Is Ted Cruz a Christian Zionist?

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Credit: Mahaskey/POLITICO

During the Republican primary season last year, the following piece, “Is Ted Cruz a Christian Zionist?”, was set to run in an online religion periodical–that is, until Ted Cruz dropped out of the race, preempting its newsworthiness. I held on to it, hoping some event might renew interest in the question that the piece seeks to answer. A year later, that hasn’t happened, so I figured I’d go ahead and share it in hopes that someone might benefit from the work I put into it. Pardon the dated references–this is the article as it was written in the spring of 2016:

Is Ted Cruz a Christian Zionist?
In the past week, a debate has broken out among a number of religion scholars over the question of Ted Cruz’s Southern Baptist faith. In recent articles in the Washington Post and Christianity Today, historian John Fea has argued that Ted Cruz is a Christian Dominionist—that he is part of a movement to “restore” the United States to its Christian roots by establishing Christian dominion over several aspects of American life, including the government. This week, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary professors Robert Gagnon and Edith Humphrey published a rebuttal in Christianity Today, arguing that Fea offers little direct evidence that Cruz himself is a Dominionist, even if he comfortably walks in those circles (for Fea’s rebuttal to the rebuttal, see here). While Gagnon and Humphrey primarily focus on Dominionism, they also address the question of whether Cruz is a Christian Zionist (which Fea has suggested in a blog post). They assert that Cruz’s strong support for Israel is based on analytical and strategic grounds rather than any particular theological concerns. They do not, however, go into detail on the point.

Support for the Jewish state has been a major feature of Cruz’s national political persona and his current campaign—“Stand with Israel” is one of nine issues listed on his campaign’s website. The site foregrounds the matter of mutual strategic interests, noting at the top of the “Stand with Israel” page that “America’s security is significantly enhanced by a strong Israel.” In terms of policy, Cruz wants to “make clear to the world that the U.S.-Israel alliance is once again a strategic bedrock for the United States”, recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there, support Israel’s “qualitative military edge” in the region, collaborate on missile defense systems, “reassess” US policy towards the Palestinian Authority (specifically monetary support), defund the UN “if it continues its anti-Israel bias”, and withdraw federal funding from American universities that elect to boycott Israel. Elsewhere, Cruz has stated that he would not pressure Israel to accept a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and would rip up the Iranian nuclear deal on his first day in office. Even among Republicans jostling for “Pro-Israel” votes and donations, Cruz has distinguished himself in his unquestioning support for the Jewish state.

Does this support come from Cruz’s evangelical faith? Is he, in other words, a Christian Zionist? Cruz has certainly moved in Christian Zionist circles. His father, Rafael, has been an itinerant evangelical preacher since his conversion in the 1970s and was involved with the Religious Roundtable in the early 1980s. During that time, the Roundtable began holding an annual National Prayer Breakfast in Honor of Israel; its founder, Ed McAteer, was an unabashed Christian Zionist until his death in 2004. Besides these associations, Rafael Cruz himself has made explicitly Christian Zionist statements. At two recent campaign events in Georgia, the elder Cruz invoked a favorite Christian Zionist verse, Genesis 12:3, in criticizing the Obama administration’s relationship with Israel and in warning against potential divine judgment:

“Let me tell you, the Word of God tells us in Genesis 12:3—God’s speaking to Abraham, the father of Israel. ‘I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse those who curse you.’ This current administration has cursed the Jewish people, has cursed the nation of Israel more than any other administration in history. I believe the only reason judgment has not fallen upon America is because of the faithful remnant that is standing in the gap.”

Rafael Cruz clearly places his son in that faithful remnant. Ted, for his part, has acknowledged his father’s influence on his views of Israel, noting in a video address to New Beginnings Church, “I’m the son of a pastor[…]and I was blessed to be raised in a household that understood and taught the importance of Israel.”

Cruz has also actively cultivated the support and friendship of many within the Christian Zionist set since entering national politics. In recent years, he has grown friendly with Pastor John Hagee, the face of Christian Zionism in the US and the founder of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the country’s largest pro-Israel organization. In 2013, Cruz spoke at CUFI’s annual summit and, last year, appeared in a video interview taped for the conference. He also recently appeared at a celebration of Hagee’s 75th birthday at Cornerstone Church in San Antonio. In December of 2015, he sent the aforementioned video message to Christian Zionist Larry Huch’s “Standing with Israel” event at New Beginnings Church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Earlier this year, Cruz welcomed the endorsement of Mike Bickle, pastor of the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, who preaches that the creation of Israel was in part a fulfillment of biblical prophecy (he has been criticized for giving a functionalist prophetic interpretation of the Holocaust). Bickle also anticipates and works toward the conversion of Jews in Israel. Of course, that Cruz associates with Christian Zionists does not necessarily make him one.

