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The biggest fans of President Trump’s Israel policy? Evangelical Christians.

Why the status of Jerusalem matters so much to the religious right

President Trump, with Vice President Pence looking on, signs an executive order to declare formal recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital despite intense Arab, Muslim and European opposition to a move that would upend decades of U.S. policy and risk potentially violent protests. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

On Dec. 6, President Trump announced that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and begin moving the U.S. Embassy to the city.

Previous American administrations had avoided these moves because of the contested status of Jerusalem, which the international community wants to see resolved as part of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Critics charge that Trump’s decision could threaten the prospect of these talks and destabilize the region. Already, protests in the Palestinian territories have turned bloody.

Some, though, have enthusiastically lauded Trump’s decision. Perhaps surprising to some Americans, Trump’s most outspoken supporters on this issue have been evangelical Christians, particularly evangelical supporters of Israel known as Christian Zionists. John Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), praised Trump’s actions as a “bold and courageous stand” that would be “eternally celebrated.”

Hagee and other evangelical Christian Zionists have been at the forefront of lobbying efforts calling on the president to make good on his campaign promise to recognize Jerusalem, a promise that Vice President Pence reiterated in a July address at CUFI’s Washington Summit.

Why? For these evangelicals, Biblical teachings and geopolitical imperatives align, demanding that the United States strongly support Israel and back the notion of Jerusalem — in its entirety — as the Israeli capital.

Evangelical Christian Zionists have long sought international recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In fact, the largest evangelical pro-Israel organization in the world, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, was founded in part to show Christian solidarity with Israel after Israel adopted a deeply controversial 1980 law that proclaimed Jerusalem “complete and united” to be its capital. This law claimed parts of the city conquered from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War — including Jerusalem’s most iconic holy sites — as part of Israel. In protest, 13 countries relocated their embassies from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.

Evangelicals, by contrast, supported this law primarily because of how they interpreted several parts of the Bible. Some evangelicals prioritize the covenantal promises of Genesis, arguing that God promised the land of Israel, including Jerusalem (and the Palestinian territories), to the Jewish people. Others stress biblical prophecy, holding that Jewish possession of Jerusalem, especially the Temple Mount in East Jerusalem, is essential to a number of prophesied events that will accompany the Second Coming of Christ.

The Bible also suggests the political benefits of such a stance. Christian Zionists cite Genesis 12:3 to argue that God will bless the United States if it “blesses” Israel with recognition of Jerusalem. In bare political terms, they also understand that American support would help solidify Israeli claims to the entire city of Jerusalem in the face of widespread international opposition.

But it’s not just about theology. Several less obvious historical geopolitical factors also play a role in their calculations. Many American Christian Zionists believe Israel to be an essential ally in a Judeo-Christian civilizational struggle — or even holy war — against radical Islam.

For decades, evangelical supporters of Israel have argued that the United States and Israel are on the same side of fundamental global divides.

Before the establishment of Israel, they considered Zionists part of Western civilization, which was pitted against Eastern backwardness. During the Cold War, it was the Judeo-Christian world against godless communism and its Arab proxies. Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and especially since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it has been Judeo-Christian civilization against radical Islam. Many evangelical Christian Zionists view the dispute over Jerusalem (as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more broadly) as part of this struggle — or even as the center of it.

Israelis, in turn, have not passively watched this support for their cause develop. Rather, the Israeli government has spent decades cultivating support among American evangelicals.

In the first two decades of its existence, Israel relied on the support of American mainline and liberal Protestants. However, that support waned after the Six Day War, leading Israel to seek relationships with evangelicals. The country’s Ministry of Tourism began hosting evangelical leaders on sponsored trips that included stays in the American Colony Hotel, located in East Jerusalem, and guided tours of major East Jerusalem sites. In 1971, Israel rolled out the red carpet for hundreds of evangelical participants in a massive Jerusalem Conference on Biblical Prophecy, with former prime minister David Ben Gurion even giving a welcoming address.

Menachem Begin, Israel’s first prime minister from the conservative Likud Party and the guiding force behind the controversial 1980 law, was particularly enthusiastic about developing relationships with American evangelicals, who supported Likud policies (such as establishing Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories) and were demonstrating growing political strength in the United States. In 1980, Begin famously awarded Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell (whose son is a leading supporter of Trump) a Jabotinsky Medal for service to the State of Israel.

These relationships — this alliance — between evangelical and Israeli leaders has only grown in recent decades. From Israel’s perspective, nurturing this alliance has been predominantly a political calculation designed to help maintain a large, politically diverse pro-Israel constituency within the United States. On the Israeli right, including the increasingly influential religious Zionists, this alliance has also produced areas of mutual interest, including settlement expansion and Jerusalem. Because of this relationship, many American Christian Zionist leaders want the United States to recognize Jerusalem because their contacts in Israel want it.

For all these reasons, evangelical Christian Zionists celebrated Trump’s decision on Jerusalem. However, the president did not give them exactly what they want. Although he recognized the city as Israel’s capital and pledged to move the embassy there, Trump stopped short of recognizing Israeli claims to East Jerusalem, noting, “We are not taking a position of any final status issues including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders.”

The question thus remains whether Trump’s evangelical allies will push him to take that further step. One suspects that the president wants to please his evangelical base, while also not foreclosing on the possibility of peace in the Middle East. In so much as recognizing Jerusalem was an attempt at achieving both, it certainly succeeded on the first count — Christian Zionists are celebrating Trump’s announcement as a victory and a testament to their revived political heft. Whether it is their last one, however, remains to be seen.