Vol. 4 Num 2 Thu. May 29, 2003  

As the axis of evil turns, Christian fundamentalists are at the gate

Last May 4, Benny Elon, Israel's tourism minister and high level envoy, visited the U.S. on a mission to derail George Bush, Jr.'s roadmap for peace in the Middle East. Elon didn't meet with members of Bush's executive cabinet. The envoy really didn't have to. Elon met instead with several Evangelical Christian leaders who have the ear of the president and serve as a kind of shadow cabinet.

For those unfamiliar with the intimate alliances in American politics, it may seem like a strange liaison: a leading Israeli politician on an important diplomatic mission makes it a point to meet with extreme right-wing Christian leaders. But in Republican circles these days, if you can't hook up with Bush or member of his inner circle, a meeting with Pat Robertson or the Reverends Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham or Charles Stanley is the next best move.

In pursuing its tough and uncompromising policy against the Palestinians, Israel, under Ariel Sharon and extreme right wing Likkud Party, has no better friends in the world than the millions of Evangelical Christians in the U.S. In their fundamentalist vision of world, the Evangelicals see supporting Israel, right or wrong, as the best way to fulfil -- and even speed up -- the Bible's doomsday plan for the world. Some of Israel's fundamentalist supporters proudly use the somewhat oxymoronic term of "Christian Zionist" to describe themselves, as they zealously help raise millions of dollars and drum up substantial support for pro-Israel causes.

This is fine with George Bush, Jr., who is proud to call himself a "born again Christian" and who knows that the Christian Zionists and the millions of other evangelicals form the bedrock of the Republican Party base. This axis of convenience -- Bush, Israel and Falwell and his crowd -- is already having a significant impact on international affairs, intensifying the prospect of what many hope to avoid -- and others fervently want -- a clash of civilisations. The axis, moreover, may complicate the Bush administration's best laid plans for post war Iraq and the Middle East. The axis makes a lot of sense if you understand its members. Many devout Christians are bothered by how religious faith is seemingly infusing Bush's political views and driving U.S. foreign policy. They're afraid, moreover, that religion is shaping the Bush administration's policies towards Iraq and the Middle East.

Last March, the Christian Century, a leading U.S. religious magazine, said in an editorial. "The American people have a right to know how the president's faith is informing his public policies, not the least his foreign policy regarding Iraq and the Middle East." But Bush remains proud of the religious zeal he has exhibited in the political arena and talks openly about how he was headed toward damnation but was saved from a desolute life dominated by the alcohol bottle. He attends Bible study and encourages his subordinates to do likewise and starts his cabinet meetings with prayer. It's hard to recall a time when one of his speeches did not make a reference to his Christian faith. Indeed, those speeches with their liberal inclusion of Biblical references have revealed the president's world view to be quite simple: good versus evil. You are either with us or against us.

Michael Gerson, a brilliant wordsmith and theology graduate, writes many of Bush's speeches. It was Gerson who coined the memorable "axis of evil." For Bush's address to Congress this year, the wordsmith wrote for his boss the lyrical phrase: "the loving hand of God behind all of life." Since taking office, Bush has often carried his evangelical message to the public. This past February, for instance, he spoke at a National Prayer Breakfast held at a Religious Broadcasters Convention in Nashville. In attendance were 1000 leading evangelicals, including Jerry Falwell, who has called Muslims "terrorists," and Pat Robertson, who said this on his television program: "This is worse that the Nazis. Adolph Hitler was bad, but what the Muslims want to do to the Jews is worse."

Bush told the faithful "we're being challenged." So how does the most powerful statesman in the world believe the U.S. should deal with that challenge? "I look to faith to solve the nation's deepest problems." Such statements go well with the forty million evangelical Christians in the U.S., but unsettle those of us Americans who worry at how the Bush administration keeps chipping away at the long-standing wall that separates church and state in America and who question how much thought, analysis and rationality go into the making of Bush's foreign policy. But Israel doesn't really care what role faith plays in U.S. politics so long as it gets support for its agenda. So what if, according to the Evangelical script, the Jews are part of a divine plan that doesn't really have a happy ending for them. According to the Evangelical script, the founding of Israel in 1948 was the first in a series of Biblically mandated events that will lead to Armageddon and the return of Jesus. Now the evangelicals are waiting for the period of extreme violence and turmoil in which millions die, including many Jews. The survivors -- including the remaining Jews -- see the light and embrace Jesus.

Some Jewish groups have asked: With friends like that, do we really need enemies? "To what extent will a theological view that calls for Armageddon in the Middle East lead (evangelicals) to support policies that may move in that direction, rather than toward stability and peaceful co-existence," Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of Religious Action Centre of Reform Judaism, told U.S. News and World Report magazine last August.

