As she cleans up the counter where the teenagers at her church’s Vacation Bible School ate their cookies and yoghurt, Luba Yanko complains about the state of the country. President Donald Trump is trying to act on Christian values, she believes. But from what she reads online, it seems that a certain group keeps getting in the way.
Trump, she says, “is surrounded by a Zionist environment with completely different values from Christians. It’s kabbalist. It’s Talmudic values. Not the word of God.”
In other words: It’s the Jews’ fault.
“Why do we have pro-abortion, pro-LGBTQ values, and we do not have more freedom to protect our faith? We are persecuted now,” Yanko says about evangelical Christians like herself. “[Jews] say, ‘We’ve got America. We control America.’ That’s what I know.”
It’s an anti-Semitic viewpoint shared by a number of evangelical Christians across the country. The relationship between Christians and Jews has been fraught for almost 2,000 years since the death of Jesus. Today, with a president who levels accusations about Jews and who encourages his fans to mistrust the mainstream media, a growing number of evangelicals are turning to the Internet for information, and finding anti-Jewish beliefs there.
Christians take their cues for what to think about Jews from many sources: From the long history of evangelicals’ support for the state of Israel. From fiery pastors who decry Jewish influence in their YouTube videos. From Trump, who this week declared that Jews who vote for Democrats – meaning more than 70 percent of all Jews in the United States – are “disloyal.”
In churches across America, evangelicals say they don’t believe they can get unbiased facts from any traditional news outlet that Trump has branded “fake news” (though many are fans of Fox News, and also watch other TV networks and read major news websites). Instead, they seek news from alternative websites and videos.
Pastors are aware of the conspiracy theories floating among their congregants, including a small number of virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic beliefs that some Christians interviewed by The Washington Post this summer professed.
But leaders are often unwilling to address these beliefs head-on. After a churchgoing evangelical Christian killed a Jewish woman at a synagogue in Poway, California, earlier this year – an act he prefaced with a manifesto including both anti-Semitic tropes from the Internet, and Christian theology from church – some pastors called for a national conversation about how evangelical pastors can make clear that such beliefs aren’t acceptable in their pews.
That doesn’t sit well with many evangelical pastors’ insistence that their job is to preach the Bible, not stray into current events.
At Christian Life Centre, the evangelical church north of Philadelphia where Yanko, a housekeeper, espoused anti-Semitism at the snack counter, lead pastor Mark English was unruffled to hear about Yanko’s statements.
“I’m not in government. It would be like me trying to understand the insurance business,” he said, when asked about Yanko’s allegation that Jews control the government. “The government is so complex – I don’t think that any one group controls everything.”
He felt no need to address his congregant’s anti-Semitic beliefs, either one-on-one or from the pulpit.
Historically, evangelicals have thought of themselves as very good friends of the Jews, not as anti-Semites. The two faiths share the Old Testament – known to Jews as the Hebrew Bible – and share basic watchwords of tolerance like loving your neighbour as yourself. Evangelicals often think fondly of Jews as their religious forebears – after all, Christ’s early followers were Jews of 2,000 years ago – even if they think Jews are missing the crucial Jesus part of the story.
And evangelicals tend to fiercely defend and embrace the state of Israel, a Jewish nation, because of its central role in their own faith. The nation is the site of numerous Christian holy spots, including the places where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected. Certain interpretations of Revelation say that Jewish presence in Israel is important for Christians, because it will take the homecoming of Jews to the land of Israel to bring about the return of the Messiah.
But Christian theology has also gone hand-in-hand with anti-Semitism for centuries, dating back long before Martin Luther. To this day, some Christians commonly believe that the Jews killed Jesus, and modern Jews should bear the guilt.
“There are plenty of evangelicals who have views about Jewish power, who assume Jews are controlling things. Jerry Falwell joked about how Jews could make more money,” said Daniel Hummel, a historian at a Christian study center at the University of Wisconsin who recently published a book about evangelicals and Jews.
Hummel described the deep-rooted anti-Semitic beliefs among some evangelicals as both cultural and theological, with the cultural beliefs coming from their conservative neighbours and the theological beliefs dating back to early Christianity, when Christians first started casting themselves as the new chosen people replacing the Jews.
“Some associations in certain conservative areas, with Jews being liberal, cosmopolitan, international and that being a threat to American Christian identity: You’re going to find those views, weirdly, right alongside expressing support for Israel,” Hummel said. “Someone like that would be vaguely or even strongly anti-Semitic, but also pro-Israel.”
And politically, evangelicals find themselves sharing common cause with right-wing anti-Semites. They might have little else in common, but both groups are enthusiastic supporters of President Donald Trump. And Trump, who strives to court that evangelical fandom, has flirted with anti-Semitism before this week. During his campaign, he retweeted and defended an image from a white supremacist website, showing Hillary Clinton’s face over a pile of money and a six-pointed Jewish star. He famously said that the demonstrators who chanted “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, Virginia, included “very fine people.”
Deborah Lipstadt, a historian who is one of the foremost researchers on anti-Semitism, said she has noticed that politically conservative talking points echo the language common to anti-Semites much more often. She pointed to Sen. Josh Hawley’s speech at the National Conservatism Conference, in which he used the word “cosmopolitan” 12 times.
