The Last Crusade
One of the enduring myths of the American story is that the United States is a Christian nation. The dynamic that led to a war of independence and the sensibilities of self-determinism was dominantly secular. The discussions and negotiations that led to the adoption of a Constitution and its original amendments were of a distinctly secular mein. The document itself is secular to a fault—even though it insists upon religious freedom.
However, the society was once overwhelmingly of religious identity—more particularly, it was manifestly Protestant. And many rolled up their faith and identity with the identity of this “Promised Land.”
It is impossible to describe accurately the sense of loss and frustration this element of the population feels today. For them the land has literally been overrun by unbelievers, and we are under occupation. America must be won back.
A century ago part of that frustration played out in the night riders’ quest to rid the Christian nation of racial decline, Catholic influence and the non-Christianity of the Jews. It was indeed a lost cause as well as violently improper.
I think it somewhat explainable that this frustration would next manifest itself in a displaced myth of renewal. Beginning with Anglo-Irish John Darby, the Plymouth Brethren, and the Scofield Reference Bible a view of dispensationalism suffused evangelical thought in the United States, resulting in an apocalyptic end-time view that the faithful would be raptured away as things reached a flashpoint; after which the predictions of a restoration of God’s people would be literally worked out through the Jews and a revival of ancient Israel. Fast-forward to the mass marketing of these views by Hal Lindsey’s best seller The Late Great Planet Earth in 1970 and Tim LaHaye’s16-volume Left Behind series that ran from 1995 to 2007, and the fix was pretty much in. It was certainly confirmed when in the 1967 war Israel took full control of Jerusalem for the first time since its destruction by the Romans in A.D. 70.
During the past few years things have spun out of control. Many evangelicals have used their growing political experience to influence U.S. actions in the Middle East and toward Israel. Arab resistance to Israel, which was not overtly religious at first, but rather an alternation of ethnic prejudice and political hatred, has morphed into the jihadist nihilism of Isis and freelance murder.
So, does it fit the above history that in December 2017 President Donald Trump would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and pledge to move the U.S. embassy there? Unfortunately, yes. It way be gasoline on the fire, but it is mother’s milk to the dispensationalists—and to the ultra-Orthodox Jews (not the dominant force in Israel yet), who welcome this as a prelude to the rebuilding of the temple and the sacrifice of the biblically prescribed blemishless red heifer.
Regional reactions to the presidential initiative were much as one would expect. Hamas called it “a war declaration against Palestinians.” Moderate King Abdullah of Jordan spoke of “dangerous repercussion” and worries that this “will fuel terrorism.” He should know. His father once put his country on the line to eject the PLO by force.
Jerusalem has long lit major conflict.
King David captured it and made it his capital around 1000 B.C. A Babylonian destruction in 586 B.C. notwithstanding, the city was eminently the Jewish national capital until its absolute destruction in A.D. 70. That is the Jewish historical claim; which of course is overlain by the biblical promises of possession.
In A.D. 1095 Pope Urban II began nearly two centuries of Christian Crusades to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim control. These variously high-minded and bloody adventures were usually ineffectual and an embarrassment today. But access to Jerusalem was accomplished, most memorably when Richard the Lion-heart of England, a coleader of the Third Crusade sat down with Saladin and negotiated pilgrim rights to visit the holy city.
Most people seem to have forgotten the long control of Jerusalem by the Ottoman Turks and their near conquest of Western Europe during the period that culminated in the Protestant Reformation. Few seem to remember the argument over Christian access to Jerusalem that led the Eastern Orthodox Christian nation of Russia to declare war on the Turks—it was called the Crimean War, and was the largest modern killing field before World War I.
It is curious that the right to Jerusalem has devolved to the bipolar claims of Jews and Arabs (Muslims). They are an obverse mirror image. Jews claim a divine mandate promise from God—a divine title. Politically they owned it for centuries until dispossessed by conquest (and took it back in 1967 by conquest). The Muslim spiritual claim centers on a dream/journey that Muhammad taught. In a “night ride” on a magical talking horse he visited the Temple Mount, thereby connecting him to the Old Testament history and events of which Islam also takes ownership. By conquest the Arab/Islamic case predates the Reformation and continued till the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the modern era of world wars.
What next? Well, violence, of course. But maybe more amazing declarations to match the president’s impudence. Some years ago I had a conversation with a man who had been Arafat’s deputy when Pope John Paul II visited Ramallah and signed a legal agreement, whereby they covenanted together that they would both be involved in any disposition of Jerusalem. “Is that still binding?” I asked. “Of course” was the answer. “I want to assure you that the holy father [sic] is intimately involved with the disposition of Jerusalem.” Maybe the wheel of history is about to turn on itself again, and another voice from Claremont will speak to the moment.
All I know is that if the president’s ill-timed announcement on Jerusalem derives from a religious faction with a geopolitical agenda, then we are in mortal peril. And if the response involves another religious voice with geopolitical intentions, then the peril intensifies. I think neither the Christian world nor the Islamic Ummah want or can bear any more centuries of crusade. And the secular state of Israel is probably none too comfortable with this Cyrus-like decree, either.
Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."