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Trump, the evangelicals and the Middle East

Conflict and chaos could come from the nature of evangelical beliefs and the influence they have over the US president

On Monday 14 May, an American delegation, including White House officials and major Republican party donors, officially opened the US Embassy in Jerusalem, thereby recognising the city as Israel's capital and handing a major victory to Benjamin Netanyahu's government. The ceremony was attended by President Donald Trump's daughter, Ivanka, and her husband Jared Kushner

The move sealed Trump's pledge to the Christian right, evangelical/fundamentalist Christians and the Orthodox Jewish community in the US to relocate the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. One of Trump’s closest advisors, the evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress, gave the invocation at the opening ceremony - a clearly unconstitutional move to allow a religious ceremony at a proscribed secular proceeding. 

The power of minor constituencies

Jeffress is a most unusual pastor. He has called Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Mormons heretics. He said the Catholic Church is an instrument of Satan. He said during the presidential election that supporters of Hillary Clinton would be sent to hell. He is, in short, psychotic.

The embassy move is more emblematic of the abject abandonment of the peace process under Trump and the end of the two state solution than any that have proceeded. The power the Orthodox Jewish and evangelical Christian communities now have to determine the Middle East policy of the Trump administration can't have been more fully revealed

The influence evangelicals have over Trump is everywhere to be seen. World-renowned Christian evangelist Billy Graham, who died in February, was given the distinction of lying in honour in the US Capitol rotunda, with political leaders and the public allowed to pay their respects.

There have been only 33 instances of people lying in state or honour since 1852, and it has traditionally been limited to presidents, political leaders and military heroes. A few civilians, including civil rights icon Rosa Parks and two Capitol police officers who were killed while confronting an armed intruder, have also been honoured in this way.

Never before has the distinction been afforded to a religious leader. There were muted calls to deny Graham the honour on the basis that it contradicted the First Amendment freedom from state-imposed religion.

Graham once made anti-Semitic remarks, which were caught on tape in President Richard Nixon’s office and later revealed during the Watergate investigation. Graham agreed with Nixon’s claim that Jews were trying to take over the country and, importantly, the media. "This [Jewish] stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain," Graham said on the tape. He further referenced his own Jewish friends in the media, adding: “They don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country."

Egocentric delusions

These are the kinds of currents running through the White House right now. As it is now applied, the power held by Christian evangelicals in Donald Trump's US directly contradicts the elemental principles of American democracy, representing a clear danger to the country, and - given American influence - the world.

Fundamentalists and evangelicals are driven by the pursuit of their own salvation. They believe they are destined to enjoy an eternity of bliss in paradise and are quite prepared - anxious even - to subordinate the constitution to that end. They want civil law to be replaced by biblical law, as they alone interpret it. 

Falwell was viscerally opposed to Islam, which the Christian right viewed as the embodiment of a particular, inexplicable evil

Traditionally, a fundamental belief of Evangelicalism is the rebirth of biblical Israel. Many evangelicals believe that a reconstitution of that entirely fictional kingdom - with Jerusalem at its heart - will inspire the return of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, and bring with it their ascension to heaven. Those unfortunate enough not to share their belief will be disposed of by the Messiah. That includes the majority of Jewish heretics. 

The consequence of evangelicals' belief and their extraordinary influence over this president, who they can easily manipulate, is bound to create conflict and chaos in the Middle East - and this has already begun with Israel’s aggressive actions against Iran. It will no doubt get far worse.

Falwell's 'holy war'

The evangelical movement reached an apogee in the beginning of the 20th century. In 1920, the movement succeeded in passing Prohibition, banning the sale and manufacture of alcoholic beverages throughout the country. Prohibition, which extended from 1920 to 1933, was an economic, political and social disaster. 

The rise of organised crime began shortly after Prohibition was enacted and grew exponentially in those 13 years, firmly establishing it in American society. 

Pastor John Burns, an evangelical Christian televangelist, speaks at a 2016 Trump rally (AFP)

The current Christian evangelical political movement began in the 1970s with the inception of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority. Falwell declared a "holy war" against the wicked who then ruled the US. It was Falwell who originally created Trump's campaign slogan, "Make America great again", he demanded that America be led back again to the morality that "Made America Great" implicitly "again".

Trump simply copied Falwell with full knowledge of the appeal it brought to Christian Fundamentalist/Evangelicals who formed his electoral base and made his anomalous presidency. Needing evangelical support in order to make his election possible, Trump performed much of Falwell's language and ideology on the campaign trail and has now brought it into government. 

Falwell and the evangelicals have objected to civil rights legislation realised through decades of pain and sacrifice, in addition to gay rights, women's rights (principally the right to abortion) and secularism in the country's schools. Above all, Falwell was viscerally opposed to Islam, which the Christian right viewed as the embodiment of a particular, inexplicable evil.

Growth of the movement

Falwell's movement, together with a swelling of evangelical/fundamentalist believers, gained prominence and influence after the election of Ronald Reagan, who first used the phrase that would later become Donald Trump's campaign slogan: "Make America great again". The movement grew exponentially, broadcasting its message through 373 regional television stations and 1300 radio stations. Megachurches, including Falwell's, drew tens of thousands of people to weekly services. 

Their message spread, along with a proportionate growth in the net worth of the individual pastors. At the time of his death in 2007, Jerry Falwell reportedly had a net worth of $10m. His son enjoys similar wealth. Billy Graham's net worth at the time of his death was in excess of $25m; his son is worth in excess of $10m. Most of the country's prominent evangelical/fundamentalist pastors are millionaires

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In a 60 Minutes interview in 2002, Falwell declared the Prophet Muhammad to be "a terrorist, a violent man, a man of war". As outrage gripped the Muslim world, he was forced to issue a public apology, but it was insincere at best, and such views still permeate the evangelical movement.

