Evangelicals and Jews: An Ambivalent Relationship

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Evangelicals and Jews: An Ambivalent Relationship

June 7, 1987 9 min read Download Report
Rabbi O.

(Archived document, may contain errors)


by Rabbi Joshua 0. Habennan One of the top candidates for the Presidency in the 1988 race will be a leading Evangelical minister, the Reverend Taf Robertson. Another Evangelical, theReverend Jesse Jackso n, also is a candidate, as he was in 1984. In 1980, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan faced each other as born-again Christians, and John Anderson--does anyone still remember him?--is a former Evangelical preacher.

Evangelicals number some 40,000,000 America ns, and another 40,000,000, or more, agree with Evangelicals on most points concerning religion. We Jews are a relatively small religious minority. Do I need to say more on the importance of our relationship with that largest denominational body within th e nation? Most Pluralistic. As an active participant in Evangelical-Jewish dialogue programs, I find it painful to admit that many Jews are either entirely ignorant about Evangelicals, or downright prejudiced, or both. Especially in the New York area, the m edia depict the Evan&elicals as a threat, as primitives, even as religious frauds. The Electronic Church, especially the raw appeals for money by such as Oral Roberts, have not helped the image of Evangelicals. Are Evangelicals nothing but Bible-thumping b igots whose hidden agenda is the conversion of all Jews by hook or crook? Are they really sworn enemies of our pluralistic democracy? Are they determined to rob us of our rights? Are they scheming to turn the nation into a Christian kind of dictatorship? W hat about this picture? It just isn't so. Evangelicals are no threat to the pluralism of America because they are themselves the most pluralistic of all denominations. There is no Evangelical national church but tens of thousands of churches, large and sm a ll. If you want to deal and negotiate with the Evangelical movement, whom would you contact? Who is their spokesman? Tlere is no one person, no one organization that speaks for Evangelicals as a whole. They have no ori central auth ty, no national organiz a tional structure. Opposition to Bigotry. Not until 1941 was an attempt made to create a national umbrella organization, the ACCC (American Council of Christian Churches). However, the very next year another Evangelical group got together, the NAE (Nationa l Association of Evangelicals), which emphasized opposition to all forms of bigotry and intolerance while at the same time stressing commitment to religious conservatism.

Rabbi Haberman is Senior Rabbi of the Washington Hebrew Congregation and President of the Foundation for Jewish Studies.

He spoke at The Heritage Foundation on February 17, 1987.

ISSN 0272-1155. Copyright 1987 by The Heritage Foundation.

Real power is not in the hands of the ACCC or the NAE, but with the individual pastors Of all sorts of congregations, some numbering a handful of members and others of mammoth size, with memberships of over 20,000 and TV programs with listening audiences into the millions. Also very influential in shaping the thinking of Evangelicals throughout the nati o n are those hundreds of Bible Colleges you never heard of. Bible as Infallible Source. What is the common core characteristic of Evangelicals? In his important study.entlitled "Religion in American Public Life" published by the Brookings Institution in Wa s hington, A. James Reichley defines Evangelicals as "that branch of Christianity ... that emphasizes direct experience by the individual of the Holy Spirit (born again)--and that regards the Bible as an infallible source of religious and moral authority" ( p. 312).

They believe in instant access to God and the Holy Spirit. This makes Evangelicals at times embarrassing to their non-Evangelical friends who are puzzled by their behavior: To them worship becomes really meaningful when it is emotionally and physi cally expressed. They sway their bodies, they raise their arms, and they shout out their "amens" with gusto. They are the "Hasidim" among the Christians. Prayers roll off their tongues in situations where others would not dare to bother God, and they tell us often that God talks back to them and tells them what to do. Such claims arouse our suspicion of religious posturing or fraud or a kind of self-hypnosis. And yet, having come to know a number of Evangelicals intimately, I cannot doubt their sincerity. M oreover, my longstanding friendship with intellectual giants of the Evangelical faith such as the late educator and Biblical scholar, Dr. Frank Gaebelein, and the noted theologian and former publisher of "Christianity Today", Dr. Carl Henry, have convince d me that Evangelicals have their proper share of sophisticated thinkers and men and women of culture.

