At the opening ceremony for the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem on Monday, as Israeli soldiers shot at Palestinian protesters, killing 60 and wounding 2,400, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed to widespread cheers, “The Temple Mount is in our hands!” President Trump’s actions are being hailed as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy and he is being likened to the biblical King Cyrus who ended the Babylonian captivity and invited Jews to return to Israel to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.
The opening of the embassy was consecrated, as it were, by two pastors who exemplify the concerns, complexities and controversies of moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Robert Jeffress is pastor of a Dallas-area Southern Baptist megachurch, a radio host and an author. John Hagee is pastor of a San Antonio Pentecostal megachurch, TV host and author, as well as the founder of Christians United for Israel. Baptists and Pentecostals have some deep disagreements, but Jeffress and Hagee share two convictions that are important for understanding the significance of this development for Trump’s supporters.
The first of these shared convictions is end-times theology. A broad swath of American Christians hold to an interpretation of the Bible that anticipates the world getting worse and worse until Jesus returns to rescue born-again believers. This leaves the rest of us to suffer through a period they call The Great Tribulation, which is followed by the destruction of Satan and the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth.
Versions of this theology have been around since the beginning of the church (its why, for example, Saint Paul told Christians it’s better to remain single than to marry). But the version to which Jeffress and Hagee adhere dates to the 1970s. In this version, the re-establishment of the state of Israel and complete Israeli control of Jerusalem are central, because these developments allow the re-establishment of the sacrifices at the temple. This sets the end times in motion.
While some Christians debate the details of the end of time, others just embrace the end-times ethos ― also known as premillennialism ― as a badge of membership in a group, just what “our people” believe. For evangelical Christians looking to grow their ranks, it was rhetorically useful. It promoted a view of a terrifying and immediate future that could only be escaped through the conversion upon which this kind of Christianity is built. And it fostered a heady sense of the importance of the immediate moment in which believers live: The immediate anticipation of the fulfillment of prophecy let believers see their lives and their time in history as singularly important. End-times theology, then, plays on hubris and vanity.
It would be easy to misread end-times theology as quirky and benign ― and people like Jeffress and Hagee, and the evangelicals who follow them, do smooth over the rough edges of their views for mainstream public consumption. Neither Jeffress nor Hagee, for example, mentioned the end times in their remarks at the event in Jerusalem on Monday.
But paying attention to the second concern these two pastors share helps us to hear what both men left unspoken in their prayers at the new embassy. To Jeffress, Hagee and the vast number of evangelicals who follow them, the world is divided: into people like them, who are saved, and all the rest of us, who are destined for hell.
Jeffress’ many comments to this effect have led Mormon and Catholic leaders to condemn him. Jeffress has said that Mormons, Catholics, Hindus, Buddhist, Muslims and, yes, Jews are all going to hell. The evangelical relationship with Jews is particularly ambivalent because, while evangelicals believe that “the Jews” have a “special” role to play in history ― the Jews are necessary to bringing about the return of Jesus ― the only Jews who aren’t condemned to hell are those who become Christians.
In perhaps the most graphic example of how this instrumental theology makes the Jewish people nothing more than tools in God’s plan to build a kingdom for His people, Hagee has said that God sent Hitler, a “half-breed Jew,” as a “hunter.” In other words, God allowed the murder of millions of Jews in order to bring disobedient Jews back to Israel. When an audio recording of those remarks was made public, in 2008, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was forced to reject Hagee’s endorsement of his run for the presidency.
The end-times framework no doubt appeals to Trump’s own sense of destiny and his tendency toward grandiosity. It’s also strategically effective in shoring up the support of evangelicals, a crucial part of the president’s base, as the embattled White House hurtles toward the November midterms.
The concept of dog-whistle politics ― the idea that politicians work to speak to the broad public while using coded language and framing to convey, to insiders, messages that would be offensive to that broader public ― is often overused. And yet, it seems decidedly applicable here. Some heard in those prayers generic messages about peace and the safety of Israel. Others heard that they, and their fellow believers, are at the center of God’s plan for history. And they heard loud and clear the essential message that, despite his failings, the president is playing his part.
Julie Ingersoll is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Florida. She teaches and writes about religion, politics, violence and the Christian right. Her most recent book is Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction.