A review of Irvine Anderson’s Biblical Interpretation and Middle East Policy: The Promised Land, America, and Israel, 1917-2002, by Mac McCann.
In an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God” and famously suggested that the First Amendment built “a wall of separation between Church & State.” Writing the majority opinion for Everson v. Board of Education (1947), Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black built upon that, arguing that, “That wall [between church and state] must be kept high and impregnable.” However, no matter how “high and impregnable” that wall is or should be in theory, it’s undeniable that, throughout American history, religion has mingled with politics. In his 2005 book, Biblical Interpretation and Middle East Policy: The Promised Land, America, and Israel, 1917-2002, Irvine H. Anderson provides an illustration of how Biblical interpretation has influenced the Middle East policies of the United States and the United Kingdom.
Over the book’s 138 pages, Irvine H. Anderson, a retired professor of American diplomatic history specializing in the Middle East, discusses Biblical interpretation and how it’s affected American and British policies in the Middle East. Divided into two parts, the book starts by examining the Bible in Anglo-American culture, before transitioning to the more specific British and American policy. While the book focuses mainly on the period between 1917 and 2002, it discusses some of the movements and ideas as early as the 18th century that led up to that period, and most of his points are easily applicable to the world today, even after 2002. To be clear, Anderson doesn’t argue that religion has dictated or dominated Anglo-American policies; instead, Anderson simply argues that certain popular Biblical interpretations and influences “have created a cultural framework within which Zionist and pro-Israel lobbies could more easily function” (IX). In addition to the Biblical interpretations themselves, the influence of such ideas was also aided by the lack of, what Anderson called, a “real countervailing force,” since there was “no general knowledge of Islam, Arabs, or the Middle East among the electorate, no powerful Arab lobby, and limited understanding of the importance of maintaining healthy relations with friendly oil-producing Arab states in the region” (2).
In Part I’s Chapter 1, Anderson focuses on “Biblical Criticism and the Rise of Fundamentalism” (7). He opens by discussing how scientific and philosophical developments in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to the “historical/critical” method of analyzing the Bible by using “the emerging tools of archeology, history, and literary analysis” (7). In reaction to these advancements – which called into question the historical accuracy of the Bible – religious fundamentalism became much more prominent, as some held the idea that “if one doesn’t believe the Bible to be literally true, there is no moral anchor for the country” (7). For fundamentalist Christians, the more critical approach to the Bible “threatens the Christian system of doctrine and the whole fabric of systematic theology” since even if “one error of fact or principle is admitted in Scripture, nothing – not even the redemptive work of Christ – is certain” (17, 18). Then, he laid out some of the main ideas of what is known as Christian Zionism that have affected and influenced Anglo-American cultures and policies.
He first examines the idea of The Promised Land – the idea that God has given Israel specifically to the Jewish people. He briefly discusses some of the Biblical passages that have led to the idea. For example, Anderson points to Genesis 12, in which the Lord tells Abram (later known as Abraham) to go “the land of Canaan,” which the Lord will give to his offspring (10). Especially related to many Christians’ perspectives on Israel today, the Lord tells Abram, “I will make of you a great nation, I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse” (10). Such passages – or, at the very least, the ideas that they suggest – are still clearly influential today, even almost a decade after Anderson’s book was published. For example, according to the Pew Research Center in 2013:
“[T]wice as many white evangelical Protestants as Jews say that Israel was given to the Jewish people by God (82% vs. 40%). Some of the discrepancy is attributable to Jews’ lower levels of belief in God overall; virtually all evangelicals say they believe in God, compared with 72% of Jews (23% say they do not believe in God and 5% say they don’t know or decline to answer the question). But even Jews who do believe in God are less likely than evangelicals to believe that God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jewish people (55% vs. 82%).”
At this point, I should note that, although Anderson makes some of his strongest points early on in the book, he also reveals some of the book’s limitations. For example, Anderson betrays either his carelessness or his lack of Biblical knowledge by writing that “the first ten books of the Bible … [are] called the Pentateuch,” which simply isn’t true (15). Additionally, in a review of the book, Paul Merkley criticizes Anderson’s “biblical exegesis” as “disconnected, bouncing from one colorful point to another, showing no acquaintance with the traditional theological or biblical commentaries” (Merkley). While I agree that Anderson definitely doesn’t come off as the most brilliant Biblical scholar, I don’t think his arguments really require him to be a groundbreaking Biblical scholar. After all, even if some of his uses of Biblical quotes and passages aren’t the most theologically sound in the eyes of Merkley, the average Anglo-American isn’t a theologian either. As noted above, 82 percent of white evangelical Protestants “say that Israel was given to the Jewish people by God,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean that 82 percent of white evangelical Protestants can tell you the full and exact Biblical justification for their beliefs. Or, as Lawrence Davidson wrote in his review of the book, “Even if the average citizen is indifferent to the issues of the Middle East (and in terms of daily life most people assuredly are), there is no popular inclination to object to the policy-shaping influence of men like John Hagee, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell” (Davidson).
In addition to discussing the idea of The Promised Land, Anderson also discusses the complex idea of dispensational premillennialism. Largely based on Daniel and Revelation, as well as a few passages in the Gospels, dispensational premillennialism, Anderson explains, is an “interpretation of scripture as prophecy regarding the Second Coming of Christ and the End Times” (19). Here, as in most places, Anderson doesn’t dive especially deep into the textual support and justification of the idea of dispensational premillennialism, but, again, he wasn’t discussing the theology itself, but its impact on Anglo-American policy in the Middle East. He specifically points out the importance, in some End Times interpretations, of “the ingathering of Jews to the Holy Land as prelude to the events that follow, and the special role that they are destined to play in those events” (20). This idea, Anderson points out, has influenced many of the more fundamentalist Christians to so thoroughly support Israel as a country. While discussing this idea, and while discussing various ideas throughout the book, Anderson notes and generally explains the various interpretations of the mentioned passages; still, it’s the more fundamentalist interpretations that he focuses on.
In Chapter 2 of Part I, titled “The Promised Land and Armageddon Theology,” Anderson builds upon the ideas mentioned in the chapter’s title, but shifts the emphasis to the spread of the ideas rather than the ideas themselves. He highlights the rise of the Sunday school movement, which began in the late 18th century in England and its expansion into the United States and beyond during the 19th century. While the ideas of The Promised Land and the End Times etc. were not an all-consuming, dominating theme among 18th and 19th century Christians, Anderson recognizes that – and that was never what he was arguing. Instead, he discusses how a significant portion of the population was exposed to and taught those ideas early on in life. For example, supporting his idea of “a cultural disposition,” he points out that, “By 1851, 13 percent of the entire population of England, Scotland, and Wales were enrolled in Sunday schools,” and that some of the themes of the lessons dealt with Abraham, Joshua, Canaan, and various people and places related to The Promised Land and End Times ideas (34). With even more supporting evidence, he discusses how The Promised Land and End Times ideas were a constant in post-World War II Christian teachings and sermons in America (37). In addition to theological teachings and sermons, Anderson explains how more popular media, such as novels, books, and radio and television programs, have also helped spread the idea of the End Times in the second half of the 20th century in America (44-47). To be clear, Anderson doesn’t hesitate to admit that “it is difficult, if not impossible, to establish the exact impact of any one or all of these influences on the attitudes of the general public” (49). Still, he provides ample evidence that would definitely seem to suggest that there’s a connection between the ideas and the policies of the nations.
After establishing the various factors and influences behind the “cultural predisposition” in Part I, Anderson discusses some of the various impacts of that predisposition between 1917 and 2002, in Part II, “British and American Policy.” In Chapter 3, “The Balfour Declaration and the Palestine Mandate,” Anderson opens by discussing the British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour’s 1917 letter to Lord Rothschild, a prominent British Jew, which declared Britain’s support for the Jewish Zionist movement (53). He then describes the connection between Methodism and the Labour Party, before looking more specifically into the Balfour Declaration. Here, like in much of the book, he doesn’t go into nearly as much detail as he could have, writing that, since it’s been “so thoroughly analyzed by scholars over the years,” it’s “not necessary to enter into a detailed discussion” (57). But, again, he still strongly makes his points. Throughout the chapter, he describes some of the “long though muted history” of the idea of a return of the Jews to Palestine, as well as various factors leading up to the establishment of an independent Israel state after World War II (58).
In Chapter 4, Anderson focuses on “Truman, the Bible, Israel, Oil, and the Soviet Union.” Yet again, Anderson declines to go into too many details, noting, “The decision by Harry to recognize the State of Israel immediately after its creation in 1948 has been so well researched by historians that it would appear almost redundant to bring it up again” (75). Still, he provides enough evidence to support his claim that “by 1948 a highly effective Zionist lobby had been at work for over a decade and that it had appealed to an American concern for the plight of the Jews in Europe and a biblically derived understanding of Palestine as their historical homeland” (100). In contrast to the United Kingdom’s “perceived national interest (in this case, British war aims)” which “pointed in the same direction” as “a Zionist lobby, and a biblically derived predisposition … to support the return of the Jews,” the Zionist lobby in America had to compete with the Departments of Defense and State, which “were adamant in opposing premature recognition [of a new Jewish state] in the belief that it would seriously endanger America’s strategic position at the outset of the cold war” (58; 101). Still, despite that opposition, and while other factors played a role, Anderson argues that, like many other Christian leaders, “Truman’s biblical background clearly predisposed him to favor the return of the Jews to Palestine” (101).
In Chapter 5, “Christian Influence and Congressional Support of Israel,” Anderson focuses on the period after Truman’s recognition of Israel, the second half of the 20th century, especially in America. In the chapter, he reiterates one of his main points by quoting “one scholar,” who noted, “Confronted with the need to draw conclusions and make policy on the basis of ambiguous evidence, people tend to fit data into a preexisting framework of beliefs” (103). Through the Cold War and into the present, Anderson argues that, at least partly due to Biblical teachings, “a de facto alliance between the pro-Israel lobby and the Religious Right” has fostered the idea that Israel shares “the same cultural, religious, and political values as the United States” (129).
Finally, in the epilogue, Anderson briefly discusses “The al-Aqsa Intifada, September 11, and the Dynamics of Policy” but recognizes that “It is much too early to speculate on where America’s war on terrorism and the Arab/Israeli conflict will lead” (138).
Overall, I was a little disappointed in, what I saw as, Anderson’s relatively surface-level examination of the subject. However, I completely understand that it would be nearly impossible to cover such a wide range of ideas, people, and events in depth without making the book much, much longer, and therefore, arguably, less accessible. As Lawrence Davidson put it in his review of the book, “It does not break any new ground on the subject, but it does function as a valuable historical summary” (Davidson). While I accept some of Merkley’s criticisms of the book (such as the previously discussed issue of Anderson’s Biblical understanding not being as thorough as it could have been), I also agree with his general compliment of the book: “The substantive value of Anderson’s work lies in his insightful analysis of how this “predisposition” helped shape political policy at decisive moments in the establishment and consolidation of the Zionist agenda” (Merkley). Like Davidson, I found Anderson’s statements to be adequately supported, and, quite frankly, a bit frightening. As Davidson wrote, “Christian Zionist leaders lobby against negotiation, compromise, and peace. Thus, it can be argued that Christian Zionism stands as the antithesis of diplomacy. [Anderson’s book] makes this depressingly clear” (Davidson). At times, Anderson does occasionally seem to agree with Davidson, such as when he seemed to denounce America’s seemingly relentless support of Israel “despite warnings from the Department of State that too strong a tilt toward Israel could seriously undermine the American role as a peacemaker and jeopardize its other interests in the area” (129). However, while the book arguably wasn’t strong enough in its denunciation of some of the negative consequences of the influence of Biblical interpretation, its lack of inflammatory and/or combative tone might make the book more accessible to some who otherwise wouldn’t be as open to the book’s argument. As a whole, Irvine Anderson’s Biblical Interpretation and Middle East Policy is definitely a very thought-provoking and informative introduction showing that how the Bible is interpreted definitely is a factor in governmental policies.
Anderson, Irvine H. Biblical Interpretation and Middle East Policy: The Promised Land, America, and Israel, 1917-2002. Gainesville: U of Florida, 2005. Print.
Davidson, L. (2010), Christian Zionism and the Formulation of Foreign Policy. Diplomatic History, 34: 605–609. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7709.2010.00874.x
Merkley, Paul C. “Biblical Interpretation and Middle East Policy: The Promised Land, America, and Israel, 1917-2002 (review).” American Jewish History, Dec. 2004. Web. 13 May 2014. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/ajh/summary/v092/92.4merkley.html>.