The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What you need to know about Mike Pence’s speech to Christians United for Israel

Pence's speech could undermine America's ability to serve as an honest broker in the Middle East.

When Vice President Pence speaks before Christians United for Israel, he could scuttle prospects for peace between Israel and Palestine. (Michael Conroy/Associated Press)

On Monday, Vice President Pence will deliver the keynote address at the annual summit of Christians United for Israel in Washington, D.C. Pence will be the first sitting vice president or president to speak to the Christian Zionist organization in its 11-year history. His speech marks a fundamental change in the language that the White House has historically employed to articulate the United States’ relationship with Israel.

Although Christian Zionism has a long history in American politics, it has never captured the bully pulpit of the White House. Past administrations often used general biblical language in reference to Israel, but never has the evangelical theology of Christian Zionism been so close to the policymaking apparatus of the executive branch. By identifying with Christian Zionism while in office, Pence risks the Trump administration’s ongoing search for an “ultimate deal” to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and erodes the U.S. claim that it can be an “honest broker” in the Middle East.

What is Christians United for Israel?

Founded in 2006 by John Hagee, a megachurch pastor from San Antonio who endorsed Donald Trump for president in May 2016, CUFI is the largest pro-Israel group in the United States, claiming more than 3 million members and raising hundreds of millions of dollars for pro-Israel causes.

CUFI is one of the most visible manifestations of Christian Zionism in the United States today.

Wait, what is Christian Zionism?

Christian Zionism is an ideology of political and material support for Israel based on Christian appeals to the Bible. Today, Christian Zionists believe that Israel’s establishment in 1948, its military victory in 1967, and its ongoing conflict with Palestinians and surrounding Arab nations are prophesied in the Bible and intimately linked to God’s covenant with the Jewish people.

Unlike other evangelical Christians, who do not see the modern the state of Israel as prophetically significant, Christian Zionists argue that the fate of the United States hinges on how fervently it supports Israel. Perhaps the most cited Christian Zionist verse is Genesis 12:3, when God tells Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.”

So what does Pence have to do with Christian Zionism?

As his most recent speech on Israel confirms, Pence is an ardent Christian Zionist. Since he entered Congress in 2001, he has couched his support in explicitly religious terms that differ from the customary rhetoric that American presidents and vice presidents use to articulate their views on Israel. While members of Congress such as Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) have spoken at CUFI and at length about the Christian roots of their support for Israel, never has the ideology been articulated by the White House. This is a crucial distinction, with the bulk of foreign policymaking power residing in the executive branch. Rarely has the executive branch spoken in overt religious terms about a region in which it wishes to be seen as impartial. But Pence will, if his long public record of Christian Zionism holds true.

Pro-Israel officeholders aren’t exactly a rarity in the U.S. How is Pence’s Christian Zionism different?

The first, and least exceptional, feature of Pence’s Christian Zionism is his belief that the state of Israel is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. As Pence told a roomful of diplomats in May, with the establishment of Israel in 1948, “a prophecy literally came to pass.” Pence, however, judiciously refrains from speculating on future fulfillment of prophecy — a contentious practice within, and certainly outside of, Christian Zionist circles. Coming from the vice president, such speculation could raise serious concerns about the administration’s efforts to construct a peace deal.

There’s a second, subtler theme in Pence’s thinking: Israel as a sign of God’s “faithfulness.” The theme of faithfulness has taken on a more specifically evangelical purpose in recent decades, as Pence and other Christians have felt embattled in an increasingly secular public square. Israel’s existence provides empirical evidence that “God himself fulfilled his promise to his people,” to use Pence’s words. The faithfulness of God plays a specific role for Christian Zionists who believe that Israel’s independence was proof of God’s intervention in human affairs. The fate of Israel, then, is a core theological belief: Only if Israel prospers is God true to his word.

A third theme in Pence’s thinking is his own emotional and religious attachment to Israel. As Pence told a gathering of AIPAC leaders in March, “my Christian upbringing compels me to cherish Israel” because “the songs of the land of the people of Israel were the anthems of my youth when I was growing up.” Here Pence is most likely recalling the Psalms of the Hebrew Bible, poems written by Israelites including King David that often express concern for the city of Jerusalem and “Zion.”

Today, passages from the Psalms are a fundamental part of evangelical worship music. They reinforce a sense of Jewish-Christian continuity that regards Jewish history as part of Christian identity. Pence’s fondness for these songs reflects the rapid adoption of Jewish cultural and historical themes into evangelical culture over the past half a century.

Okay, so what does all this mean for U.S. policy toward Israel?

These themes, which CUFI readily identifies with, offer Pence guidance in how he understands the Middle East. The strategic consequences of Christian Zionist language coming from the White House are hard to quantify, but they will undoubtedly call into question historic U.S. claims of neutrality in negotiations with Israel and the Palestinian Authority. This is no small challenge for an administration that is seeking a grand bargain to solve decades-long disputes.

Moreover, while Israeli policymakers have become comfortable and even welcoming of Christian Zionist support in recent decades, they have yet to deal with the movement as a governing approach. Israelis have sought to maintain bipartisan support among Americans. Fully embracing Christian Zionists such as Pence threatens to exacerbate the recent erosion of Democratic support for Israel. The vice president’s influence in the Trump administration is fluid, and although it is unclear what substantive role, if any, he will play in formulating U.S. policy toward Israel, his strong and public views require policymakers and foreign leaders to take his priorities into account.

And what are the consequences for the broader Middle East?

For Israel and Arab countries in the region, Christian Zionism in the White House is, at best, a double-edged sword. If it is a permanent component of American thinking, it at least provides a level of consistency to U.S. attitudes, albeit heavily weighted toward Israel. On the other hand, the religious language that Pence has employed and will employ at the D.C. summit is starkly different from how previous policymakers in the White House have discussed the Middle East. Official positions that include language and concepts shaped by decades of Christian Zionist activism will be puzzling to outsiders.

Moreover, defining Israel and the Middle East in explicitly religious terms presents a holy war framework of clashing religions in a region that is already racked by sectarian violence and extremism. The identification of the United States as a sectarian actor (as opposed to a neutral arbiter, however transparent at times) could strain relations with Muslim-majority nations or drain credibility with key allies in the region and beyond — especially given the already flagging confidence in U.S. leadership since January.

Ultimately, Pence’s appearance before CUFI signals a new era of Christian Zionist influence in the White House with the potential to leave a lasting mark on U.S. policy toward Israel.