US Embassy Move to Jerusalem Highlights Religious Perspectives

Catholics and evangelicals hold different political and theological views about Israel.

A view of Jerusalem, home to the new U.S. Embassy.
A view of Jerusalem, home to the new U.S. Embassy. (photo: Pixabay)

WASHINGTON — The May 14 opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem sparked jubilation in Israel, as President Donald Trump fulfilled his pledge to both a key Middle East ally and to evangelical Protestants back home who had made the embassy move a campaign issue.

During a private prayer service at the new U.S. Embassy, Robert Jeffries, a televangelist who leads the Dallas, Texas-based First Baptist Church, gave voice to the excitement of his flock and other fellow believers. “I believe, Father, I speak for every one of us when we say we thank you every day that you have given us a president who boldly stands on the right side of history, but, more importantly, stands on the right side of you, O God, when it comes to Israel,” said Jeffries, a controversial figure who has been accused by Mitt Romney of making “bigoted” remarks about Mormons and Jews, as he expressed gratitude for Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

But while U.S. lawmakers and evangelicals joined Israeli officials to celebrate the occasion, Palestinian opposition to the embassy opening helped fuel mass protests along the border fence separating Israel from Gaza that quickly turned violent.

As the Palestinians rushed toward the border fence, at least 56 were killed by Israeli soldiers, while scores more were wounded or injured, according to Gaza’s ministry of health.

With Gaza’s 2 million residents largely under the control of Hamas — designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization — Israeli officials were quick to blame the Palestinian militant group for inciting the violence.

Yet no matter who is held responsible for the deadly clash, the searing images of Palestinians carrying their dead will be seen by the Vatican and many Catholic leaders as the tragic fulfillment of Pope Francis’ repeated warnings against an embassy move that could set off further violence in Gaza and destabilize efforts to restart peace talks in the region.

As the border protests continued for a second day, prompting further bloodshed, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, called for “peace” and “conversion” in a May 15 statement that condemned the “cynical use of human lives and disproportionate violence.”

Pope Francis expressed deep sorrow over the “escalation of tensions in the Holy Land and in the Middle East and by the spiral of violence that is increasingly moving away from the path of peace, dialogue and negotiations” during his May 16 Wednesday audience.

“War calls war; violence calls violence,” said the Pope. “God have mercy on us!”


Striking Contrast

The striking contrast between Jeffries’ prayer of gratitude for the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem and the somber tone of Pope Francis’ and Archbishop Pizzaballa’s statements, which ignored the embassy opening, amplified the stark divide between many U.S. evangelicals and Catholics on a fraught and enormously complex subject.

Palestinians have long challenged the Jewish people’s claim to the land they now occupy, after Israel declared its independence in 1948 and later secured West Jerusalem, following the 1967 Six-Day War with Arab nations.

Israel has continued to press for international recognition of its capital in Jerusalem, and during the May 14 protests, Palestinians sought to advance their own goal of making East Jerusalem the capital of a future Palestinian state.

In 1995, Congress passed a bill stating that the U.S. Embassy should be based in Jerusalem, but a waiver was provided that allows subsequent presidents to set the issue aside, in part, by citing national security concerns. Trump adopted a different policy.

The Holy See, for its part, has been deeply engaged with the protection of vulnerable Christian minorities in the region and efforts to confer special status on Jerusalem, the spiritual center for three world religions, as “a city of peace.”

Likewise, in its unique role as both a diplomatic and ecclesial entity, the Vatican has lobbied for a two-state solution, with a “secure and recognized Israel living in peace alongside a viable and independent Palestinian state,” as outlined in a Jan. 5 letter to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson from Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, the U.S. bishops’ point man on international justice and peace issues and a former Vatican diplomat.

The letter urged the White House to drop the embassy move, repeating similar arguments made by Pope Francis and the Latin patriarch in letters forwarded to the White House. Archbishop Broglio was traveling and unavailable for comment to the Register.

“Those who opposed moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem argued that it would prejudge the outcome of negotiations toward a two-state solution in favor of Israel by recognizing Jerusalem as the de facto undivided capital of Israel,” said Joseph Wood, a professor at the Institute of World Politics, a Washington, D.C., graduate program that prepares students for diplomatic service.

The Holy See and other opponents of the embassy move say it will hurt “the chances of reaching an agreement that would accommodate Palestinian claims on Jerusalem,” said Wood, a Catholic scholar who has studied papal diplomacy.

“President Trump has said that the move does not affect the possible final status or boundaries of Jerusalem.”


