Zealous for Zion
Members of the Cornerstone Church Orchestra wet their lips for rehearsal, preparing to blow into their shofars, those curved horns used to mark Jewish feasts. In anticipation of the evening’s event, organizers arrange thousands of chairs, placing programs on each seat and covering them with flags—American or Israeli, alternating and sharply aligned. Tonight, Christians United for Israel will hold a celebration to supercharge thousands of Christian Zionists as they prepare to meet their senators and congressmen the next day on Capitol Hill.
In February 2006, televangelist John Hagee founded CUFI to “respond instantly to Washington with our concerns about Israel,” telling reporters to “think of CUFI as a Christian version of AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee].” In just over a year, Hagee, with help from charismatic pastors, is turning CUFI into the largest grassroots Christian political organization in the country. The second annual summit in Washington grew from just over 3,000 attendees last year to 4,500 this July.
CUFI brings together a stunning variety of Christians. While many of the female attendees wear modest skirts that cover even their ankles, others, sporting stiletto heels and form-fitting pants, could have stepped from the pages of Vogue. Not all believe in an imminent rapture, though many do. Some are Baptist, some Assemblies of God, others traveled from nondenominational churches. But they agree that the Bible commands them to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6), to “speak out for Zion’s sake” (Isaiah 62:1), to “be watchmen on the walls of Jerusalem” (Isaiah 62:6), and to “bless the Jewish people” (Genesis 12:3). “When 50 million American evangelicals unite with 5 million American Jews,“ Hagee says, “you know it is a match made in heaven.”
The political goals of CUFI are, in some cases, quite modest. One presentation focused on encouraging states to divest their pension funds from corporations that do business with Iran. Others are more sweeping: the U.S. must cease pressuring Israel to give up land for peace and must encourage Israel never to divide Jerusalem.
The lure of a sympathetic crowd and the chance to trade pieties with the most popular televangelists in the nation attracted Sen. Joe Lieberman and ex-senator Rick Santorum. Each preached to the converted: Islamic-fascism is the most dangerous threat facing the United States, and Israel is the “frontline.” Even John McCain took time from his ailing presidential campaign to make an unscheduled appearance. Speaking of Iraq, the senator said, “The temptation is to wash our hands of a messy situation. To follow this impulse, however, portends catastrophe, for Iraq, Israel, and the United States.”
Hagee’s charisma extends beyond his 18,000-member Texas megachurch through the 160 television stations that carry his program into 99 million households. A scholarship football player in his youth, at 67, Hagee still retains a lineman’s girth and a coach’s booming voice. He counts Jews as well as evangelical Christians, the old and young, the well-connected and naïve among his devotees.
In the lobby of the Waldman Park Hotel, Harry Stern, a Holocaust survivor who emigrated from Czechoslovakia, heaped praise on Hagee, saying he watches his sermon every week.
Another fan, former Israeli Ambassador to the UN Dore Gold, gave two speeches at the conference. When asked what benefit it was to Israel to build support in the greenest of the grassroots Christian community, he replied, “Look at what the Saudis are doing: expensive P.R. firms in the United States, calling for re-dividing Jerusalem. … I’m just giving a few speeches here.”
At a breakout session dedicated to youth, Dr. Robert Stearns invites college students on a trip called “The Israel Experience.” A video shows other students exhorting the audience to undertake this transformative journey. One participant, Elizabeth Wong, says with a disarming smile, “I feel like my destiny has been tied with Israel.” The presentation is followed up by a talk by Jeff Mendelson of AIPAC. “What happens to Israel will happen here,” he says somberly. As the students begin to file out to prepare for the night’s celebration, they are asked to volunteer to start pro-Israel groups on their own campuses. One from Missouri State responds to a question about the Palestinian Christians curtly: “They should go to Israel, and be all good.” Wong jumps in to correct any misunderstanding: “The so-called Palestinians, Arab Christians … whatever you want to call them, deserve our sympathy, too.”
