Together in politics, if not religion.

Photographer: Haim Zach/GPO via Getty Images

When Congress and Religion Mix

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
Read More.
a | A

When I last checked, the U.S. was still a majority-Christian country. So what's the world coming to when the Republican Congress seems more excited to host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than Pope Francis? The answer holds a lesson about the role of religion in shaping symbolic politics -- and helps make sense of some of the opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. In the U.S., faith often jump-starts a political movement or position -- but pretty soon, politics takes over the driver's seat and brings the religion along.

As natural as their support for Israel may seem today, American Catholics and Protestants alike were initially skeptical. In 1948, when Israel was founded, Pope Pius XII, like his two immediate predecessors, opposed the establishment of the Jewish state for essentially theological reasons. Even today, the official position of the Catholic Church doesn't fully embrace Israel. On his trip last year to the Holy Land, Francis visited Bethlehem, in the Palestinian West Bank, and made a point of praying at the wall/barrier (pick your name).

On the Protestant side, there were isolated examples of individuals sympathetic to a Jewish homeland before 1948 -- but for the most part, Christian Zionism is a product of the rise of the religious right in the late '70s and '80s. It's also primarily an evangelical Protestant movement, with mainline Protestant churches often critical of Israel's policies regarding the West Bank.

Theology played a crucial role in the creation of American Christian Zionism. The ingathering of exiles and the return of Jews to their land is perceived by Christian Zionists in specifically prophetic terms. For secular Israelis, the echoes of the book of Isaiah in Israel's founding were poetic inspiration. For contemporary Christian Zionists, they presage the fulfillment of the divine promise of the end of days and the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Today, conservative Republican support for Israel is deeply intertwined with Christian ideology and identity. Yet Republicans' identification with Israel, particularly its Likud Party, is now profoundly politicized. It grows almost instinctually from the Israeli right's efforts to identify an existential threat coming from Iran.

Thus Republican opposition to the deal with Iran is to a noteworthy degree focused on the threats to Israel, rather than U.S. foreign-policy interests more generally. And, of course, Netanyahu is following on his March address to Congress -- driven, let's not forget, by his opposition to an Iran deal -- with a new round of lobbying.

Notice that if conservatives were driven by theology, they might say that a nuclear Iran would hasten Armageddon -- and that such a development might well be part of God's plans for the end of days. Christian Zionists generally tread lightly when discussing precisely what'll happen to the Jews gathered in the Holy Land, especially those who choose not to embrace Christ on his return. The whole topic of the Jews and the Rapture is a delicate matter, little discussed when Jewish supporters of Israel have fellowship with their Christian Zionist friends.

Former congresswoman Michele Bachmann actually came close to saying something of the kind on a radio show called "End Times" in April. "We need to realize how close this clock is getting to the midnight hour," she explained, asserting that President Barack Obama has as his "number one goal to ensure that Iran has a nuclear weapon." Of course, she's against Obama -- but to be theologically clear, she can't stand against the end of times.

It may be a subtle point, but Armageddon isn't something you try to stave off with a nuclear deterrent -- it's an inevitable, divinely predestined culmination of salvific history. A truly theological Christian Zionism therefore shouldn't necessarily lead to total political identification with Israeli security interests. Yet in practice, the gravitational pull of conservative politics toward Israel (particularly the Israeli right) overshadows the theological origins of Christian Zionism.

There's a parallel here to conservative Catholics' squirming about a pope who sometimes sounds liberal. In theory, their conservatism has its origins in their brand of Catholicism, which (again, in theory) emphasizes papal leadership and doctrinal infallibility. But in practice, their distinctive American political conservatism outweighs the political aspects of their Catholicism. Speaker John Boehner has to invite the pope to address Congress, because he's the pope. But if Boehner tells him to stay out of politics, that doesn't sound Catholic at all. It sounds like an implicit admission that politics trumps religious affiliation.

Europeans often comment that American politics seems much more overtly religious than anything on the continent. In many ways that's true -- but it's important to map out how the relationship between politics and religion works. Faith matters. But once it enters the realm of the practical, even religious devotion is no match for the demands of the political.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net