by SHALOM GOLDMAN for ISLAMiCommentary on November 1, 2012:
In a full-age ad in national newspapers Rev. Billy Graham, now 94 years old, has asked voters to “base their decisions on Biblical priniciples.” The ads first appeared last week in the battleground state of Ohio and were later placed in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and other media outlets.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association just last month removed language labeling Mormonism a “cult” from its website, thus enabling conservative evangelicals to cast their vote for Romney. All this happened not long after Billy and his son Franklin had met with Governor Romney at the Graham estate in Montreat, North Carolina on October 11.
While the big issues for conservatives — opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage — are featured in Graham’s ad, it is another issue that takes precedence in his message to voters, a message about an election that ‘America’s preacher’ realizes might be his last.
That first item in his call to the faithful is that they vote for a candidate who will “support the nation of Israel.” Also implicit in this ad calling for adherence to “Biblical priniciples” is hostility to both the religion of Islam and the call for Palestinian rights.
For many self-styled American Christian ‘supporters of Zion,’ Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians, are simply not in the picture. And any Israeli Jewish advocacy for full equality for Israel’s Arab population is seen by Christian Zionists as incomprehensible at best and ‘treasonous’ at worst.
Franklin Graham’s hostility to Islam is explicit and well-publicized. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks Graham told TV interviewers that “Islam was wicked and evil” and “I don’t believe Mohammad can lead anyone to heaven.”
The occasion for these remarks was the aftermath of 9/11; the deep background is a hostility to Islam that has its roots in 19th century American missions in the Middle East.
Thus for many of today’s conservative Christian voters a call for ‘support of the nation of Israel ‘ also evokes this long-standing antipathy to Islam.
With all the compelling issues that Christians face in this election, why has Israel risen to the top of the evangelical agenda?
Indeed, why was Israel mentioned more than any other country in the recent presidential debates? Is it because Jews, admittedly small in number, are key voters in battleground states like Florida and Ohio?
Is it because there are so many influential Jews in the Obama White House? No, I don’t think so.
As one scholar told me, this obsession with Israel has less to do with the Jews than with the Bible. It has to do with a long-standing American Christian view of the modern State of Israel as a ‘biblical ‘ phenomenon, one with religious meaning.
Along with other American Christian conservatives Graham saw Israel’s founding in 1948 in that religious light. And in much mid-twentieth century preaching by conservative pastors, the political and military successes of Israel were presented to evangelical Christians as proof that God fulfills his promises and can be seen to act in history, even in the blood-soaked twentieth century.
As the late Rev. Jerry Falwell said in the 1970s, “Israel is God’s timeclock” — its growth and increasing prominence show that history has meaning and purpose. In contrast to the mid- 1990s Christian Zionist teachings of Rev. John Hagee that focus on the Book of Revelation and its end-of-times scenario, Graham and Falwell’s Zionism focused on the Book of Genesis and God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would inherit the Land of Canaan.
Today, the promise to Abraham’s people that “those who bless you are blessed and those who curse you are cursed” (Genesis 12:3), is a verse that is often cited in sermons and road signs in conservative Christian communities. On Israel, Billy Graham did not just talk the talk. He ‘voted with his feet’ and visited Israel a number of times. In 1960 he made a pilgrimage to Israel and was greeted by then-Foreign Minister Golda Meir who presented Graham with a Hebrew Bible inscribed “to a master -teacher.” In 1969, two years after Israel assumed control over Jerusalem’s Old City and its holy sites, Graham visited Jerusalem and told mayor Teddy Kollek that he saw the Israeli presence in all of Jerusalem as the fulfillment of prophecy.
In his many meetings with American presidents Graham would make the case for firm American support for the Jewish state. The very embarrassing discovery in 2009 of taped-conversations from 1972 between President Richard Nixon and Graham — conversations which demonstrated Nixon’s deep- seated antipathy toward “Jewish radicals” in the US — includes a telling note about attitudes toward the Jewish State. Nixon, in the conclusion of a long rant about the perfidies of his opponents among American Jews, says that “the best Jews are actually the Israeli Jews.” On the tape, Billy Graham is heard assenting, “that’s right.”
Today, forty years later, Israel’s ‘special relationship’ with the US is again a major political issue.
Shalom Goldman is professor of religion at Duke University. His most recent book is Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews, and the Idea of the Promised Land (UNC Press, January, 2010).