Christian Zionism as interreligious cooperation

Note: This post is part of a series prepared for an April 2019 workshop on “Religion, Reverence and Tolerance” organized by the Baker Institute Center for the Middle East and the Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance, both at Rice University.


By Daniel G. Hummel, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Fellow of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison



The political movement of evangelical Christian support for the state of Israel (often referred to as Christian Zionism) is a prime example of politicized theology and right-wing ideological activism. But it is also a phenomenon of increasing cooperation, tolerance and interreligious engagement between Christians and Jews. In the face of vast theological, political, and cultural differences, evangelical Christians and Jews — in the United States and increasingly around the world — have managed to unite over support for Israel. Understanding Christian Zionism as an example of interfaith cooperation highlights three key factors that have facilitated interfaith cooperation more broadly: the role of governments in providing the conditions for cooperation, the influence of interfaith dialogue on politics, and the importance of sharp insider-outsider boundary lines (in this case between “Judeo-Christian” and Muslim) to facilitate interfaith solidarity [1]. Like other examples of significant theological change — official Catholic doctrines on Jews, evolving Muslim interpretations of Quranic injunctions — evangelical attitudes toward Jews have been shaped by a combination of external social, political and cultural forces and internal reforms initiated in the 20th century.

Factor 1: The Israeli government

Since its creation in 1948, the Israeli government has recognized the acute need — and opportunity — of generating Christian sympathy abroad [2]. The special status of Israel as a Jewish-majority society, located in the sacred lands of the Bible, could improve Israel’s image in Western countries with Christian majority populations. Israeli diplomats displayed keen interest in Protestant and Catholic discussions of Christian anti-Judaism and antisemitism in the 1950s in the wake of the Holocaust. As Christian opinion split after 1967 over the legitimacy of Israel’s occupation of Arab Palestinian populations and annexation of conquered territories, Israeli diplomats cultivated relationships with pro-Israel Christian leaders, especially in their most crucial ally, the United States. Evangelical Billy Graham was an early American Christian supporter who was superseded in the late 1970s by Christian right leaders Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and John Hagee.

Since the 1970s, the Israeli government has granted special favor to its staunchest Christian supporters. These include not only the aforementioned American Christians, who have all enjoyed significant access to Israeli leadership, but also international (and numerically far larger) Christian Zionist organizations such as the International Christian Embassy and Bridges for Peace, both headquartered in Jerusalem with growing international Christian memberships [3]. These globe-spanning organizations (the International Christian Embassy  has branches in more than 100 countries) increasingly connect American Christian Zionists with Christian Zionist leaders in other nations, including Rene Terra Nova, Brazilian pastor and founder of one of the largest Pentecostal networks in the world, and Mosy Madugba, a Nigerian evangelist who claims to reach more than 10,000 pastors worldwide through his Ministry Prayer Network. While courting American diplomatic support remains Israel’s priority, its developing relations with growing economies including Brazil and Nigeria will be shaped in part by these religious ties.

Bottom line: The Israeli government’s consistent interest in Christian support and its dedication of resources and diplomatic attention to cultivating that support has decisively shaped the material conditions of Christian Zionism.

Factor 2: Interfaith dialogue

Beginning in 1975, evangelicals and American Jews (along with Israeli officials observing) created formal interfaith dialogues, starting in the United States and soon expanding to include European, African, and Latin American charismatic and Pentecostal Christians. The first dialogue, held in New York City and hosted jointly by the American Jewish Committee and the American Institute of Holy Land Studies (an evangelical graduate school in Jerusalem), focused on the shared covenantal understanding of Israel between evangelicals and Jews (as with all dialogues, diversity within traditions was often minimized). This first formal dialogue was preceded by almost a decade of Jewish dialogues with the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in America, and followed by dozens of formal dialogues, many focusing on biblical concepts of covenant, land and mission [4]. Non-American Christians, including South African theologian and activist Malcolm Hedding and British theologian David Pawson, have been decisive in the dialogue in the 21st century.

In recent decades, this dialogue has featured conservative evangelical, charismatic and Pentecostal Christians on one side, and Conservative and Modern Orthodox Jewish participants on the other side. The latter group includes rabbis Shlomo Riskin (founder of the West Bank settlement of Efrat) and Yechiel Eckstein, who until his death earlier this year led the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, one of the largest fundraising engines for Christian support for Israel. More pointedly than in earlier dialogues, which included Reform Jews and less theologically conservative evangelicals, these more recent evangelical-Orthodox Jewish dialogues are more overtly political, aligning with the settlement movement in the West Bank and the Israeli right [5].