Religious Individualists. What is the real significance of their belief that God is available to them on call? It makes each Evangelical independent of t he institutional church. It makes him a religious individualist. Evangelicals see no need and, in fact, are bitter!y opposed to any form of religious re),,imentation or church hierarchy. They see no need tor the mediation of an institutional Turch. For wo r ship, they prefer the simple tent to an ornate cathedral. This is a point of kinship with Jews, who likewise believe that no clerical introduction is needed when you turn to God in prayer. However, the strongest bond between Evangelicals and Jews is the B i ble. No Christian group is more Bible-centered. Uke Jews, they have raised up scriptures as the supreme spmtual and moral authority. They glory in the Bible. Their speech and worship resonate with the Bible. They know it and, to my shame, often they know i t better than Jews. Someone once said: "The Jews wrote the Bible and the Evangelicals study it." All public opinion polls report that Evangelicals are the fastest growing religious community in America. What is the secretof their success? One might list s everal factors: intensity, emotionalism, a essive missio an skillful handling of the media. But these would be superficiYup9coints. On a more profound level, I must credit Evhngelicals for two notable achievements:


1) Evangelicals managed to associat e themselves, either as advocates or adversaries, with a number of issues that people really care deeply about. 2) Better than other Christian denominations or church groups, the Evangelicals have articulated the new "Zeitgeist," the prevailing mood of th i s generation. Rejects Social Engineering. Evangelicals differ sharply with the liberal mainline churches in the approach to such social problems as: the rise of teenage regnancy (by 300 to erc nt in a single decade); the fact that 25 percent of white 15 p e rcent of lack chi dren now grow up !n singl@ parent homes; and the immeasurable devastation of drug ad iction; not to mention a crime rate that makes American streets the most unsafe in the entire world next to Beirut, Lebanon. Mainline churches and liber a l Jews, by and large, still are beholden to social engineering, to the welfare bureaucracy, and would continue to treat the problems we have mentioned, largely or exclusively, with more monetary appropriations and social tinkerin$. Evangelicals make a pow e rful appeal to our common sense and moral instinct by attacking these problems on a moral and reli io s level--sometimes with overstatements such as Jimmy Swaggarf s incredi blooper, broadcast on February 16, 1984: "All the work of Mother Theresa--and I r e peat, all the charity work she has done in her life--means nothing. Absolutely nothing in terms of her salvation" (see "God in America" by Furio Colombo, p. 80). 1 suppose most Jews likewise react unfavorably to the statement of the popular Fundamentalist theologian, I.M. Haldeman, who wrote that trying to save the world through political or economic reform was "like cleaning and decorating the staterooms of a sinking ship" (quoted by A. James ReichIey in "Religion in American Public Life", p. 206). Final P eriod of History. This brings us to the other theme that has turned eyes and ears to the Evangelicals: their eschatology. Eschatology, a term familiar to Jewish and Christian theologians, refers to that body of beliefs which deal with the approaching end o f the world, with the final tribulation, the last judgment, and the end of all history. This happens to be a favorite reaching theme of Evangelicals and, in our time, it conforms to an almost univers;iFsense of gathering doom. We are in the midst of a rad i cal mood-switch from the optimism, progressivism, and super confidence of the modem age. We are the postmodem generation, filled with pessimism and visions of future catastrophe. After two World Wars, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and the debacle of the League of Nations and the United Nations, man, the crown creation, homo, sapiens, stands revealed as homo sap. Chief Rabbi Joseph Hartz of Great Britain put it this way: "The 19th Century propounded the theory of man's descent from the ape, and the 20th Century has proven it!" The Evangelical vision of the end of history digers from all other Christian faiths by assigning to Jews the leading role in God's scenario for.the final days. The now dominant branch of Evangelicalism, which is known as Dispensationalism, div i des all of history into seven dispensations or periods of time in each of whichniankind is put to the test b different events. According to Dispensationalists, we are now in the sixth, thepreInal period of history. This is the world's last chance, they sa y, to come around and be saved

