Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Pro-Israel And Pro-Christian

It's time for religious conservatives to find our voice for Middle East Christians

The Ted Cruz stunt last week continues to be much on my mind. I still could not get over the audacity and the cruelty of the act, and the shamelessness of his using the most persecuted and threatened Christians in the world to boost his own political prospects or to cover his flank with his domestic audience. I don’t know why Cruz did it, but he did, and was widely praised for it on the right. This should not be soon forgotten. A conservative Catholic friend, not an Arab-American, who was in the audience wrote last night to say of the Cruz speech:

You can’t quite imagine how painful it was if you weren’t sitting in that room with all those people for whom the genocide of Middle Eastern Christians is an up-close-and-personal reality.

It’s not a perfect analogy, but imagine someone going to address a group of persecuted Chinese Christian leaders who had come to Washington to try to figure out how to keep their communities alive, and who had been instructed by a US politician that they needed to denounce the Beijing government as a condition of having his support. Or imagine a US politician telling Nigerian pastors whose flocks were being routinely savaged by Boko Haram that they needed to denounce anti-gay violence before he would endorse their cause of survival. In that case, you would have African Christian leaders who really do hate gays, but you would also have African Christian leaders who have more moderate views on gays, but who know that to be seen as aligning with gay rights would be to give their Muslim persecutors a powerful weapon to use against them (this is genuinely a problem for Anglican leaders in Nigeria). The idea that a people facing genocide — whatever their religion, ethnicity, or political beliefs — must first perfect themselves in the eyes of American politicians before they merit our help is repulsive. But you know that I believe that.

What I want to mention here is how this incident reveals the lack of space on the Right for talking about Middle East policy, politics, and culture — and how that needs to change. It is no secret that I stand apart from most of my TAC colleagues in that I count myself a supporter of Israel. I support Israel’s right to exist, and I support its right to defend itself. It’s not a matter of religion for me. I believe that the Jewish people have a right to a homeland. Besides, the savagery and the fanaticism of the other states and peoples in the region make it easy for a Westerner to sympathize with Israel in most cases. And I do.

Having said that, I don’t believe that Israel is without sin. I think Israel can and must be criticized when warranted (e.g., on the settlements), just like any other country.

What is frustrating is that there seems to be little middle ground on the American Right for discussing Israel. As a general matter, it seems that among mainstream conservatives, Israel must be considered always and everywhere correct; among Israel’s critics on the right, the state’s flaws often seem to be exaggerated, and the flaws of its enemies often minimized. The knee-jerk anti-Semitism we see on the streets of Europe, and among the progressives who push for boycotting Israel but who turn a blind eye to far, far worse governments in the region, makes me more determined to stand by Israel as an American, in part because I know that if Israel’s enemies had their way, all its Jews would be killed, and many Europeans would shrug their shoulders.


The Cruz incident involved Christian people who really and truly are in danger of being exterminated. They do not have the most powerful standing army in the region to defend them. They do not have weapons, and certainly not nuclear weapons. They have nothing. If they were not Christian, their plight would warrant our urgent concern, but because they are Christian, it seems to me that citizens of the largest and most powerful nation of Christians in the world ought to be particularly concerned about their plight. This is even more true given that it was the war we launched that brought about the instability leading to their own persecution and potential genocide.

Do the Christians of the Middle East hold opinions contrary to our own about the state of Israel? Many, probably most, probably nearly all of them, certainly do. Are they Jew haters? Some are, no doubt, and that is wicked. Are they driven by conspiracy theory? Sure, and I have been on the West Bank and heard some insane ones — but the entire Arab world works that way, to a degree that beggars belief. The Middle East Christians are like us: flawed, sometimes badly flawed. But they are unlike us in that we are not at the mercy of hostile Muslims, many of whom wish to exterminate us. They are like the Israelis in that way, but again, they are unlike the Israelis in that they have no way to defend themselves except by their wits.

That usually means making alliances with unsavory actors. People who have to be afraid at every moment for their lives don’t have the luxury of being morally selective in who their friends are. If you are looking for somebody clean in Middle East politics, you will search in vain. It is troubling that the pro-Assad Lebanese billionaire Gilbert Chagoury funded the recent gathering in Washington. But who else was offering to pay for it? Should the organizers have put off getting the top Christian leaders from the region together for a meeting until they could get Bono to foot the bill?

