This post first appeared as “American Evangelical Influence on US Foreign Policy and How It Impacts Us as Middle East Christians” which was posted on the IMES blog on February 15, 2017.
On February 7, 2018, Al-Joumhouriah daily Lebanese newspaper published an article by Ambassador Massoud Al-Maalouf, which denounced the devastating role of American evangelicals in shaping toxic US foreign policies towards the Middle East, particularly towards the Palestinian cause. His depiction of evangelicals in this article is simplistic and rich in stereotypes and generalizations. He argues that evangelicalism was the outcome of a regressive mentality that resisted the cultural and social changes and progress that modern societies underwent. He paints all evangelicals with the fundamentalist brush, arguing that they held on to the teaching of the Bible rather than pursuing progress in faith and intellect, as other Protestant groups did. The nature of the critique and its potential negative impact on Arab evangelicals and on our relationship with other denominations and faiths in the region required a careful and balanced response. My Arabic response was published the next day, on February 8, affirming support for some of the dangers which Maalouf pointed out and correcting some inaccurate information about evangelicals. I reproduce an adapted version of that article here, primarily for our friends in the US to get a sense of the impact that their actions can have on us in the Middle East, that it might stand as a friendly warning.
First, I would like to thank the author of the Al-Joumhouriah article for exposing the dangerous theological convictions of some evangelical groups in America who have allowed their theology to be infiltrated by Zionist political ideology concerning the State of Israel. We, as Arab evangelicals, have been in constant debate over the past years with members of our evangelical family worldwide who hold such beliefs. There are numerous writings written as responses to these theologies by our Palestinian evangelical friends in Bethlehem, such as Yohanna Katanacho’s The Land of Christ: A Palestinian Cry, Salim Munayer’s Through My Enemy’s Eyes, or Munther Isaac’s From Land to Lands, from Eden to the Renewed Earth. Other helpful writings are by western evangelicals, such as Colin Chapman’s Whose Promised Land and Whose Holy City?, Stephen Sizer’s Christian Zionism: Road-Map to Armageddon and Zion’s Christian Soldiers? in Britain; and Gary Burge’s Whose Land? Whose Promise? in America. These books expose the questionable doctrinal origins of Zionist evangelical thought, and were written in English to engage such theological thinking. I often challenge my Muslim friends who are scholars and leaders to face up to their responsibility to debunk the violent ideology of ISIS, rather than simply claiming that its members are not ‘real Muslims.’ It is wrong – I tell them – for adherents to the ‘straight faith’ to deal with deviant ideas simply by dismissing them and considering them as outsiders to their religion, rather than engaging them with correct doctrine. My friends have often rebuffed me by returning the question and asking me what I am doing about Christian Zionists! Even though the parallel may seem as a bit of a stretch, it is one that is very real in the minds of many in the Middle East. At the very least, I would put it this way: adherents of every faith have their own heterodox proponents within, and as Arab evangelicals, we consider it our responsibility to oppose evangelical beliefs among us that we view as toxic.
As for some of the inaccurate information contained in Maalouf’s article, he may be forgiven for promoting it, due to the difficulty associated with defining a decentralized group such as the global evangelical movement. The starting point to a proper understanding of the evangelical movement is to recognize the vast diversity inherent to it. Evangelicals have neither Pope nor Patriarch. We are a movement of scattered and diverse churches. Our fellowships count among their ranks hundreds of millions of individuals from across the world, who are united by a number of basic principles and beliefs, which our history and writings have agreed upon in a relatively organic way. Some of our best representatives, such as John Stott (Evangelical Truth), J. I. Packer (The Evangelical Anglican Identity Problem), D. W. Bebbington (Evangelicalism in Modern Britain), and Alister McGrath (Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity), agree on a set of common ideas as representing evangelical thought. These ideas may not be added to or altered indiscriminately. Here are the six basic principles, which represent a sort of ‘consensus’ among the global evangelical family: (1) the supremacy and centrality of the Bible as the ultimate basis for the development of a proper theological discourse; (2) the majesty of Jesus Christ and his death on the cross for the redemption of humanity; (3) the priority of the proclamation of the Good News of salvation in word and deed for the transformation of society; (4) the necessity of personal conversion of the heart, expressed through the concept of ‘new birth,’ as the basis to attain salvation and eternal life; (5) the importance of personal belonging to a faith community that meets regularly for the worship of God and for the practice of the ordinances of baptism and the Eucharist; and (6) the lordship of the life-giving Holy Spirit over the One Universal Apostolic Church.
Furthermore, it is wrong to consider American evangelicalism as representative of universal evangelical thought, let alone to view American evangelicals as a single mass. It is not accurate to refer to the history of their origin as a reaction to ‘modernity and progress,’ or as resulting from a desire ‘to hold on blindly to religious traditions,’ as Maalouf advances. The reality on the ground, when we consider their many contributions to the advancement of the natural sciences and technology, reveals otherwise. One can think, for example, of the contribution of Professor Francis Collins, an evangelical, who led successfully the Human Genome Project from 1993 to 2008, and who received many honors for his achievements, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007.
On the other hand, Maalouf is correct to denounce some of the evangelical leaders who have contributed to the radicalization of foreign policies of successive US administrations, causing great damage to the Palestinian cause as a result of a blind support for the State of Israel, and at the expense of justice and fairness for the Palestinians. Maalouf is also correct when he points to some of the eschatological motivations that lie behind such policies, with the resulting apocalyptic interpretations of biblical passages. But a large number of evangelical theologians across the world would disagree with these interpretations. It is also true that a sizeable number of American evangelicals supported President Trump’s campaign and were a significant factor in his accession to the White House. But one must point out that a significant motivation for their choice was the alternative option available to them at the time, namely Senator Hillary Clinton. She was viewed by many as a disastrous alternative to their moral concerns, given her known convictions and policies regarding issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and the role of religious education in public schools and institutions. As is well known, Senator Clinton is no friend to Palestinians, and it is likely that her foreign policies in support of Israel would have had worse consequences for the Palestinians than the current administration’s. This fact alone must give us pause in our critique of the evangelical role in bringing Trump to power, regardless of whether we agree or not with the American people’s choice of president.
Finally, as Arab evangelicals, it does not bother us that a veteran journalist such as Ambassador Maalouf should direct a scathing critique against doctrinal ideas that we have been refuting for decades. But it is only fair to distinguish between ‘right belief’ and what we consider ‘deviant belief’ in the same faith community. General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, Dr. Elijah Brown, points out that today’s global Baptist community is divided among those under the age of 40 and those above 40. He points out that the younger generation of Baptists differ from their predecessors in their social and political concerns. They hold more progressive and justice-driven (though still conservative) views when dealing with global issues such as the Palestinian cause. Criticism and reform have both been the bases of the evangelical Protestant reformation historically. And these form the foundation of intellectual progress and societal change. Maalouf serves well our interests, as Arab evangelicals, when he points to the profound injury that the writings of some of our evangelical brothers and sisters in America have caused to our lived reality. Their discourse and practices have often resulted from inherited and unquestioned ideologies that need critique and correction. Let him translate his article into English and we will be the first to promote it broadly among our friends in America!