U.S. Evangelicals’ Approach

U.S. evangelicals have adopted a different approach to the conflict over the status of Jerusalem, and that is partly because they are less likely to have direct ties with the local Christian community, which has been critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in disputed territories that suffer from high poverty rates and security restrictions that limit access to basic services, like health care.

Further, evangelicals do not adhere to any central religious authority, such as the Vatican, to set specific goals for peace in the Middle East. And like most Protestant denominations and Catholics in the U.S., they have a special affinity for Israel as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East and a trusted foreign ally.

The Holy See “has made a prudential judgment that any disruption in the status quo is unacceptable for the risk it poses to the peace process, and that [has become] an absolute standard” from which to assess policy changes that affect the region, Chad Pecknold, a theologian at The Catholic University of America, told the Register.

In contrast, most evangelicals see “Israel as a friend of America, and they believe it has a right to define its borders and sovereign capital.”

Russell Moore, an evangelical theologian and the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, made this point in a statement tweeted after the embassy opening.

“The Jewish people are the kinsmen of Our Lord, according to the flesh. The current state of Israel is the guardian and protector of the Jewish people after the worst genocide atrocity the world has ever known, the Holocaust,” said Moore, one of the most influential evangelical leaders in the nation and an occasional critic of Trump’s policies.

“Support for the state of Israel does not mean we necessarily agree with every decision the government there makes, but it does mean that we support the right of this democratic nation to exist and to flourish, free from terrorist threats against it. On this, we should all agree.”


Religious Significance

But many evangelicals are equally concerned with the religious significance of the Jewish state and of Jerusalem.

For some, the return of the Jews to the land in the last two centuries is the fulfillment of biblical prophecies, from Isaiah to St. Paul. They see the state of Israel as a necessary protection of the covenanted people of Israel.

“It was not only the ancient Jews who prophesied a return to the land from the four corners of the Earth, but Jesus and his apostle Peter,” Gerald McDermott, an Anglican evangelical theologian, told the Register.

The author of Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently About the People and the Land, McDermott has written extensively about Israel’s central role in the history of redemption. And while many Christians believe that the New Covenant and the conversion of the Gentiles superseded God’s covenant with his chosen people, evangelicals like McDermott teach that Jews remain an integral part of God’s salvific plan and that their future cannot be separated from the Church.

On this point, McDermott agrees with the Vatican II Fathers in Nostra Aetate, the declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions: “God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their fathers; he does not repent of the gifts he makes or of the calls he issues — such is the witness of the apostle” (4).

Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, told the Register that “there is no one standard, uniform evangelical position on Israel, and that is partly because there are different theologies on Israel.”

George also acknowledged more controversial currents in evangelical thought, such as “schemes of prophecy, like The Late, Great Planet Earth,” the 1970 bestseller that used biblical prophecy to interpret contemporary culture and predict the Second Coming of Christ. Some “schemes,” he said, “are weird and lend themselves to all kinds of exaggerations, and that gets into the press.”

But George, a member of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, a high-profile theological discussion group founded by Father Richard John Neuhaus and Charles Colson, also questioned the widely held view of many U.S. Christians who see the status of Jerusalem as a purely “political question.”

“An alternative view … sees an ongoing divine connection between the promises God made to ancient Israel ... about the land, about the throne of David in perpetuity, and about his special covenantal relationship with the people of Israel,” he said.

“The idea is that these promises are still intact and haven’t been annulled or abrogated. … God has an ongoing dialogue or covenant with Israel, just as he does with the Church.”

“They are not identical. And the Church does not supersede Israel,” he said.


Different Approaches

The excitement and anxiety stirred by the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem may generate more interest in these teachings. But they clash with the Catholic Church’s very different interpretation of Scripture.

“Evangelicals read the literal city of Jerusalem as playing a role in the End Times because they read the Book of Revelation ‘apocalyptically,’ which is to say as providing the blueprint for precisely how the end of the world comes,” said CUA’s Pecknold. 

“Catholics do not read the Book of Revelation in this apocalyptic way,” he stated. “Jesus tells us he’ll come like a thief in the night. We don’t know the day or hour.”

“Rather, the Catechism only teaches that the end will not come until the full number of the Gentiles have been converted and then ‘all Israel,’ which refers not to the state of Israel or the city of Jerusalem, but to Jews who are faithful to God.”

Evangelicals and Catholics, he concluded, “have very different approaches to both our solidarity with the Jewish people and our interest in the peace of Jerusalem.”


Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.