Besides, as much as it bothers me that the brutal Assad regime has been the protector of Syrian Christians, it happens to be true. I would love for there to be a rich, morally pure, militarily powerful force to keep the Christians in that region from being massacred, but that force does not exist, and it never will exist. Unlike their co-religionists in other nations, Lebanese Christians are not, in fact, powerless, though good luck trying to fathom the complexities of Lebanese politics. But such power as they have depends on their ability to negotiate an extraordinarily complex situation involving Druze warlords and Hezbollah, which has been an Iranian and Syrian proxy.

I enjoyed reading David Harsanyi’s defense of Cruz, in which he points out, legitimately, that if you are a Christian in the Middle East, you are better off living under Israeli government than just about anywhere else. The Lebanese would probably object to that, but it’s more or less true. Still, that’s kind of a “best ballerina in Galveston” claim to make for Israel. The situation for Christians in the Middle East is truly horrible all over. My guess is that the Lebanese Christians would rather not have to depend on good relations with Hezbollah for their own safety, but given how heavily armed Hezbollah is, and how the Lebanese Christians have no regional patron to funnel them arms and money (as Hezbollah does, from Iran and Syria), is it really that hard to figure out why the Maronites make nicer to the vile Hezbollah than they do to Israel?

The point is simply that if you refuse to help desperate Christians in the Middle East until and unless they are unstained by contact with nasty people, you will never lift a finger to help them. If the United States refused to help Israel until every Gentile-hater in the country repented of their bigotry, we would never lift a finger to help them. Though the Lebanese Christians are in a stronger position than Christians elsewhere in the Middle East, all are in a precarious situation that is getting worse. Did the United States and Great Britain have the luxury of refusing Stalin’s aid against Hitler because Stalin was himself a mass murderer? Often the choices before us, if we would prefer not to die, are only variations of awful.

Imagine a group of Spanish bishops meeting in Washington during the Spanish Civil War, to talk about the persecution of the Catholic Church at the hands of the communists, which was severe. Imagine an American politician expecting them to denounce Franco and his fascist sympathies as a condition of his support. They would have cut their throats had they done that. I know for a fact that some Maronites sympathize with Israel; the Sabra and Shatila massacres, which happened 32 years ago today, were carried out by Lebanese Christian militias with Israeli cooperation (an Israeli investigative commission found that Israel bore responsibility for the massacre because the IDF had control of the refugee camp at the time of the massacres, and failed to keep the Lebanese Christian militias out; Ariel Sharon, then the defense minister, had to resign). But today, given how powerful Hezbollah is in Lebanon, and how weak the Christians are, no Maronite patriarch can afford to sympathize publicly with Israel. To do so would invite mass murder. As I said, the politics of religion, ethnicity, and nationality in the Middle East are impossibly complicated, and that’s something we Americans find intolerable.

So it is no surprise that there is little middle ground on the American right to talk about our country’s political relationship with Israel. That hasn’t bothered me much, because we can’t care about everything equally, and I don’t have nearly as much interest in what happens in the Middle East as I do in other areas, and so don’t write about it much. This, perhaps, is why it is easy for Commentary‘s Jonathan Tobin to write of the “clear anti-Israel bias of … those who write for The American Conservative”. I will leave my colleagues to respond to this accusation themselves, if they wish. It surprises me to learn from Tobin that I, as a TAC writer, have an anti-Israel bias, and I bet it really surprises Noah Millman to learn that about himself. But if thinking that Ted Cruz was way out of line for doing what he did constitutes anti-Israel bias, I think quite a few Christians who count themselves friends of Israel will be startled to learn that they must agree with Cruz or be considered enemies of Israel. I hope that is not what Tobin meant; if it is, I would suggest that this kind of thinking does Israel no favors by forcing American Christian conservatives who consider themselves its allies to turn their backs on Middle Eastern Christians facing genocide as the price of being thought well of. That’s not going to end well.

I don’t have a lot of interest in foreign policy, but religious freedom is an issue that I really do care about, and the persecution of the ancient Christian churches and communities of the Middle East is of particular concern. The idea that these desperate people would be potentially sent to their deaths because Israel’s American backers — especially among American Christians like Ted Cruz — will not allow them a hearing because these Middle Easterners do not share their views on  Israel — well, it’s infuriating.

