Some Notes on American Christian Fundamentalism and Judaism

Staying with Florida and Governor Charlie Crist, he’s also in the news for another reason:

Crist told a group of real estate agents Friday that he’s had prayer notes placed in the Western Wall in Jerusalem each year and no major storms have hit Florida.

Crist noted that just before his election in 2006, Florida had been affected by a total of eight hurricanes in 2004 and 2005.

Crist, who is a Methodist, has a particular fondness for Jewish cultural practices; in 2007 he invited Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Schneur Oirechman to install a mezuzah on the doorpost to his office. This kind of thing may help him win Jewish votes, but it will also give him credit with the Christian Right, a swathe of which is appropriating Jewish cultural expressions.

Christian attitudes to the Western Wall have changed dramatically over the years: in the Byzantine period, the site of the destroyed Jewish Temple was used by Christians as evidence that Judaism had been supplanted by Christianity as the true religion. More recently, however, the site has come to be treated with respect by Christians, in recognition of its place in Biblical history, and as a sign of increasing good relations between Jews and Christians. The Pope has been known to pray at the Wall, and for many Protestants the Wall is more  congenial than churches associated with events in the life of Jesus, where alien Roman Catholic and Orthodox icongraphy dominate.

However, although Christians may respect Judaism, there is still a tradition of Christian exclusivity. Everyone is urged to “accept Christ” in order to find salvation; what then is the point of Judaism? Should not Christians continue to seek the conversion of Jews to Christianity, even though many Jews complain that this is highly offensive, and perhaps even anti-Semitic? A couple of ways around this problem have been developed by Christian Zionists: the return of Jesus is coming very soon, and so Jews will be converted by supernatural means then, or – more controversially – there is a “dual covenant”, in which both religions are equality valid. Jerry Falwell baulked at this last idea, although it appears to be the de facto position of many Christian Zionists.

The teaching that God has transferred the “chosenness” of the Jews to the Church is derided as anti-Semitic; instead, Christians now share in the “chosenness” of the Jews. Thus we see John Hagee wearing a prayer shawl, support for the building of a new temple in Jerusalem, and specialist outfits selling Jewish ritual and cultural objects to Christians. Jesus becomes known as “Yeshua”, and the habit of writing “G-d” rather than “God” is adopted. Further, there is a vicarious identification with the IDF (such as the “Maccabean Resistance” I noted yesterday), and Christian America becomes  a divinely-favoured “Judaeo-Christian” culture (albeit threatened from within by Obama) allied with Israel against the Muslims in a holy war.

Even the Bible can be revised to fit this religio-nationalistic agenda: WorldNetDaily promotes Joel Richardson’s fantasy of a “Muslim Anti-Christ” emerging (a theory that builds on the rubble of the failed “Soviet Anti-Christ” idea), and his friend Walid Shoebat persuades Christians that the word “666” in the Book of Revelation is a misreading for “In the Name of Allah”. For some Christian Zionist groups, such as the Jerusalem Connection, finding that an ethnic group has Jewish DNA is more important than any actual evangelisation, and Good Friday pales beside Passover. Others, such as Jim Barfield, flirt with the “Hebrew Roots” Movement, which accepts “Yeshua” as Messiah but which rejects all Christian theology. Meanwhile, one aspect of Christian history which becomes foregrounded is the Crusades, whitewashed of their anti-Jewish elements and earthly motives (there’s also some of that in the UK). How far can this be pushed before we’re actually dealing with a New Religious Movement rather than anything recognisable as Christianity?

Of course, the idea of America as “chosen” is as old as the Pilgrim Fathers, but this particular formulation is something new. The discourse has a wider appeal: one criticism of Obama’s speech denying that the USA is a Christian nation memorably made it onto the Daily Show‘s “Moment of Zen”; according to John Kasich of Recharge Ohio:

It would have been more appropriate for Barack Obama to say America is Jewish and Christian.

Meanwhile, a woman in an IDF T-Shirt who opposes health-care reform on the grounds of “Biblical values” can mock an Israeli Jew who takes a different view with a shout of “Heil Hitler”; presumably he’s the wrong type of Jew to identify with.