Back in December, when Trump first announced that he would move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, evangelical theologian Gary Burge (Wheaton College and now at Calvin Theological Seminary) wrote a piece at the Atlantic titled “You Can Be an Evangelical and Reject Trump’s Jerusalem Decision.” The piece is worth revisiting today.
The key to understanding this perspective is to recognize that these conservative evangelicals are building a bridge from ancient biblical Israel to the modern secular State of Israel. So, promises made almost 4,000 years ago to Abraham apply to the modern Israeli state. “The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you,” God says in Genesis 17:8. For these evangelical interpreters, a verse like this one is not just something ancient; it provides a political mandate for Israel’s privileges today. And Genesis 12:3, “I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse,” originally intended as a word of protection for Abraham’s tribe, now can become a mandate for anyone living today. We are obligated, the argument runs, to bless modern Israel. In the U.S., blessing Israel means recognizing its sole ownership of Jerusalem.
These evangelicals’ perspectives stem partly from a high regard for the Bible and its story about the fate of the Israelites, which has led to an outsized fascination with Judaism. They believe that Israel has a unique place in history as God’s special people, so Israel deserves deferential treatment—and Jerusalem deserves the same. For some, Israel enjoys an exceptionalism that sets it apart from the entire world. There are even evangelicals who believe that promoting the importance of Jerusalem is one more building block in the fulfillment of prophecies that sets the stage for the Second Coming of Christ. The average conservative evangelical is filled with a tangle of commitments that are often tough to sort out. She just knows that if Israel wants something—in this case, Jerusalem—Israel deserves to have it.
Numerous evangelicals like me are less enamored of the recent romance between the church and Republican politics, and worry about moving the U.S. embassy. For us, peacemaking and the pursuit of justice are very high virtues. We view the ethical teachings of the scriptures as primary, and recognize that when biblical Israelites failed in their moral pursuits, they were sorely criticized by the Hebrew prophets and became subject to ejection from the Holy Land. Amos 5:24 shows that even the use of the Jerusalem Temple can be problematic to God: “Take away from me [God] the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Many of us look at modern Israel today and see a country that Amos would barely recognize. How, we wonder, can anyone build a bridge from ancient Israel to modern Israel today? Amos would hardly recognize in Tel Aviv a city based on biblical ideals.