Falwell's son, Jerry Falwell Jr, in 2015 spoke to an audience of students at Liberty University after the San Bernardino shooting by an Islamic State follower, noting: "I've always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed them."

Meanwhile, Franklin Graham, the son of the late Billy Graham, wrote in a message to former President Barack Obama: "Mr. President, we don't need more gun control - we need border patrol. No Muslims should be allowed into this country until there’s a process in place to fully vet them. We’ve got to turn away those who could potentially pose a threat until this war with radical Islam is over."

Parroted agenda

This was another Trump slogan - and indeed policy - that originated with the Christian right. He simply parrots their agenda, along with attacks on minorities and immigrants, largely Mexican, nearly all of whom are Catholic, a religion feared and despised by the Christian right. Evangelicals seemingly cannot risk the dilution of their political power through the inclusion of millions of Catholic immigrants. 

Franklin Graham was the spiritual advisor to George W Bush, who credited Franklin's father with converting him to evangelical Christianity. Franklin Graham had considerable influence in making the case for the US invasion of Iraq, convinced that the US was, and is, engaged in a holy war with Islam.

Mike Pompeo, the new secretary of state, is an avowed evangelical with a history of anti-Muslim statements and views

Following Obama's election in 2008, Graham said that White House officials were "anti-Christ". He claimed that Obama was a Muslim, and that his administration was infiltrated by Muslims who were advising the White House.

The two most influential positions in the current administration, which determine the president's understanding of the world, are the national security advisor and secretary of state. John Bolton, the new national security advisor, is an exemplar of extreme right-wing beliefs. He was, until recently, the chairman of the Gatestone Institute, a think-tank that has expressed virulent anti-Muslim views, publishing articles such as, "Is the United Kingdom an Islamist Colony?" and "France: Toward Total Submission to Islam, Destruction of Free Speech".

Venom towards Islam

In an op-ed published in March 2015, Bolton called for an attack by the US and Israel on Iran, noting: "Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed... An attack need not destroy all of Iran's nuclear infrastructure, but by breaking key links in the nuclear-fuel cycle, it could set back its program by three to five years. The United States could do a thorough job of destruction, but Israel alone can do what's necessary. Such action should be combined with vigorous American support for Iran’s opposition, aimed at regime change in Tehran." Bolton and the Christian right, in tandem with Israel, destroyed the Iran deal.

Meanwhile, Mike Pompeo, the new secretary of state, is an avowed evangelical with a history of anti-Muslim statements and views. As a House member from Kansas in 2013, he suggested that Muslim American leaders who did not condemn the Boston Marathon bombing were complicit. Anti-Muslim think-tanks, in particular the Center for Security Policy, which asserts that practicing Muslims have an affinity for extreme violence since they follow Sharia law, have featured Pompeo as a guest speaker.

US National Security Advisor John Bolton attends the ceremonial swearing-in of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington on 2 May 2018 (AFP)

Pompeo is also associated with Brigitte Gabriel, the founder of ACT for America. The Southern Poverty Law Center has described the organisation as follows: "Brigitte Gabriel, born Hanan Qahwaji, claims ACT was launched as a response to the 9/11 attacks and 'educates citizens and elected officials to impact policy involving national security and defeating terrorism.’ ACT has stayed true to its mission by working to advance anti-Muslim legislation at the local and federal level while flooding the American public with hate speech demonizing Muslims." Pompeo accepted the organisation's National Security Eagle Award in 2016.

Pompeo, who has called Iran "the world's greatest sponsor of terrorism", was vehemently opposed to the 2015 nuclear deal, saying recently in Riyadh that "Iran has only behaved worse since the deal was approved". With both Bolton and Pompeo expressing such belligerence towards Iran, venom towards Islam and unconditional support of Israel, there is every reason to fear an extension of the evangelical/fundamentalist holy war in the Middle East by the US.

Offering Trump forgiveness

Trump is feted and adored by evangelicals, who attend frequent "listening sessions" at the White House when Trump wishes to gather their opinions on issues. Rev Johnnie Moore, a co-chairman of the Trump campaign’s evangelical advisory board, noted that the White House “front door is open to evangelicals”. The advisory board, along with Vice President Mike Pence, have performed a ceremony of “laying on of hands” in the Oval Office.

Robert Jeffress, a member of the campaign advisory board who once said that Obama's policies would lead to the rise of the Antichrist, has said they are willing to dismiss Trump's failings as long as he does what they want. 

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"He's not the pastor of our country," Franklin Graham said when reports surfaced of Trump's alleged payoff to porn actress Stormy Daniels. Evangelical leaders offered Trump forgiveness, with Jeffress noting: "Evangelical support for President Trump has always been based on his policies, not on his personal piety."

Trump, apparently, is uncharacteristically subdued in the presence of the gathered high priesthood at the "listening sessions". Darrell Scott, another member of the advisory board, said: "I find his reverence for clergy very old-school… he adopts the position of the lesser. He seems to regard the clergy as the greater."

Last year, Trump said: "The evangelicals were so great to me." It is clear he will do as they want. Let the devil take the hindmost.

- Morgan Strong is a former professor of Middle Eastern History, and was an adviser on the Middle East to CBS News, 60 Minutes.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo: Donald Trump, then a Republican presidential candidate, speaks on 18 January 2016 at Liberty University, which was founded by evangelical televangelist Jerry Falwell (AFP)