James Tabor of Middleboro, Kentucky wears a Star of David tie, bright blue jacket and white pants. Despite his lack of formal education, he is proficient in the current events of the Middle East. But for all his ability to pronounce the name “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,” he “still would like to see him wiped off that map.” Tabor, along with his 11-year-old daughter, Ashley, carries a hand-drawn sign with American and Israeli flags and the words, “Press on for Jesus.”
The image of thousands of conservative Christians from the heartland waving the flags of a foreign nation would have astounded anyone 50 years ago—except maybe George Orwell. In an essay on nationalism, he criticized G.K. Chesterton, the English writer, for romanticizing Latin countries, particularly France, on account of his Catholicism. Orwell called this “transferred nationalism” and argued that fixing upon another country allows one “to be much more nationalistic—more vulgar, more silly, more malignant, more dishonest—that he could ever be on behalf of his native country, or any unit of which he had real knowledge.” But Chesterton’s affinity for France was sentimental—and harmless. CUFI knits theology and politics to powerful effect: Christian Zionists support Israel because God commands them to do so.
Not every evangelical is pleased with Hagee or his conference. Pastor Chuck Carlson flew in from Scottsdale, Arizona to greet CUFI with giant yellow signs reading “Reject Apostate Christianity” and “Choose Life, Not War.” “We think up to 100 million people are influenced by the ideas of John Hagee,” he says. “We’re becoming a culture of war.” Carlson’s literature is theologically conservative, attacking Hagee’s gospel as “un-biblical.” He smiles as each bus pulls up, waving as if inviting visitors into his own home. “The way we’re going to work with the church for peace,” he says, “is to stand out in front of church and confront them.” The protest attracts plenty of attention and a few heated arguments, but no converts.
Inside the convention center, nearly every major star preacher from the Trinity Broadcast Network was present. Jesse Duplantis, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, Rod Parsley. Waiting with a somewhat bored expression on his face is Newt Gingrich.
Hagee’s address covers Biblical reasons to support the state of Israel. While some have criticized him and many of the other televangelists on stage with him for preaching a “Give-to-Get Gospel,” Hagee extends the logic to a “Give-to-Get” Zionism. Because Genesis 12 says, “I will bless those who bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee,” Hagee preaches that “as people, churches, and nations deal with the State of Israel, so God will deal with them.” He tells the crowd, with equal parts grin and gruff, “Get ready! Good things are getting ready to happen to you.”
But not all is brightness. “There are voices in the U.S. State Department calling for the city of Jerusalem to be divided,” Hagee says. The crowd shouts a drawn out “No!” unprompted. “Let’s make this clear!” Hagee continues. “There shall be one Jerusalem. Never divided. For any reason. Not now and not ever!”
Hagee has made Washington a focus of his efforts, but his mission is larger than politics. He is not as solicitous to Republican interests as Jerry Falwell was before him; he freely criticizes the president and cabinet members. A politician works on policy—a trifling thing compared to a preacher who reveals God’s prophecies. Hagee’s sermon rises into a call and response, “Shout it from the rooftops: ‘Israel Lives!’” then dissolves into a hymn before Gingrich approaches the podium.
With such a tough act to follow, the former speaker disappoints. In his bland, technocratic cadence, he relates that 91 percent of Americans believe the words, “Under God” belong in the pledge of allegiance. The congregation grows restless. They came to hear something more moving than agreeable poll numbers. But they rouse when he says, “We don’t have a peace process, we have a surrender process” and when he chastises the president, saying that if he were “serious, he’d move our embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem tomorrow.” Gingrich sits down, and the Cornerstone Church Orchestra picks up their cue.
Images of rabbis teaching in Israel flash across giant screens, as the crowd starts to rock and wave, lifting their voices, “Sing Us a Song of Zion.” A young man dressed as an IDF soldier appears on the stage. He appears to be hurt and remains on his knees. The music begins to fade. Another young man dressed as an American soldier comes over, lifts up his Israeli counterpart, and salutes him. The hall fills with the sound of the electronic keyboard and the crowd punctures the night air with waving palms and a smattering of “hallelujahs.” Some raise tear-streaked faces, others bow their heads in ecstatic prayer, all are resolute and ready for battle. They sing as the music lifts them higher: “Great is the army that carries out His Word.”