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Julian Borger: The evangelical grip on Trump administration

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo visited the Cathedral of the Nativity in Cairo on Jan. 10. (State Department photo)

This article first appeared in The Guardian on Jan. 11 and is reprinted with permission.

By Julian Borger

In setting out the Trump administration’s Middle East policy, one of the first things Mike Pompeo made clear to his audience in Cairo is that he had come to the region as “as an evangelical Christian.”

In his speech at the American University, Pompeo said that in his state department office: “I keep a bible open on my desk to remind me of God and his word, and the truth.”

The secretary of state’s primary message in Cairo was that the United States was ready once more to embrace conservative Middle Eastern regimes, no matter how repressive, if they made common cause against Iran.

His second message was religious. In his visit to Egypt, he came across as much as a preacher as a diplomat. He talked about “America’s innate goodness” and marveled at a newly built cathedral as “a stunning testament to the Lord’s hand.”

The desire to erase Barack Obama’s legacy, Donald Trump’s instinctive embrace of autocrats, and the private interests of the Trump Organization have all been analyzed as driving forces behind the administration’s foreign policy.

Policy consequences

The gravitational pull of white evangelicals has been less visible. But it could have far-reaching policy consequences. Vice President Mike Pence and Pompeo both cite evangelical theology as a powerful motivating force.

Just as he did in Cairo, Pompeo called on the congregation of a Kansan megachurch three years ago to join a fight of good against evil.

“We will continue to fight these battles,” the then congressman said at the Summit Church in Wichita. “It is a never-ending struggle . . . until the rapture. Be part of it. Be in the fight.”

For Pompeo’s audience, the rapture invoked an apocalyptical Christian vision of the future, a final battle between good and evil, and the second coming of Jesus Christ, when the faithful will ascend to heaven and the rest will go to hell.

For many evangelical Christians in the United States, one of the key preconditions for such a moment is the gathering of the world’s Jews in a greater Israel between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. It is a belief, known as premillenial dispensationalism or Christian Zionism – and it has very real potential consequences for U.S. foreign policy.

It directly colors views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and indirectly, attitudes towards Iran, broader Middle East geopolitics and the primacy of protecting Christian minorities. In his Cairo visit, Pompeo heaped praise on Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, for building the new cathedral, but made no reference to the 60,000 political prisoners the regime is thought to be holding, or its routine use of torture.

Pompeo is an evangelical Presbyterian, who says he was “brought to Jesus” by other cadets at the West Point military academy in the 1980s.

“He knows best how his faith interacts with his political beliefs and the duties he undertakes as secretary of state,” said Stan van den Berg, senior pastor of Pompeo’s church in Wichita in an email. “Suffice to say, he is a faithful man, he has integrity, he has a compassionate heart, a humble disposition and a mind for wisdom.”

As Donald Trump finds himself ever more dependent on them for his political survival, the influence of Pence, Pompeo and the ultraconservative white evangelicals who stand behind them is likely to grow.

“Many of them relish the second coming because for them it means eternal life in heaven,” Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University said. “There is a palpable danger that people in high position who subscribe to these beliefs will be readier to take us into a conflict that brings on Armageddon.”

Chesnut argues that Christian Zionism has become the “majority theology” among white U.S. evangelicals, who represent about a quarter of the adult population. In a 2015 poll, 73 percent of evangelical Christians said events in Israel are prophesied in the Book of Revelation. Respondents were not asked specifically whether their believed developments in Israel would actually bring forth the apocalypse.

Complicated relationship

The relationship between evangelicals and the president himself is complicated.

Trump himself embodies the very opposite of a pious Christian ideal. Trump is not a churchgoer. He is profane, twice divorced, who has boasted of sexually assaulting women. But white evangelicals have embraced him.

Eighty percent of white evangelicals voted for him in 2016, and his popularity among them remains in the 70s. While other white voters have flaked away in the first two years of his presidency, white evangelicals have become his last solid bastion.

Some leading evangelicals see Trump as a latter-day King Cyrus, the sixth-century B.C. Persian emperor who liberated the Jews from Babylonian captivity.

The comparison is made explicitly in “The Trump Prophecy,” a religious film screened in 1,200 cinemas around the country in October, depicting a retired firefighter who claims to have heard God’s voice, saying: “I’ve chosen this man, Donald Trump, for such a time as this.”

