This latest contribution to The Washington Post/Newsweek On Faith online discussion responds to the question: To what extent are problems in the Middle East about religion, and to what extent are they about politics? Does it matter?
Well that's complicated. The chief motivator for American foreign policy in the Middle East is clearly geopolitical, with a primary emphasis on oil. But for a vocal constituency in a segment of the American evangelical community, an unquestioning and unequivocal support for the Israeli government's policies is clearly a religious conviction. And that religious conviction of a key political constituency (especially for the Bush administration) bolsters the demonstrably uneven U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The completely one-sided support for Israel from some conservative evangelicals rests on two things: one, a very dubious interpretation (I'm being generous here) of biblical prophecy and eschatology (the theology of the "end times") in which the modern state of Israel is still equated with the Old Testament notion of "God's chosen people;" and two, a complete denial of the very existence of Palestinian Christians.
I had dinner two weeks ago with one of those beleaguered Palestinian Christian leaders who carries feelings of profound sadness and abandonment by other members of the body of Christ. The number of Christians in Palestine continues to decline dramatically as they are caught between Islamic fundamentalism and American fundamentalism. I have always believed that if most American Christians could see the daily and constant humiliation of all Palestinians at Israeli check points in the West Bank they would think such behavior is wrong -- but they never see it or even hear about it in the American press. For any serious debate about Israeli governmental policy you must turn to the BBC, international press, or to the press in Israel itself, which regularly features a far more evenhanded and robust discussion than can be found anywhere in the U.S. media.
One of the most hopeful signs, however, was a recent letter to President Bush by evangelical leaders who clearly dissented from the militant perspective of their Christian Zionist brothers. It said: "We also write to correct a serious misperception among some people, including some U.S. policymakers, that all American evangelicals are opposed to a two-state solution and creation of a new Palestinian state that includes the vast majority of the West Bank. Nothing could be further from the truth. We, who sign this letter, represent large numbers of evangelicals throughout the U.S. who support justice for both Israelis and Palestinians."
These evangelical leaders are clearly committed to the existence of the state of Israel, to its real security, and its protection from horrendous terrorist attacks -- but also for justice and self-determination for the Palestinian people and their protection from the continual assaults of the Israeli Defense Forces. They are committed to a viable two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and call the United States to take a much more even handed role in resolving it. Last week, their representatives were visiting the State Department.
I include myself in that new evangelical group and hope and pray our number will grow. I can tell you that one Palestinian Christian leader was enormously heartenedby this new evangelical initiative . Let's hope this religious conviction can help lead to a better political direction.