“This class lives in the United States, but they identify as ‘citizens of the world.’ They run businesses or oversee universities here, but their primary loyalty is to the global community,” said Hawley, R-Mo., ,referring not to Jews but to liberal elites.
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“I’m sure most of the people who appeared there would say, ‘I’m a good friend of Jews,’ and they probably are,” Lipstadt said. “But if you took out the word ‘cosmopolitan’ and put in the word ‘Jew’ – it sounds like a traditional anti-Semitic trope . . . It’s the kind of thing that will attract the anti-Semites.”
At its root, this trope relies on a mistrust of major institutions, and a suspicion that Jews are manipulating them. Some of this attitude, including skepticism of big government, has always been part of the American conservative mind-set, Lipstadt noted. But some of it is new, including increased hostility toward big business on the part of some conservative populists, in contrast to the old Republican Party embrace of commerce.
“There’s a theory that’s out and about, about the manipulation of news, fake news. And how you can’t trust judges. And you can’t trust big pharma, that’s why we shouldn’t be vaccinated . . . These kind of conspiracy theories [about manipulating institutions], for centuries, are just so connected to anti-Semitism that it’s hard to just ignore,” Lipstadt said. “It’s hard to say this is just by chance.”
Evangelicals are not inherently anti-Semitic, she noted. But they tend to share these conservative suspicions of the news media and of elites, and to view themselves as the victims of the elites – a worldview that predisposes some to align themselves with anti-Semites.
Some online video-makers who espouse anti-Semitism do so with an openly Christian imprimatur.
Aryeh Tuchman, the associate director of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League, points to several YouTube channels where pastors promote a mix of Christian theology and anti-Jewish animus.
TruNews, a nightly newscast with more than 18 million views on YouTube, bills its purpose “to offer Christians a positive alternative to the anti-Christian bigotry of the mainstream media.” Jews and Israel are a constant target for Rick Wiles, the Florida pastor who runs the show.
In the past month alone, Wiles has posited that sex offender Jeffrey Epstein might not have died but instead been spirited away to a safe house in Israel; listed the names of “Hollywood Jews” who produced the pulled-from-theaters satirical movie “The Hunt” and suggested that they actually want to hunt and kill white Christians; called the non-Jewish billionaire “Rabbi Warren Buffett;” said the government could take away guns from anyone who criticizes Israel; referred to Ivanka Trump, who is Jewish, as “Yael Kushner;” and more.
Steven Anderson, the pastor of a Baptist church in Arizona who caused outrage during the Obama administration by saying he was praying for the president’s death, runs a YouTube channel with more than 62 million views. In sermons online, he claims, “The Jews believe that it’s okay for them to steal from Gentiles;” says that Jews and gay people run Hollywood; and emphasizes that Jews killed Jesus and are not God’s chosen people.
Tuchman said he worries that YouTube makes these beliefs unusually potent. First, the site’s never-ending recommendations feature might steer someone who was just looking for videos about the Bible to watch sermons that promote conspiracy theories. “To what extent can anti-Semitism jump from one stream of Christianity to another, especially when the anti-Semitic content may be queued up for a viewer by YouTube?” he asked.
And second, he fears that YouTube will treat with kid gloves a video creator who is also a pastor. “These channels may present themselves as mainstream, as religious Christian channels,” he said. “There may be reluctance to take them on, and they give them the benefit of the doubt that this is their religious belief, even if they may potentially violate the terms of service on YouTube or anywhere else.”
Farshad Shadloo, a spokesman for YouTube, did not comment specifically on Wiles, Anderson or other pastors, but said, “We enforce our policies consistently, and regardless of viewpoint, including religious beliefs.” That includes a new policy instated in June that bans statements that a race or religious group is superior in order to justify discrimination, even if the video does not explicitly call for violence.
For Wanda and Doug Meyer, like many other evangelical Christians across the country, these YouTube channels are their primary source of news. They turn to YouTube to understand events that seem vitally important to them, like policy in Washington that will impact their religious freedom at home in Brandon, Florida
Wanda, who taught in a public elementary school for 33 years, and Doug, a semiretired insurance specialist, have given up on newspapers and television channels, the outlets that Trump – whom they adore – calls “fake news.” On YouTube, they find the pastors who pray with Trump at the White House, the pastors they really trust.
“It’s right there on YouTube. You don’t hear it on mainstream media. We know Kenneth Copeland. We know Paula White. We know David Barton,” Wanda said. “Different ministers, that’s where we get our news. People who know what’s really going on.”
As they ate lunch after the service at their large evangelical church, the Meyers said they would like to someday visit Israel, which is religiously important to them. But they also watch a lot of videos online when they’re watching those pastors’ sermons. They believe, with total certainty, in what they hear, even when the information is false: That humans have nothing to do with climate change. That Muslims are trying to implement laws in U.S. states that would allow them to kill Christians with impunity. That a shadowy group, including wealthy Jews as leaders, meant to use Hillary Clinton to bring about “one world government.”
Wanda says they try to “stay up to date” on the “spiritual battle . . . financed by the Illuminati and the Rothschilds.”
After all, she trusts the source has a higher authority: “These are ministers we know, we respect.”