Against the backdrop of the United States government’s preparations to use military force against the “Islamic State” (ISIS), a diverse group of Christian leaders from around the world gathered in Washington last week. Patriarchs of many Christian communions in the Middle East met with religious leaders and policymakers united in their concern about the rising tide of persecution and violence against some of the world’s most ancient Christian communities.
The sponsoring organization, In Defense of Christians, planned the event months ago. As this awful summer brought images and stories of ISIS’s atrocities to Americans’ screens, our collective conscience seems to be awakening. Even Pope Francis underscored that it is licit to stop unjust aggressors. Coincidentally, this week’s summit took place as President Barack Obama and Members of Congress consider a counterterrorism strategy against ISIS.
For two full days, the In Defense of Christians summit was accomplishing its stated goals. Leaders prayed, strategized, raised awareness, and advocated for religious freedom. There were some disagreements, of course. Not all want to use military action to stop ISIS. But the summit was, by all accounts, going very well.
Then, Wednesday night, just an hour before President Obama’s speech to the nation, Sen. Ted Cruz addressed the summit. Billed as the keynote speaker, Cruz spoke extemporaneously for a few wandering moments. He listed organizations as disparate as Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and ISIS, and seemed proud to not understand the differences between them.
Cruz then told his audience, which included a number of Arab Christians, “Christians have no greater ally than Israel.” When some in the room booed, Cruz told the senior clerics that they hated America and that they hated Jews. Sen. Cruz said that if these holy men think differently on Israel, they are “consumed with hate” and “do not reflect the teachings of Christ.” Before leaving the stage, Cruz gave his parting blow: “If you do not stand with Israel and with the Jews, then I do not stand with you.”
In Defense of Christians issued a press release chiding “politically motivated opportunists” for disrupting the gala dinner.
But the culprit here is Ted Cruz. He is the politically motivated opportunist, and this breach of Washington decorum and its aftermath is revealing. The very worst things about our politics, our religion, and our media enabled Ted Cruz’s rise and sustain his ability to grandstand and imperil not only the functioning of our government, but apparently also sensitive foreign policy matters and fragile ecumenical Christian commitments.
Not content in his role as Tea Party champion and, at key moments, de facto Speaker of the House, Sen. Cruz seems hell-bent on making sure his rigid ideology trumps the dogged, determined work of countless other public officials who are trying to compromise and govern in a difficult political climate.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict figures prominently in our foreign policy and our domestic politics. We have compelling strategic and moral reasons to support Israel in its struggle for peace and security. That support is unwavering.
It is good to support our allies. But politically, the Israel lobby has created a situation in which American politics becomes a contest over which pro-Israel politicians are the most pro-Israel. Politicians flock to the America Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual policy conference to swear their fealty to Israel. Many U.S. politicians’ Israel commitments have grown from merely unwavering to uncritical and even unconditional.
One could be forgiven for thinking Cruz mistakenly thought he was addressing AIPAC Wednesday night. But his invocation of Israel was probably deliberate. Disregarding Middle Eastern Christians’ concerns was a small price for Cruz to pay to score a few more points with a foreign country that has, in fact, at times made life difficult for Palestinian Christians. Surely the first-term senator from Texas knows better than senior prelates from the region.
Cruz’s office later said that he was not warned against dragging Israel politics into the event and that if he had been, he simply would not have graced the event with his presence.
In addition to insulting Christian leaders gathered to deal with serious issues of persecution and violence, Cruz reinforced an absurd dichotomy that supposes anyone who does not unconditionally support Israel hates America, Israel, and Jews.
There is a strand in American evangelicalism that celebrates black-and-white distinctions and nurtures “us-versus-them” thinking. But Cruz’s comments also speak to broader issues in American Christianity that make global engagement difficult. In bringing his AIPAC speech to the Christian event, Cruz simply replaced the stock “America has no greater ally than Israel” with “Christians have no greater ally than Israel.”
Using “Christian” and “America” interchangeably is a profound political and theological error with far-reaching consequences. American Catholics and Orthodox tend to understand their place in a universal church in ways American Protestants often do not. Liberal U.S. Protestants stand quite apart from most of the world’s Christians on abortion and homosexuality, for instance. But American evangelicals should be aware of how their hyper-individual, free-market faith is a significant departure from ecumenical consensus on many issues not related to human sexuality.
As many are learning, Christians around the world are much less reflexively and uncritically pro-Israel than their American brethren. Israel has benefitted from U.S. evangelicals’ largely unrequited love of Jews, a bizarre fetishization that assumes Israel has a geopolitical role to play in an eschatological drama culminating in Jesus appearing in the sky on a white horse. This is why conservative Christian support for Israel is so high.
Cruz may believe all this. He certainly would not be alone. But to denounce the spiritual leaders of ISIS’s Christian victims as unchristian Jew-haters is beyond the pale.
President Obama underestimated ISIS, comparing non-state agitators in the Middle East to a JV team. Perhaps here at home, we should think of freshman Senators as JV team instead of a short hop to the presidency. The Democratic Party passed over more qualified candidates in 2008, and, inexplicably, many Republicans seem eager to send one of several ambitious Senate freshmen to the White House in 2016. Ted Cruz has shown himself to be a capable politician. But after his most recent stunt, it is obvious that Cruz’s aptitude as a statesman is perilously low.