America’s Islamophobia Is Forged at the Pulpit
White evangelicals’ apocalyptic fantasies are driving U.S. policy.
The first time I remember hearing Islam equated with terrorism from the pulpit, I was a 17-year-old junior at Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis, where my mom was—still is, in fact—an elementary teacher. It was 1998, long before Islamophobia seized the Western mainstream. My family attended a small, nondenominational evangelical church in the suburb of Carmel, where my dad was the music pastor.
“A good Muslim,” our head pastor, Marcus Warner, intoned that Sunday morning, “should want to kill Christians and Jews.” He insisted that this was the only conclusion possible from a serious reading of the Quran. As a doubting young evangelical who would later become an agnostic, this extreme statement made me uncomfortable even then. Today, in the wake of the shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, it should be considered every bit as offensive as the worst anti-Semitic tropes .
But a harsh double standard has been in effect, as the brouhaha over the comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) proved. The United States recognizes anti-Semitism for the poison it is, and polices—at least on the left—even accidental falling into its tropes. But the religiously inspired Islamophobia I grew up with continues to shape Washington’s foreign policy—and Islamophobic statements too often pass without criticism in the public sphere.
To be sure, the statements about Israel by Omar, one of the first two Muslim women ever elected to U.S. Congress, did conjure up anti-Semitic tropes. In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, she chose her words more carefully, avoiding the rhetoric of “allegiance” that rightly caused many to criticize her language. Some of that criticism, however, was not only made in bad faith—it was shaped by the very Islamophobia that darkly mirrors anti-Semitism.
The presidency of Donald Trump has been shaped by the fear of decline in power and influence among conservative white Protestants. This moment of backlash against increasing diversity and democratization is familiar. Not so long ago, the dual-loyalty trope was employed by American Protestants not only to impugn the patriotism of Jews, but also of Catholics, prominently during the 1960 election, when John F. Kennedy ultimately became the United States’ first Catholic president.
There is a similar notion in play today when conservatives—often evangelical Christians, along with a small number of Jewish Americans—traffic in conspiracy theories about the supposed infiltration of the U.S. government by the Muslim Brotherhood and suggest that Muslims seek to impose sharia law on the United States.
But the most damaging impact of religious Islamophobia may be in foreign policy. Islamophobes like former CIA head and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo loom large in the Trump administration. Under Trump more than under previous presidents, U.S. foreign policy has been shaped by an anti-pluralist, fundamentalist form of Christianity whose adherents exhibit a particularly virulent animosity toward Muslims. White evangelicals make up not only Trump’s base but the single most nativist demographic in the United States today.
During the Cold War, evangelical Protestants, most of whom adhered (and still adhere) to a set of eschatological beliefs based on a 19th-century interpretation of the Book of Revelation and other biblical texts considered prophetic, tended to associate the primary enemies of Christ with the Soviet Union. The historically improbable founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948 was used to prop up the validity of their understanding of biblical prophecy, and Hal Lindsey’s popular book The Late Great Planet Earth, published in 1970, became the standard evangelical narrative of “the end times,” popularizing an interpretation of the eschatological scheme known as dispensational premillennialism.
Lindsey represented Russia as the kingdom of Magog, which was “prophesied” to play a leading role among the forces of evil in the Battle of Armageddon. Since the end of the Cold War, and especially in recent years as some evangelicals have embraced Russian President Vladimir Putin because of his stance on “traditional values,” evangelicals have struggled to find a consensus replacement candidate for Magog. Meanwhile, as anti-Islamic sentiment has increased among evangelicals, predominantly Muslim powers (such as Iraq during the Iraq War) have sometimes been floated as possibilities, and evangelical author Joel Richardson has suggested the Antichrist will arise from Islam.
The influence of evangelicals’ end-times beliefs on U.S. policy toward Israel is a serious concern. Both these strands of popular evangelical thinking—dispensational premillennialism and Islamophobia—can be found in Pompeo, an Evangelical Presbyterian who has expressed support for the views of Islamophobic conspiracy nut Frank Gaffney, and who has vowed to struggle against evil “until the rapture.” To be sure, Pompeo has more recently said, “We’re all children of Abraham,” but when you understand that evangelicals are taught that Jews are descended from Isaac and Arabs from Ishmael, and that there will never be peace between them, that statement takes on a different, coded meaning.
American evangelicals’ actions on the political and geopolitical stage are not primarily targeted at bringing about the apocalypse—but they are certainly not trying to prevent it. Evangelicals seek to follow God’s will as they understand it, and their most common understanding of biblical prophecy suggests that Israel must expand its borders to align with those of the ancient biblical kingdom God promised to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and that Israel must rebuild the temple—the site of which is currently occupied by the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex, the third-holiest site in Islam—before the end times can come. This is why evangelicals have long since widely supported, and lobbied for, the recognition of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of a Jewish state.
Trump’s willingness to pursue the radical agenda of apocalyptically minded white evangelicals was on display not only in his administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but also in the choice of Protestant pastors he brought along to speak at the embassy’s opening. John Hagee, who has written numerous books about the end times, has characterized the Holocaust as part of God’s plan to gather the Jews back in Israel, and Robert Jeffress, a man who had his church choir perform a sort of hymn called “Make America Great Again” in 2017, has made no secret of his belief that Jews who do not convert to Christianity will go to hell.
Views like those of Pompeo, Richardson, Hagee, and Jeffress are not innocent. Even if they generally take greater care to avoid explicitly racist statements like those found among contemporary white nationalists, their religious language is a mere veneer on bigotry, and their words add fuel to the fire that results in mass violence, whether in the United States or abroad. The consequences of white-supremacist hate have recently played out in devastating attacks on both Jews and Muslims, in the Tree of Life syngagogue shooting in Pittsburgh that took 11 lives on October 27, 2018, and in the attack on two mosques in Christchurch that took 50 lives this month, on March 15.
In a gesture of solidarity, the Tree of Life Congregation has raised more than $58,000 for the victims of the New Zealand mosque shootings. The act recalls the ways in which the Minnesota Muslim community of Somali immigrants—many of them former refugees—from which Omar comes has generally worked in concert with the local Jewish community to promote civil rights. And while there are legitimate ways to press Omar to make sure she uses language critical of Israeli policy rather than critical of the Jewish people, those who would use her presence to engage in fearmongering over Islamic “infiltration” or “creeping sharia” should be given no quarter in our public sphere.
Unfortunately, such views are common among the white evangelicals who are exerting unprecedented influence on the Trump administration, 72 percent of whom support some form of Muslim ban. The hold of such nativism in the highest echelons of American power is frightening and dangerous. It will produce more mass violence and further destabilization of the Middle East—a much greater threat than is posed by criticizing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.