Lance Wallnau, a self-proclaimed prophet who features in the film, has called Trump “God’s Chaos Candidate” and a “modern Cyrus.”

“Cyrus is the model for a nonbeliever appointed by God as a vessel for the purposes of the faithful,” said Katherine Stewart, who writes extensively about the Christian Right.

She added that they welcome his readiness to break democratic norms to combat perceived threats to their values and way of life.

“The Christian nationalist movement is characterized by feelings of persecution and, to some degree, paranoia — a clear example is the idea that there is somehow a ‘war on Christmas,’” Stewart said. “People in those positions will often go for authoritarian leaders who will do whatever is necessary to fight for their cause.”

Trump was raised as a Presbyterian, but leaned increasingly towards evangelical preachers as he began contemplating a run for the presidency.

Trump’s choice of Pence as a running mate was a gesture of his commitment, and four of the six preachers at his inauguration were evangelicals, including Paula White and Franklin Graham, the eldest son of the preacher Billy Graham, who defended Trump through his many sex scandals, pointing out: “We are all sinners.”

Having lost control of the House of Representatives in November, and under ever-closer scrutiny for his campaign’s links to the Kremlin, Trump’s instinct has been to cleave ever closer to his most loyal supporters.

Almost alone among major demographic groups, white evangelicals are overwhelmingly in favor of Trump’s border wall, which some preachers equate with fortifications in the bible.

Evangelical links have also helped shape alliances in the Trump presidency. As secretary of state, Pompeo has been instrumental in forging links with other evangelical leaders in the hemisphere, including Guatemala’s Jimmy Morales and the new Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro. Both have undertaken to follow the U.S. lead in moving their embassies in Israel to Jerusalem.

Trump’s evangelical clout

Trump’s order to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv — over the objections of his foreign policy and national security team — is a striking example of evangelical clout.

The move was also pushed by Las Vegas billionaire and Republican mega-donor, Sheldon Adelson, but the orchestration of the embassy opening ceremony last May reflected the audience Trump was trying hardest to appease.

The two pastors given the prime speaking slots were both ardent Christian Zionists: Robert Jeffress, a Dallas pastor on record as saying Jews, like Muslims and Mormons, are bound for hell; and John Hagee, a televangelist and founder of Christians United for Israel (Cufi), who once said that Hitler and the Holocaust were part of God’s plan to get Jews back to Israel, to pave the way for the Rapture.

For many evangelicals, the move cemented Trump’s status as the new Cyrus, who oversaw the Jews’ return to Jerusalem and rebuilt the Temple.

The tightening of the evangelical grip on the administration has also been reflected in a growing hostility to the United Nations, often portrayed as a sinister and godless organization.

Since former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley announced her departure in October and Pompeo took more direct control, the U.S. mission has become increasingly combative, blocking references to gender and reproductive health in U.N. documents.

Some theologians also see an increasingly evangelical tinge to the administration’s broader Middle East policies, in particular its fierce embrace of Binyamin Netanyahu’s government, the lack of balancing sympathy for the Palestinians — and the insistent demonization of the Iranian government.

Evangelicals, Chesnut said, “now see the United States locked into a holy war against the forces of evil who they see as embodied by Iran.”

In a speech at the end of a regional tour, Pompeo reprised the theme, describing Iran as a “cancerous influence.”

This zeal for a defining struggle has thus far found common cause with more secular hawks such as the national security adviser, John Bolton, and Trump’s own drive to eliminate the legacy of Barack Obama, whose signature foreign policy achievement was the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, which Trump abrogated last May.

In conversations with European leaders such as Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May, Trump has reportedly insisted he has no intention of going to war with Iran. His desire to extricate U.S. troops from Syria marks a break with hawks, religious and secular, who want to contain Iranian influence there.

But the logic of his policy of ever-increasing pressure, coupled with unstinting support for Israel and Saudi Arabia, makes confrontation with Iran ever more likely.

One of the most momentous foreign policy questions of 2019 is whether Trump can veer away from the collision course he has helped set in motion — perhaps conjuring up a last-minute deal — or instead welcome conflict as a distraction from his domestic woes, and sell it to the faithful as a crusade.

Julian Borger is a British journalist who is the world affairs editor for The Guardian.