In February 2002, Aaron D. Wolf, the associate editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and I spent a full day at the local Islamic school and mosque in Rockford, Illinois. After lunch, we had the opportunity to sit down with a group of students, handpicked by the principal, to discuss their experiences at the school. Most of the students were children of prominent members of the Islamic community in Rockford, but one was a Christian child who was enrolled at the school because his mother performed IT work for them, and the school offered him a scholarship in return.
Early in our conversation, this boy proudly announced that he considered himself “half-Christian and half-Muslim.” By the time he graduated from the school (which went through eighth grade), he said, he hoped to be “fully Muslim.” When I asked him what kind of Christian he was, he seemed confused. What church do you go to? Again, a blank stare. I started listing Christian denominations: Catholic, Episcopalian, Methodist…. He just slowly shook his head.
Finally, a young Muslim girl, with a broad smile on her face, announced triumphantly, “He’s an American Christian!” All of the students, including the young boy, enthusiastically agreed.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Twelve and a half years later, that scene was the first thought that came to my mind when I read the initial reports of the remarks delivered by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) at the In Defense of Christians (IDC) Summit in Washington, D.C., on September 10. Over the last two weeks, much ink and many electrons have been spilled analyzing Cruz’s inappropriate remarks and the reaction they caused. And even more ink and electrons have been spent analyzing the analysis, mainly, it seems, “in search of antisemitism” (to recall the rather puzzling title—if antisemitism is so prevalent, why did he need to search for it?—of William F. Buckley’s 40,000-word essay published by National Review in December 1991).
In the end, though, it all comes down to that young Muslim girl’s perceptive words: Ted Cruz is an American Christian, with everything that the phrase implies: an unconcern with theological distinction (between stripes of Christianity; between varieties of Islam; and even between Christianity and Islam), and a subordination of the truth of Christianity and the plight of Middle Eastern Christians to the needs of domestic politics. Looking at the world from the top of our “shining city on a hill,” the dwindling ranks of Christians down on the plains of the Middle East appear no different to Senator Cruz and his supporters than the Muslims among whom those Christians find themselves.
Some have chalked up Cruz’s remarks to mere political pandering, and the sequence of events—meeting with the staff of the Washington Free Beacon in the morning, then blasting fellow participants that afternoon after the Beacon ran a story under the title “Cruz Headlines Conference Featuring Hezbollah Supporters”—would seem to support that narrative.
Others see in his words a revival of Christian Zionism, which, after reaching its heights in the 1980s and ’90s, has largely been on the wane among the rank and file of American evangelicals. And there is some truth to that idea. But the Christian Zionism on the rise today is hardly of the Left Behind stripe, much less the dispensationalism of John Nelson Darby and the Scofield Reference Bible, but rather a secularized and politicized version that has more to do with FOX News, Glenn Beck, and talk radio. (Which is why it’s just as common among, say, conservative Catholic supporters of Rick Santorum, whose silence in the wake of Cruz’s comments speaks volumes, as it is among conservative Protestants.) The new Christian Zionism is a creation of the War on Terror and a simplistic, undifferentiated view of Islam in the Middle East, a sort of New Cold War that’s all too often plenty hot, in which the state of Israel is no longer “the only democracy in the Middle East” (the narrative of the Reagan years) but “our chief ally in the fight against radical Islam.”
Or, to put it in Cruz’s words, “those who hate Israel, hates [sic] America.”
In geopolitical terms, there is some truth in the idea that “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and the United States has often had—and still has—good reasons to ally herself with Israel. But that same maxim means that the various beleaguered populations of Christians in the Middle East may find reason to ally themselves with one Muslim faction against another—to regard, say, the largely secular Alawite Assad of Syria as infinitely preferable, at the moment, to the Salafist ISIS. And even though Israel herself may be able to do little or nothing to stop the slaughter of Christians, the claim that Middle Eastern “Christians have no greater ally than the Jewish state” and the stubborn refusal to make necessary distinctions between the various Islamic ideologies and groups can hardly be seen as a rallying cry “In Defense of Christians” to those who are forced to make such alliances simply to try to survive.
During the latter days of the Cold War and the high point of evangelical Christian influence in the Republican Party, it used to be said that Israel was the “third rail” in American politics: Anything less than 100 percent support for the Jewish state amounted to a political death sentence. Cruz’s remarks may well reflect a calculated gamble that, in the era of ISIS and the War on Terror, that condition once again applies. But for those Christians in America who aren’t simply “American Christians,” who are horrified by the unprecedented slaughter of Christians in the Middle East and the possibility of the utter eradication of Christianity from the Holy Land, a simplistic view of the Jewish state and what Cruz belittled as the “nuances and differences” among Muslims in the Middle East does not serve the long-term interests of this country.
And neither does it serve the long-term interests of Israel, because this much is true: Israel has no greater ally than the United States of America, and whatever uneasy relations various Christians in the Middle East may have with the Jewish state, the elimination of the remaining populations of Christians in the Middle East can serve only as a prelude to the eventual destruction of Israel herself. Were Ted Cruz an enemy of Israel rather than a supporter, he could hardly have chosen a better way to show it.
(Photo credit: Molly Riley / AP)