Sunday, May 23, 2004 - To understand what is happening in the Middle East, wrote George Monbiot in The Guardian of London recently, you must first understand what is happening in the U.S., where evangelical Christians are driving President Bush's policies. The explanation slowly is becoming familiar to us, he says, but we still have some difficulty in taking it seriously.
Mr. Monbiot recounts that in the 19th century, "two immigrant preachers cobbled together a series of unrelated passages from the Bible to create what appears to be a consistent narrative: Jesus will return to Earth when certain preconditions have been met. The first of these was the establishment of a state of Israel. The next involves Israel's occupation of the rest of its 'biblical lands' (most of the Middle East), and the rebuilding of the Third Temple on the site now occupied by the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosques. The legions of the antichrist will then be deployed against Israel, and their war will lead to a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon. The Jews will either burn or convert to Christianity, and the Messiah will return to Earth."
I had heard of outrage from some Jews in this country that evangelical Christian supporters of the Jewish state have motivations other than security against its Arab neighbors. One Jewish friend likened the idea as, "To save you, we have to kill you." He, too, cited what Mr. Monbiot said makes the idea so appealing to evangelicals:
"Before the big battle begins, all 'true believers' (i.e., those who believe what they believe) will be lifted out of their clothes and wafted up to heaven during an event called the Rapture. Not only do the worthy get to sit at the right hand of God, but they will be able to watch, from the best seats, their political and religious opponents being devoured by boils, sores, locusts and frogs, during the seven years of Tribulation which follow. The true believers are now seeking to bring all this about," he said, by "seeking to provoke a final battle with the Muslim world/Axis of Evil/United Nations/European Union/France or whoever the legions of the antichrist turn out to be."
Thursday's rebroadcast of Frontline's "The Jesus Factor" on PBS recounted Mr. Bush's personal religious journey and the growing political influence of the nation's more than 70 million evangelical Christians. Mr. Monbiot describes the political calculus thusly: Fifteen percent to 18 percent of U.S. voters belong to churches or movements that subscribe to these teachings, including 33 percent of Republicans. Among them are some of the most powerful men in America: Attorney General John Ashcroft, several prominent senators and the House majority leader, Tom DeLay, who last year told the Israeli Knesset that "there is no middle ground, no moderate position worth taking" toward the Palestinians.
Said Mr. Monbiot: "So here we have a major political constituency -- representing much of the current president's core vote -- in the most powerful nation on Earth, which is actively seeking to provoke a new world war. Its members see the invasion of Iraq as a warm-up act, as Revelation (9:14-15) maintains that four angels 'which are bound in the great river Euphrates' will be released 'to slay the third part of men.' " And they effectively pressure the president, he said, against any pressure on Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon.
Mr. Monbiot concludes: "The electoral calculation, crazy as it appears, works like this. Governments stand or fall on domestic issues. For 85 percent of the U.S. electorate, the Middle East is a foreign issue, and therefore of secondary interest when they enter the polling booth. For 15 percent, the Middle East is not just a domestic matter; it's a personal one:
"If the president fails to start a conflagration there, his core voters don't get to sit at the right hand of God. Bush, in other words, stands to lose fewer votes by encouraging Israeli aggression than he stands to lose by restraining it. He would be mad to listen to these people. He would also be mad not to."
What Rick Perlstein called "the absolute convergence of the neoconservatives with the Christian Zionists and the pro-Israel lobby" ("The Jesus Landing Pad," May 18 Village Voice) suggests that the bloody debacle in today's Iraq is what the current administration wanted all along. It also may explain some of Mr. Bush's recalcitrance -- which his supporters liken to steadfastness -- in the face of the realities in Iraq. Most of what has gone wrong there was predicted well before the invasion, by very qualified people in government, and was preceded by massive protest worldwide.
Raney Aronson is producer of the Frontline documentary, which can be viewed at www.pbs.org. In a Washington Post online interview, he was asked whether there is evidence that Mr. Bush "shares the 'Christian Zionist' belief that Israel must gain dominance over the Holy Land in order to bring the Second Coming of Christ, the Rapture, etc." President Bush "has not spoken about this issue," said Mr. Aronson. "But I do believe, as he talks so often of his faith, and his belief in the Bible, (that) this is a good question for him to address."