Robert O. Freedman, political science professor at Baltimore Hebrew University, agrees. "Once you get in bed with them (the evangelicals)," he said, "You are to a certain extent, subscribing to their view of what America ought to be. And that, in my view, is not in the best interests of the Jewish people."

But it has been tough for Israel to reject the tremendous amounts of money and other kinds of support that has been forthcoming from Evangelical groups. For instance, some 250,000 evangelicals have donated more than $60 million towards Jewish immigration and relief support to Israel, while another group said that it raised enough money to help 65,000 Jews immigrate to Israel between 1991 and 2002.

One can't help but wonder what kind of strategy is being planned in the meetings Elon and other Israeli envoys have had and are having with evangelical Christian leaders, who don't really have a stake in seeking peace and justice in Palestine. After all, a Middle East settlement would be contrary to the coming doom that the Bible promises will come. Many Evangelical groups support Israel only because they believe Israel's dominance in the region will hasten the scenario that God has planned for all of us.

So if Bush is sincere about his Middle East Road Map, he does have a serious problem with a powerful part of his constituency as he tries to implement it. A 2000 University of Akron Survey put the number of Evangelical voters in the U.S. at 26 percent of the electorate. Karl Rowe, a key advisor of Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, noted that four million evangelical Christians didn't vote in the 2000 election. Just getting one million of those voters to vote for Bush, Rowe speculates, will be enough for the Bush camp to win re-election.

But judging by the Christian fundamentalists next move in the Arab World (let's not use the more emotive term "crusade" here), making that happen may not be easy as it looks. While the Bush administration deals with the mess in post-war Iraq, Christian fundamentalists with close ties to him are poised and ready to swarm into the war torn country and begin proselytising for Jesus and spreading the word of the Christian gospel.

"The opportunity for broadcast expansion in post-war Iraq is phenomenal," enthused Don Black, Vice President of In Touch Ministries in Atlanta, in an interview with the web site Salon last month (April). "It would be one of our goals to be able to have a platform to tell the truth as we understand it, as any communicator should have the right to do.' In Touch, which Bush's good friend evangelist Charles Stanley heads, claims to broadcast to every country in the world. Samaritan's Purse, a relief headed by Franklin Graham, who got in hot water with U.S.-based Muslim groups last year when he described Islam as "a very evil and wicked religion," is another group planning to proselytise the people of Iraq, which, by the way, is 97 percent Muslim. All these groups are doing it under the guise of providing aid to the Iraq people.

Such missionary activity in Muslim countries, of course, is not new.

Evangelicals refer the area in which Middle East and much of the Muslim world is located as the 10/40 window, a 10 by 40 degree area north of the equator containing the majority of the world's population that has not heard the Gospel of Jesus in their language. Stanley uses the American owned Evangelical Broadcast Network to beam his weekly sermons by satellite TV and short wave radio across the 10/40 window.

But at a time when many Muslims are suspicious of the West and view such Christian missionary activity as being just another Christian crusade, the presence of these foreign religious zealots can only exacerbate tensions and distrust. Islamic website has described Franklin Graham's plans for post war Iraq as the "fourth Crusade war" and characterised Graham's plans as "enhancing the connection among Arabs and Muslims that the U.S led war of aggression on Iraq is part of a new crusade campaign."

They are also putting many Christians in Muslim countries at risk. For instance, Salon revealed that in recent months there have been attacks on Christians in Lebanon, Yemen, Algeria, the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria and other Muslim countries. Meanwhile, Sheik Adbdelatif Homeim, a leading Muslim cleric has called for the killing of Christians. Given such developments, President Bush has a responsibility to rein in his evangelical friends and allies. Now is not the time to be raising the red flag of Christian fundamentalism in the Muslim world. As Muslim groups have demanded, the Bush administration needs to restrict entry into Iraq of Evangelical groups, some of whom obviously have no respect for the people they claim to be serving. This is not a question of freedom of religion, it's a question of common sense. The U.S. is in control and can restrict movement of those whose actions can destabilise the country. After all, George Bush, Jr., is Commander in Chief of the U.S. armed forces. The buck stops with him.

Yet the Bush administration has been part of the charade being played by the evangelicals. Bush administration spokesman Ari Fleischer said it's not the administration's responsibility to determine which groups can provide aid to Iraq. Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Washington DC-based Council on American-Islamic relations, spoke for those who don't want to play charades with Bush and his religious soul mates: "They come with food in one hand and Bible in the other."

You can bet that somewhere in the wilds of Afghanistan or Pakistan U.S.'s bitter enemies in the War on Terrorism are smiling and hoping -- "Onward Christian soldiers."

Ron Chepesiuk is a Fulbright Scholar and Visiting Professor of Journalism at Chittagong University.