What, then, has Cruz himself said about his faith and Israel? The senator has given occasional nods to Christian Zionist beliefs. In his 2013 address to CUFI, he announced, “I commend everyone here for respecting the biblical admonition to stand with Israel.” In a piece written for Charisma News this January, Cruz briefly referenced the aforementioned passage from Genesis: “when I lead the fight for Israel, it both profoundly benefits our national security and also honors God’s promise in Genesis 12:3.” However, Cruz’s most overt expression of Christian Zionist thinking (at least that I have seen) came in the 2015 message to New Beginnings. In it, he cites the same Genesis passage, adding, “I know that I always want to be on the blessing side of that promise.” Later in the video he directly ties the passage to the policy of moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, declaring this policy “an important way to bless Israel, to honor God, and to receive the blessings of God referred to in Genesis.” Such references to faith-based support for Israel, though, have been rare and, with the exception of the New Beginnings video, somewhat lukewarm compared with the heat with which Cruz generally speaks about the Jewish state (or with which his father invokes the Genesis blessing). The question thus remains whether Cruz’s infrequent Christian Zionist turns of phrase suggest a legitimate belief that God will “bless” the United States for “blessing” Israel or are just a matter of campaign strategy and rhetoric. Has Cruz’s exposure to Christian Zionists made him one—or just given him the vocabulary to appeal to them?

Perhaps more relevant than Cruz’s rare nods to the Bible is the underlying geopolitical worldview that he does seem to share with Christian Zionists. While many evangelical Christians cite prophecy or the aforementioned Genesis passage in explaining their support for Israel, the belief that the US and Israel are engaged in a clash of civilizations with the Islamic world has been just as crucial in undergirding that support. Many American evangelicals—including those with little concern for prophecy—have long believed that the US and Israel (and the Zionist movement before it) are on the same side of a fundamental global divide, with the shape of that divide shifting over the decades. Prior to the establishment of Israel, evangelicals often favorably contrasted the Zionists as progressive, civilized, and Western, over and against the Arabs (Christians included), who were viewed as a quaint or backward portion of the benighted East. As the Cold War redrew the real and imaginary lines that divided the world, most evangelicals viewed those lines as falling between the US and Israel on one side, and the Soviet Union and the Arab states on the other—particularly as Arab leaders like Gamal Abdel Nasser drew closer to the USSR in the late 1950s. The terror tactics and third-world revolutionary style of the revived Palestinian national movement under Yassir Arafat and George Habash in the late 1960s and early 1970s seemed to only confirm the idea that Israel was on the US’s side in a global struggle. The Iranian Revolution of 1979, the rise of political Islam, and the spread of Islamist and jihadist terror in recent decades have reshaped but also reinforced evangelicals’ sense of civilizational clash, confirming for many that portions—if not all—of the Islamic world are fundamentally, sometimes violently, opposed to the values of Western civilization, represented in the Middle East by Israel. When 9/11 demonstrated the threat of jihadist terror to the United States, occurring during the outbreak of the Second Intifada in the Palestinian territories, evangelicals were quick to argue that the US and Israel shared a common enemy.

Ted Cruz’s approach to Israel is built upon this fundamental idea of civilizational clash—he repeatedly emphasizes that Israel and the US share common values, a common heritage, and, perhaps most importantly, that common enemy. Cruz’s “Stand with Israel” page hails the Jewish state as “the Middle East bulwark in defense of the West.” Specifically, he views Israel as the US’s primary ally in the global confrontation with “radical Islamic terrorism,” embodied by Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Iran, which he never fails to cite as the “number one state sponsor of terror.” Though Hezbollah and Iran have been active in the fight against ISIS, in his controversial 2014 address to the In Defense of Christians Summit (organized to highlight the plight of Middle East Christians), Cruz argued that these various terror groups and their state sponsors comprised a single enemy and urged that “we shouldn’t try to parse different manifestations of evil that are on a murderous rampage throughout the region.” He has repeatedly charged that confronting Islamic terror is the moral and geopolitical equivalent of the Cold War. In his 2013 address to CUFI, he even expressed doubt that Iran was “philosophically all that removed from the Soviet Union.”

Cruz’s aforementioned appearance at the 2014 IDC Summit drew attention when the senator was effectively booed off stage after claiming that Middle Eastern Christians have no greater ally than Israel (most Middle Eastern Christians identify with the Palestinian cause) and stating, “Those who hate Israel hate America.” Whether a political stunt or simply tone-deaf, it was nonetheless evocative of Cruz’s view of the world and the Middle East. In many ways, the speech was a call for Middle East Christians to join the US and Israel in facing the enemy of radical Islamic terror. This enemy, Cruz emphasized at the talk, does not distinguish between Jews and Christians—neither does it distinguish between the US and Israel. In his 2013 address to CUFI, Cruz declared “the enemy that fires thousands of rockets into Israel is the very same enemy that attacked us here at Fort Hood.” Speaking to AIPAC this March, Cruz made the same point in discussing the murder of Taylor Force, an American veteran who was killed by a Palestinian terrorist in Jaffa: “The brutal murder of Taylor Force is yet another reminder that America and Israel are in the fight together against radical Islamic terrorism.” Later in the speech he reiterated the shared values and stakes, and tied them to policy, noting “Israel is a liberal democracy that shares our values. Israel is a steadfast and loyal ally, and our military aid to Israel is not charity, it is rather furthering the vital national security interests of the United States of America.[…]Israel provides an enormous benefit to keeping America safe and protecting us from radical Islamic terrorists.”

So, is Ted Cruz a Christian Zionist, as Fea has suggested? Or, as Gagnon and Humphrey argue, is his support for Israel based “significantly on analytical and strategic grounds”? I happen to doubt that Cruz’s approach to Israel stems primarily from his reading of the Bible. In many ways, however, the “analytical and strategic” lessons he draws about the relationship of the US to Israel are indistinguishable from what Christian Zionists draw from Genesis 12:3, and the lines that he sees dividing the world are the same lines many Christian Zionists see. Even when not quoting the Bible, Cruz has shown his ability to speak many Christian Zionists’ language.

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