I suspect that Ted Cruz did not do what he did because of the Jewish vote, which is tiny, and which almost all goes to Democrats. He likely did it to keep from being smeared by the conservative media for speaking to a “pro-Hezbollah” group. He may also have done it to galvanize the conservative Protestant vote. It is likely that US Christians who come out of a dispensationalist theological tradition will never take a more nuanced view of Israel, because they believe that the establishment of the Jewish state is a prophetic precursor to the Second Coming of Christ. But there are many conservative Protestants who do not necessarily share that absolutist 19th-century theological view, and who simply do not know much of anything about Christianity in the Middle East. They are not necessarily antagonistic to the ancient churches there; they just don’t know much if anything about them, and accept without thinking about it the standard conservative line on Israel.

That’s how I was until by happenstance, in 1999, I started to attend a Maronite Catholic parish in Brooklyn. That opened a new world to me. Along those lines, the Cruz incident tells me that we need to open up a space on the Christian right in this country in which we Christians can speak of two goods — supporting Israel’s right to exist, and supporting the right of the ancient Christian churches of the Middle East to exist — without drawing down the wrath of Conservatism, Inc., and its propaganda outlets that police the boundaries of conservative expression.

It is time for conservative Catholics and sympathetic Evangelicals to stake out a space on the right independent of the standard Religious Right stance on Israel — one that treats Christians of the Middle East as brothers and sisters worthy of our strong concern in our political activism. I believe now is the time to do this, with the passing of an older generation among Evangelicals and with the old model of conservative Christian activism having broken down, along with the conservative coalition.

To be clear, I am raising the prospect of a coalition of American Christians who, when it comes to speaking on Mideast issues, pursue parallel goods: the safety and security of Israel, and the safety and security of Christians throughout the region. These suffering Christians must no longer be invisible to us, must no longer be held hostage to American domestic politics, and they must hear our voices defending them. We must not be intimidated into silence on their fate, either by cynical Republican politicians or the smear factories of Conservatism Inc., who seek to tell Christians who among their brethren they are allowed to support.

I urge you to read Kathryn Jean Lopez’s report from the event. Especially this part:

This wasn’t a foreign-policy conference, it has a very specific and critically urgent goal. From inside the ballroom Wednesday night, Cruz’s remarks were widely agreed to be unnecessarily off-topic and divisive, sabotaging the good work that was in progress. Christians are dying and we’re throwing political slogans at one another and making judgments.

In both the literature put out by the conference and throughout talks Thursday, it was clear that in defending Christians, leaders of this movement were seeking to defend the rights of all – explicitly naming Jews and Muslims and people of no faith, among others, in addition to the Christians in the group’s name.

Speakers Wednesday evening and Thursday morning were humble yet firm in response: It is not Christian to hate people. We must defend Christians because they are our brothers and sisters and because they have human rights, the rights of every one of us, made in the image and likeness of God.

A key goal of the summit was to bolster resolve here in the U.S., focusing people on the looming elimination of Christianity over in the Middle East. As best I could tell from that ballroom Wednesday night, they booed Ted Cruz because, instead of using his platform to help nameless, foreign, forgotten Christians targeted by Islamic extremists, he added yet another distraction to the mix.

It is perverse that an avowedly Christian politician and his followers would expect these people to “stand with” the state of Israel as a condition of his standing by them in the face of their own genocide — especially inasmuch as the conference had been careful not to make Israel an issue.

But hey, Ted Cruz is going to do what Ted Cruz is going to do. What about you?

Here’s my idea.

Though their interests will inevitably conflict around certain issues, as a general matter, I believe that it is, or should be, possible to support both Middle East Christians and Israel, and seek their common good. There are conservative American Christians whose theological commitments preclude admitting that. But there are more than a few of us conservative American Christians who do want to see that. It is time for us to find our voice, on behalf of the martyrs and the persecuted. And if Christians in those countries believed they had more support from the US, perhaps they wouldn’t feel compelled to make deals with various devils to keep from having their throats cut. Perhaps the nonpolitical IDC is that voice (and in any case, we ought to support its work). But shouldn’t there be a political voice too?

Maybe I’m being too idealistic here. Maybe it’s unworkable. But after that debacle in Washington, the status quo among conservatives, especially Christian conservatives, is unacceptable. If we do manage to put something together — something funded independently, by Americans —  we can thank Ted Cruz and the Washington Free Beacon for showing us what should have been obvious to us Christians all along.




Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now