At the second Trump impeachment trial, Jacky Rosen, a Jewish senator from Nevada, criticized former President Trump for tolerating anti-Semites, such as the Proud Boys. In response, Senator Kevin Cramer, an evangelical Christian from North Dakota, praised President Trump as America’s most pro-Israel president.
The exchange concisely frames the conundrum confronting American Jews who fiercely defend and promote the State of Israel. On the one hand, the Trump administration undeniably advanced and enacted policies and initiatives favoring Israel. On the other hand, Trump pursued those policies to satisfy an evangelical Christian base, which adheres to some religious and political views detrimental to Jews and Judaism. We must be vigilant in ensuring that we have not entered into a Faustian bargain in which the moniker “America’s most pro-Israel president” silences Jewish rights, concerns, and interests.
Many American Jews appear only superficially to be familiar with evangelical Christianity, especially in its most vocal iterations. Comprising nearly a quarter of the American Christian population, evangelical Christianity is not a denomination but a philosophy, system, or approach to believing in and practicing Protestant Christianity. The word “evangelist” derives from the Greek, referring to a messenger who spreads the good word. In Protestant theology, evangelists are the Gospel authors and those who emulate them by sharing the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Evangelism has been a constant part of American civilization and history, but has surfaced more prominently at certain times, such as during Great Awakening revivalist movements in both the 18th and 19th centuries, or during tumultuous political periods, most noticeably around the time of the Civil War.
While there is considerable diversity of belief and practice among evangelicals, central tenets include acceptance of Jesus’ teachings through rebirth and close or even fundamentalist readings of biblical texts that elucidate a Christian narrative of historical and current events. In addition, some evangelicals focus on end-of-days theories, amplifying the Christian messianic belief in a second coming. Evangelicals who played a prominent role during the Trump era included those who focus on end-of-days beliefs and those who understand Americanism and American identity within the Christian reading of the bible. Both of those impact Jews, and it behooves the Jewish community to understand more fully what these evangelical leaders promote.
Some evangelicals who ardently support the State of Israel do so because of their end-of-days belief in the “Rapture.” Based primarily on the Christian Book of Revelation, the Rapture envisions that when the second coming occurs, all Jews must return to Zion to confront conversion or death. Only those who accept Jesus’ teaching will benefit from the “Rapture” (by being “snatched away” to heaven). Robert Jeffress, the pastor of a 14,000-member Dallas megachurch, who was a featured speaker at the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, is an outspoken proponent of the Rapture and its connection to current events involving the Jewish people and the State of Israel. But nearly all of the most recognized evangelical leaders — from Pat Robertson to John Hagee to Franklin Graham — emphasize Rapture theology to one degree or another.
Messianic communities of former Jews also focus on the Rapture. Indeed, Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network has produced or supported movies, books, and other media, often in conjunction with the messianic missionaries, designed to explain Jewish history and Israeli current events within the context of the Rapture. Perhaps the most prominent example was the 2017 movie “In Our Hands,” depicting Israel’s capturing of Jerusalem during the Six Day War and ending with biblical citations, including from the New Testament.
Many are likely aware that evangelical support for Zionism derives principally from Rapture theology ,but far fewer probably are aware of Christian nationalist beliefs that negatively impact American Jews. Jenna Ellis, President Trump’s senior legal advisor, who assumed a pivotal role in efforts to overturn the election, has written extensively on Christian nationalist beliefs. Both at the end of her book “The Legal Basis for a Moral Constitution” and at the top of her web bio for the Thomas More Society, Ellis features an 1816 statement by John Jay, an American founding father who was also the first chief justice of the United States. Jay wrote that “Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christian rulers.” John Jay was, indeed, one of the most devout of the founding fathers and even believed that citizenship should be limited to Protestant Christians.
At the time of the country’s founding, Jay’s view that the rulers should be Christian was accepted by most of the states. The federal United States Constitution expressly provides in Article VI that “no religion test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust.” Yet that was not true of most — if not all — of the states’ constitutions, which required government officials to be Protestant or at least Christian. Delaware, for example, mandated that government officials “profess faith in God the Father and in Jesus Christ . . . and in the Holy Spirit.” North Carolina barred anyone from serving in government “who shall deny the being of God or the truth of the Protestant religion.”
While states eventually did away with these religious tests or oaths, Christian nationalist efforts to imprint Christianity on American identity remained vibrant. During the Civil War, evangelical ministers met in Ohio to form the National Reform Association, whose purpose was to “declare the nation’s allegiance to Jesus Christ and its acceptance of the moral laws of the Christian religion, and so indicate that this is a Christian nation.” They enlisted support from the legendary Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, and directed their efforts over the next 10 years toward amending the preamble to the Constitution so that it would read:
“We the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among nations, his revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government, and in order to form a more perfect union . . .”
Sumner withdrew his support after considering concerns voiced by Jews. Yet at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, the National Reform Association sought to resuscitate this amendment. In the aftermath of World War II, the National Evangelical Association made renewed attempts at promoting a similar amendment, which would have read: “This nation divinely recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, savior and ruler of nations, through whom are bestowed the blessings of God Almighty.”
Trump’s legal advisor, Jenna Ellis, went one step further in her book. She argues that the United States Constitution is authorized not by enlightenment social contract principles in which human beings “consent” to create new law, but by what she calls “Divine Law,” referring to the teachings of the New Testament. She reasons that the New Testament only allows people to abolish an existing government and forge a new one when the existing government is abridging their God-given rights. She, therefore, sees the Declaration of Independence as the enabling authority in which people secure “unalienable rights” that were “endowed by their creator” and that were ordained by the “laws of nature and nature’s God.” She further contends that the founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence that they were “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the rectitude of our intentions” and “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”
Most legal scholars do not read the Declaration of Independence as an enabling authority or even as a “legal” document. It also strains credulity to believe that Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, who was at most a Deist and famously known for his enlightenment beliefs, restricted the Declaration’s authority to New Testament principles but eschewed social contract ideals. For Ellis and other Christian nationalists, however, the United States Constitution, the supreme law of the land, dictates that Divine Law (meaning, New Testament principles) governs all rules, practices, legislation, and judicial determinations.
Perhaps it is true that Donald Trump was the most pro-Israel president ever. But it is important to understand that his intent and motive were to satisfy an evangelical base that continues to promote religious and political beliefs antithetical to Judaism and detrimental to Jews.
We must be honest that our Faustian bargain could very well come back to haunt us.
Daniel D. Edelman, a lawyer, lives in Teaneck.