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through the gospel, which is the door God opened for Gentiles to partake of His Covenant with Israel. All others are doomed to destruction except the Jews whose survival--albeit in a small remnant--is assured by G od's unbreakable Covenant. The Dispensationalists' idea that the people of Israel are destined to survive contradicts all other Christian denominations, which share a kind of "death-wish" for the Jewish people. From the close of the New Testament to the p r esent age, the universally held Christian view has been that the continued existence of the Jewish people is an anomaly, even a scandal and a mystery. Having failed to acknowledge Jesus as God and Savior, Jews, because of their spiritual blindness, are ca l led partners of Satan, deserviin of the ald I tj t I severest punishment. But then, there is this mystery of Jewish survival. Cou is perhaps be a eciaI form of punishment? A long, lingering, drawn-out decline, destined to end with Teir final disappearance ? This notion has been popularized in the myth of the eternally wandering Jew. Believing in the Jewish Nation. Evangelicals of the Dispensationalist school are the only Christians who believe in the future of a Jewish nation. Whereas others, even those who are very friendly to us, look upon Judaism as something obsolete and often speak of themselves as the new Israel replacing the old Israel, Evangelical Dis ensationalists hold that God wants both a "carnal" Israel (a Jewish people in the flel) and a spirit u al Israel, namely the Christian believers. We are now, they say, near the end of the sixth, the pre-final dispensation, which will witness a time of dreadful tribulation for all mankind. It will also bring about the . restoration of carnal Israel to their land. This idea is the main reason for the amazing pro-Zionism of Evangelicals. To them, the State of Israel is proof that their prophetic timetable is correct. The rebuilding of the Temple will usher in the seventh and final dispensation and the return o f Jesus as the Messiah-Christ. Then will come the so-called "rapture." And * st hat is that? It is the bodily elevation of all believing Christians into heaven where t ey will constitute the spiritual Israel. Some Evangelicals display the bumper sticker th a t says, "In case of the rapture, this vehicle win be empty." A Missionary Hope. And what will happen to the rest of mankind9 The will live here on earth in the millennium, which is God's kingdom of 1,000 years, in whig Israel of the flesh will be supreme a mong the nations. At this point, Evangelicals assert their missionary hope. Israel will recognize Jesus as its savior and lead the nations in conversion to Christianity. At the end of the millennium, Satan will break loose and win control of the universe, but he will be overcome and tossed into the Lake of Fire for eternal damnation. Then history will come to an end with all the faithful enjoying their untroubled hereafter. Reciprocity is a law of human relations: Love begets love. Hate begets hate. Ambiva lence begets ambivalence.

Ambivalence toward Jews is the hallmark of the New Testament. On the one hand, there is the recognition of the Jews as the people of the Covenant, the elect of God through whom God chose to reveal the Scriptures and among whom Jes us was bom. On the other hand, the New Testament contains diatribes of vituperation and warnings of punishment of the Jews for the rejection of Jesus.


Love,, not Hate. Christians through the ages reflect this ambivalence by s:w@$ing back and forth b etween a love of Jews and anti-Semitic attitudes. On the whole, I think e ic 9 today are positively disposed toward the Jews, prompted more by love and en shi than b hate. Jews wonder if it is for real. I personally am inclined to believe it lat even our m ost earnest Evangelicaf friends hope and pray that, at the s. And e fact t end of days, Jews will become Christians does not trouble me very much, since I stand equally ready to receive our Christian friends back into the Jewish mother faith at any time. Amen.

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Rabbi O.