Bottom line: Interfaith dialogue has exercised substantial influence on the content of Christian Zionist theology and political ideology, and fostered institutional connections between politically active evangelicals and the state of Israel.

Factor 3: Judeo-Christian exclusivist identity

One of the core concepts that has allowed evangelicals and Jews to cooperate on Israel is a shared Judeo-Christian history (often interpreted through God’s covenants for Israel and the church). For Protestant Christians in particular, their understanding of church history and Jewish-Christian relations is one often characterized by lament and indictment of much of the church’s past attitudes, especially the medieval Catholic church and the overtly anti-Jewish writings of early Protestant reformers including Martin Luther. Most Christian Zionists, both in the United States and globally, see the modern Christian interest in Jewish restoration as emerging in post-Reformation Europe in competition with the powerful strains of anti-Judaism and racial antisemitism in modern Europe. As such, Christian Zionists tend to look suspiciously on large Christian institutional or denominational structures, most of whom in any case do not share Christian Zionist theological views.

In the 20th century, the capacious concept of “Judeo-Christianity” allowed for some ecumenical cooperation between Christians and lowered barriers between Jews and Christians. Intellectually, proponents of Judeo-Christian identity have rejected an Abrahamic model that emphasizes shared Jewish, Christian and Muslim teachings [6]. Historically, Judeo-Christian identity grew to prominence in the same Cold War decades that Israel and its Muslim majority neighbors were at constant war [7]. As early as the 1950s, theologians and ideologues constructed binary understandings of Judeo-Christianity and Islam, which were exacerbated by the 1967 and 1973 wars (and collapse of Soviet communism, eliminating a key anxiety of Judeo-Christian apologists). In the 21st century, Judeo-Christian identity is ubiquitous among Christian Zionists, as is a loathing of Islam as incompatible with Judeo-Christian values [8]. Both the “Judeo” and “Christian” components of the modern invocation are highly contextualized, however, by Christian Zionist theological views and Israeli state identity.

Bottom line: As wielded by Christian Zionists and their Jewish supporters, Judeo-Christian identity has facilitated one type of interfaith cooperation at the expense of both intra-Christian and other interfaith models. This has created distinct winners and losers and has further entrenched the geopolitical realities of the Israel-Palestine conflict.


It is difficult to understate how important interfaith concepts are to the functioning of modern Christian Zionism. The Christian Zionist adeptness to collaborate with American Jewish groups and the Israeli government without the historical barriers to cooperation is one important source of contemporary political influence. The longstanding presence of Israeli governmental interference, the rise of formal interfaith dialogues, and the perpetuation of an exclusivist Judeo-Christian identity point to a unique example of interfaith cooperation in action that fuses religion and politics into a discourse of interfaith solidarity.



[1] For recent scholarship that probes the interfaith dimensions to Christian Zionism, see Sean Durbin, Righteous Gentiles: Religion, Identity, and Myth in John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel (Boston: Brill, 2018) and Faydra L. Shapiro, Christian Zionism: Navigating the Jewish-Christian Border (New York: Cascade Books, 2015).

[2] See Uri Bialer, Cross on the Star of David: The Christian World in Israel’s Foreign Policy, 1948-1967 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2005).

[3] Yaakov Ariel, “Israel in Contemporary Evangelical Christian Millennial Thought,” Numen 59, no. 5–6 (2012): 456–485 and Colin Shindler, “Likud and the Christian Dispensationalists: A Symbiotic Relationship,” Israel Studies 5, no. 1 (2000): 153–182.

[4] Amy Weiss, “Billy Graham Receives the Ten Commandments: American Jewish Interfaith Relations in the Age of Evangelicalism,” American Jewish History 103, no. 1 (2019): 1–24.

[5] Lawrence Davidson, “Israel, the Palestinians, and the 2012 Republican Primaries: Fantasy Politics on Display,” Journal of Palestine Studies 41, no. 4 (July 2012): 48–64.

[6] Yaaḳov Ariel, An Unusual Relationship: Evangelical Christians and Jews (New York: New York University Press, 2013). On Judeo-Christian identity, see K. Healan Gaston, “Interpreting Judeo-Christianity in America,” Relegere: Studies in Religion and Reception 2, no. 2 (2012): 291–304.

[7] Michelle Mart, Eye on Israel: How America Came to View the Jewish State as an Ally (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006);

[8] Stephen Spector, Evangelicals and Israel: The Story of American Christian Zionism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 76-110.