Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first president baptized in office. Shortly after his inauguration, Edward L. R. Elson of the National Presbyterian Church in Washington baptized the president in a private ceremony.
For several reasons, Elson was an interesting figure during America’s civil-religious awakening of the 1950s. First, he was the president’s pastor. Second, he was a pretty effusive flatterer of leaders in high office. He peppered Secretary of State John Foster Dulles with invitations to attend numerous church events, laying it on thick with encomia like “Let me tell you how superlatively I believe you are handling your high office.” Third, he frequently took the liberty of giving Dulles advice on how to handle affairs of state. And fourth, he was a committed anti-Zionist. Beginning in 1954, Elson was a board member of the American Friends of the Middle East, an anti-Zionist front group sponsored by the CIA. He was determined to get Dulles to assist him in advancing the AFME’s mission.
Elson could be startlingly forward with the secretary of state. In 1955, Elson wrote to Dulles, asking how the AFME might be “of increased usefulness at this trying time of American relations in this area.” In 1957, he invited Dulles to a dinner with Cornelius Engert, one of the AFME’s founders, to discuss Middle East strategy. (Dulles’s staff, noting that the AFME was “a partisan Arab group,” declined the invitation on his behalf.) And in 1958, Elson had the audacity to insist that Dulles make a special stop in Egypt on the way to a Baghdad Pact meeting in Ankara because “some of our real and trusted friends would be greatly encouraged by your personal appearance in Cairo.”
With a few exceptions, such as when Elson asked Dulles for a framed and autographed photograph to hang on the wall of his study next to his likeness of Eisenhower, Dulles consistently gave Elson the cold shoulder. Elson believed that support for Israel was antithetical to American interests in the Middle East. He was not interested in any concrete efforts toward reconciliation between Jews and Christians that went beyond prayer, which he described as the best “way of reconciliation” and “tool for peace.”
A ‘Covenantal Partnership’
In stark contrast to mainline Protestants like Elson, evangelicals such as Billy Graham were deeply interested in pursuing reconciliation between Jews and Christians. In Covenant Brothers, an excellent new study of the relationship between evangelicals and Israel since 1948, historian Daniel Hummel argues that evangelicals broadly and consistently sought reconciliation with the Jewish people through support of the newly established nation of Israel. In fact, postwar evangelicalism fostered a political and social program crafted to bring American Jews, the Israeli state, and evangelicals into what Hummel calls a “covenantal partnership.”
Over time, this program became known as Christian Zionism. A variety of leading figures helped give it shape, especially after the Six-Day War of 1967. Among them were Graham, archaeologist William Foxwell Albright, scholar Uriel Tal, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, National Association of Evangelicals president Arnold Olson, Southern Baptist preacher W. A. Criswell, Americans for a Safe Israel founder Herbert Zweibon, and International Christian Embassy Jerusalem head Jan Willem van der Hoeven.
Hummel’s central argument is that Christian Zionism is not the caricature of popular imagination, which treats evangelical fondness for Israel as a product of end-times fascination and American imperial ambition in the Middle East. Rather, evangelical political support evolved from the founding of modern Israel in 1948 and deepened in complexity after 1967. Theology played a role, but so did history, political philosophy, Cold War diplomacy, pragmatic considerations, and even tourism. The one unifying theme that bound American Jews, evangelicals, and Israelis together was the notion of covenant built on a foundation of reconciliation between Jews and Christians. The creation of the state of Israel, and the defense of its existence after 1967, demonstrated to evangelicals that Jewish and Christian identity were bound inextricably through shared sacred texts, theology, tradition, and common experience. Throughout the book, Hummel explores the benefits of this partnership and the avenues of reconciliation it opened—while also taking seriously its limits and failures.
Hummel walks readers through the development of Christian Zionism from 1948 to 2018. Using the metaphor of a tree, he skillfully tells the story of how the movement grew into its present forms. His chapters are divided into three parts, categorized as “Roots,” “Shoots,” and “Branches,” but reconciliation is the abiding theme throughout the narrative. Reconciliation, he writes, “has underwritten the movement’s coherence and continuing public success.”
One of the most interesting chapters in the book is the chapter on tourism, which carries the pithy and descriptive title “Sightseeing Is Believing.” In it, Hummel shows how Israelis, Jews, and American evangelicals discovered the enormous economic and political potential that lay in the prospect of tourism, especially between 1967 and 1971. The invitation to “walk where Jesus walked” became central to the appeal of Holy Land tours. As Hummel observes, “[Tourism’s] fusion of emotional, religious, and political themes expanded Christian Zionism’s appeal, providing for a popular movement of evangelical Christians to share in a common experience.” By the 21st century, the Israeli tourism industry became inseparable from American diplomacy, with conservative political celebrities like Mike Huckabee leading evangelical tours. On the other hand, evangelicals’ inability to find consensus on the theological meaning of the modern state of Israel placed limits on the usefulness of tourism as a diplomatic vehicle.
Hummel’s chapter on reconciliation is also fascinating. The Six-Day War provided an impetus for cooperation between evangelicals and Jews, but the 1973 Yom Kippur War fueled new initiatives to that end. The first Jewish-evangelical conference dedicated to reconciliation, held in 1975, represented a turning point in American-Israeli relations. American evangelical influence in Israel reached its peak in the years immediately following the Yom Kippur War. Christian Zionism became a national movement in the United States during this period, when, according to Hummel, it “emerged as a key part of American evangelical identity.”
Another strength of the book is the emphasis Hummel places on the relationship between Pentecostal evangelicals and Israel—and on global Christian Zionism more broadly. Just as the Zionism of the Christian Right was focused on reconciliation, so were the “Spirit-centered” and “global Christian” forms of Zionism. As Hummel observes, “The new movements of reconciliation, visible both in their diversity and in still-deeper community, point to a dynamic future for the movement.” Nevertheless, Hummel is careful to stress the deleterious effects of reconciliation efforts that marginalized voices critical of Israeli state interests, to say nothing of Palestinian Christians and Muslims, non-Orthodox Jews, and even non-dispensational Christians.
A Lasting Contribution
Speaking of theology, Hummel has a keen eye for understanding the contours of classical dispensationalism, and how influential that construct was in the creation and sustenance of Christian Zionism. Still, Hummel misses some of the nuances of dispensationalism as it has evolved over time.
For example, late in the book, Hummel recognizes recent efforts by scholars such as Gerald McDermott to reject dispensationalism while holding to pro-Israel tendencies. But he does not mention the growth of progressive dispensationalism over the past three decades as represented in the work of theologians Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock. This new movement thoroughly rejects the “replacement theology” that sees the church supplanting the Jewish people as the object of God’s redemptive work—a key belief embraced by classical dispensationalists from the late-19th century through the middle of the 20th century.
McDermott’s edited essay collection, The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land, is a valuable contribution, alongside Hummel’s work, that shows much of the complexity of Christian Zionism. Hummel’s work also pairs nicely alongside Samuel Goldman’s God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America, which considers the course of Christian Zionist thought and attitudes since the colonial period.
Hummel’s work goes far in correcting simplistic narratives and misunderstandings about the religious history of American-Israeli relations. Deeply researched, coherently structured, historically focused, and pleasing to read, Covenant Brothers makes a lasting contribution to postwar American religious history as it relates to Israel, the Middle East, and the world.
John D. Wilsey is associate professor of church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea (IVP Academic), and he is at work on a religious biography of John Foster Dulles.