorded by Fulcher of Chartres):

I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ’s heralds to publish this everywhere and to persuade all people of whatever rank, foot-soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to . . . destroy that vile race from lands of our friends. I say this to those who are present, it is meant also for those you are absent. Moreover, Christ commands it. All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested. 

Urban II allegedly so roused the crowd that they chanted “Deus Vult”  (God Wills It) after his speech. 

Tony Perkins is one among many Christian nationalists who have recognized the increasing difficulty to maintain their privileged position of power in the pluralist American milieu. In the face of this challenge, they have adopted increasingly more apocalyptic and militaristic language to rally their followers. 

Now the FRC has ritualized military experiences into pilgrimage. And they are not alone.  Christians United for Israel’s trip includes meetings with Israeli soldiers, touring the Fence along the Gaza Strip with a retired Israeli Colonel, and touring the Golan Heights with Israeli military leaders. Salem Radio Network – which hosts shows by Hugh Hewitt, Dennis Prager, and Mike Gallagher for Christian formatted radio stations – offers an annual Stand With Israel tour, which allows travelers to participate in the right-wing talk shows that are being broadcast from the pilgrimage itself. The 2022 tour will feature convicted campaign finance felon Dinesh D’Souza.

In the real world, authentic dialogue about Israeli-Palestinian politics, and the ability to call out atrocities committed against Palestinian children in the name of Israeli national defense, is needed. But for Perkins and his followers, any criticism of Israel’s military is not only an attack on a key player in apocalyptic premillennial prophecy scenarios, but it has also come to be understood as an attack on Evangelical sacramental rituals. 

The fusion of military force and the unmediated divine reality of pilgrimage was used to devastating effect a millennium ago. Then it inspired thousands to take up arms against a perceived threat to a church’s political power under the guise of holy pilgrimage. 

Will “Tony Perkins vult!” become “Deus Vult”? Is this where we are with American evangelicalism?