Two unusual characters may represent Donald Trump’s political calculations concerning the Israel-Palestine tragedy. Not the one concerning the international scene, where he bet on a risky U-turn from decades of American strategy which left the future of Jerusalem in the hands of peace negotiations that appear to be increasingly beyond reach. We are talking about a domestic agenda. The two were among the guests at the inauguration of the new American embassy, or rather the old consulate, which was renovated and renamed in the haste to keep an election promise.
However, we are not talking about members of the administration or of Trump’s family, who did participate en masse: from his daughter, Ivanka, to son-in-law, Jared, from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, whose experience as a supporter of Israeli settlements and bankruptcy lawyer must have made him an irresistible candidate for this delicate office when viewed through the lens of Trump-style diplomacy.
The strange pair we are talking about is made up of two Texan reverends, one from Dallas and the other from San Antonio, who were tasked with blessing the beginning and the end of a ceremony in which suits, ties, smiles and grease paint created a surreal contrast with the violence that exploded just a few dozen miles away.
The two reverends are John Hagee, televangelist at a megachurch in San Antonio and founder of the association Christians United for Israel, and 62-year-old Robert Jeffress, pastor at the First Baptist Church in Dallas. They were not shy in their combative “homilies.” While talking about Trump during the event’s opening ceremony, Jeffress said that the president is not only on the right side of history, but also “stands on the right side of you, God, when it comes to Israel.” In his closing sermon, Hagee said, “Let every Islamic terrorist hear this message: ‘Israel lives.’” Concerning Trump, he promised that he will achieve, if not eternal life, at least “political immortality.”
A nonbeliever might remark that, even though their influence in the evangelical community is without question, their political and religious track record is less than pristine. Jeffress is known for controversial statements such as this one, which was given to the Trinity Broadcasting Network in 2010: According to his Bible, “Islam is wrong. It is a heresy from the pit of hell.” He views Mormonism as having similarly demonic origins. What about Jews? “You can’t be saved being a Jew,” Jeffress said, because salvation can only be reached through “faith in Jesus Christ.”
Hagee, for his part, holds the dubious distinction of having brought up biblical plagues to explain Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005 and killed 1,200 people. “New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they were recipients of the judgment of God for that,” he claimed during a radio interview. In case anybody still had doubts on the moral lesson, he doubled down: “Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the City of New Orleans.”
Hagee does, however, feel closer to Jewish people. He believes that a second coming of Christ, which he claims is imminent, will save them. He predicts that when Jesus comes, Jews will accept him, and as a result, they will weep “for a period of one week.” There is no salvation through tears for Muslims. In his vision, a threatening army of 200 million followers of Islam is ready to enter the U.S. or invade Israel to destroy it. Nevertheless, Hagee has also made comments about Israel that are less than universally shared. He believes that Hitler and the Holocaust were part of God’s strategy to lead Jews back to the Holy Land. Because this was God’s “top priority,” he “allowed [the Holocaust] to happen.”
That said, these prophecies and interpretations of the Bible are not the main draw for Trump and his team. They are motivated by commandments that are far more practical. Trump wants to accommodate and cater to the indispensable ultraconservative voters and to the American religious right which he mobilized for the elections (81 percent of this group voted for him) and which sticks by him as the midterm elections draw closer. This group has a soft spot for prophecies. More than half of all evangelical Christians approve of Trump’s decision to quickly move the embassy to Jerusalem. We are talking about a minority of voters which is very militant, organized and often dominant in Republican circles. A third of Evangelicals, amounting to 15 million people, represents the hardcore part of this group: a host of believers who are confident about an imminent golden age in which Christ will reign over the earth. Before this occurs, there will be a price to pay: a dark and violent time, rife with disasters and conflicts during which evil will have to be defeated. The result will be the conversion to the true faith as the only possibility for salvation, even for Jews. The remaining nonbelievers will then be thrown into hell, the one that literally consists of fire and brimstone.
According to this doctrine, the birth and success of Israel, along with the return of all Jews to the Holy Land, is a crucial sign of the anticipated and inevitable end of the world. Much like the Middle East, America (to paraphrase Ugo Tramballi’s recent words in this publication, Il Sole 24 Ore) is subject to a dramatic lack of visionary leaders who can face today’s challenges. Any project aiming at peace for Palestine, even one possibly supported by Trump, would struggle to take off under the current climate. Instead, there is a risk that all sides will only make space for apocalyptic visions by oracles such as Jeffress and Hagee.