Monday, March 12, 2018

Biblical Presidents

With the Embassy Move to Jerusalem :

Samuel Goldman ||

Biblical Presidents

For American evangelicals, there is a term of praise for President Trump that falls like a question mark on most everyone else: “You are Cyrus.” That’s what the Christian pro-Israel activist Mike Evans promised to tell President Trump after his announcement that the United States would move its embassy to Jerusalem.

Mr. Evans, who plastered Jerusalem with billboards praising the embassy decision, isn’t the only one to draw a connection to the ancient Persian king. In a 2016 book called “God’s Chaos Candidate,” the minister Lance Wallnau asked, “Could Trump be God’s Cyrus?”

Even some Jews have gotten into the act. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the connection in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee this week, predicting the rise of a new Cyrus. Last week, the Mikdash Educational Center, an Orthodox group, produced a “temple coin” that superimposes an image of Mr. Trump over one of Cyrus.

Obscure though it may seem, pro-Israel activists who suggest that Mr. Trump is a counterpart to Cyrus are drawing on a deep well of religious history that nourishes his current evangelical support. For centuries, American Christians have argued that United States foreign policy should follow biblical models. The desire to see America and its leaders as instruments for the fulfillment of divine intentions remains an important cause of their longstanding sympathy for Zionism and the State of Israel.

King Cyrus, who is credited with allowing Jews to return to Jerusalem from exile in the Babylonian empire, represents the possibility that a nonbelieving leader and state could be used by God to reunite the chosen people and the promised land.

The prominence of the Cyrus trope has revived fears about religious influences on United States foreign policy that have swirled around Republican presidents for decades. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were both accused of allowing their policies toward Israel to be influenced by interpretations of the Book of Revelation that foresee a literal Battle of Armageddon.

And encouraging presidents to take up the mantle of Cyrus is also something of an American tradition. The Chicago-based preacher William Eugene Blackstone — who described himself as God’s “errand boy” — visited the White House in 1891 to present President Benjamin Harrison with a petition. It called on him to use his influence to extract Palestine from the Ottoman Empire and promote a Jewish state. The petition was signed by 413 prominent citizens, including the Supreme Court’s chief justice, Melville Fuller; the future president William McKinley; and the tycoons J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller. Its cover letter explicitly compared the president to Cyrus, offering him a “privileged opportunity” to serve as patron of the Jewish people. For this service, five years before the publication of Theodor Herzl’s “Der Judenstaat,” Louis Brandeis reportedly described Blackstone as the real “father of Zionism.”

Harrison was not even the first president to be imagined as a potential successor to Cyrus. In the 1790s, the New Jersey minister David Austin suggested that the United States under John Adams might help assist the world’s Jews in returning to Palestine. Austin went so far as to purchase ships and warehouses that could be used for this purpose.

Austin’s practical efforts for the cause were unusual. But a fellow resident of Elizabeth, N.J., Elias Boudinot, an aide to George Washington who served as president of the Continental Congress, director of the United States Mint and other important posts, wrote several books urging the new republic to act as patron to the Jews and assist in their return to the territory God promised to Abraham. In a book published in 1816, Boudinot wrote, “Who knows but God has raised up these United States, in these latter days, for the very purpose of accomplishing his will in bringing his beloved people to their own land.”

Why have American Christians been so interested in the fate of the Jews, even decades before the foundation of the international Zionist movement? One reason is that they were members of a society steeped in the Bible. Many historians emphasize the importance of republican sources like Cicero and Livy to the American political tradition. The problem with this argument is that relatively few Americans could read Latin or were familiar with Roman history. Unlike the classics of republican thought, the Bible was universally available and familiar even to those unable to read English. As such, it provided a shared idiom for thinking through matters of public concern.

The availability and familiarity of Scripture made biblical analogies expedient. But the deeper reason the Cyrus model has particularly appealed to Americans is that it placed the United States and its colonial predecessors in what might be called “sacred history” — the Bible’s sweeping story of the creation, corruption and redemption. Since the Puritans, many Americans have wanted to believe that their own endeavors were part of that story. They faced a problem, though: The Bible revolves around the nation of Israel, makes no mention of the New World. By describing their experiences in terms of its central nations, places and figures, Americans have been able to see themselves as participants in the Biblical drama. Some Americans believed that they were themselves a replacement for the biblical Israel, but others contended that they were more accurately compared to Cyrus.

In a political culture formed by the Bible, it has often seemed natural to support a reunion of the people and land that many Americans saw as the model for their own history. Far from representing a weird deviation from norms, evangelicals who see Mr. Trump as a successor to an ancient Persian king are participants in an old American tradition. When, in 1953, former president Harry Truman was introduced as the man who help establish the State of Israel, he grumbled: “What do you mean, ‘helped create’? I am Cyrus!”
Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at the George Washington University and the author of “God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America.”
Source: NYT


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