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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on the second night of the 2020 Republican convention, gave a speech from Jerusalem that was a symbolic nod to white conservative Christians in the United States.
In a pretaped address filmed with the Old City of Jerusalem in the background, Pompeo claimed that President Trump has made Americans safer.
The 56-year old Republican said that Trump has “held China accountable for covering up” the coronavirus earlier this year. He referred to COVID-19, which has killed over 182,000 Americans, as the “China virus.”
He also asserted that Trump has strengthened the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, despite the president’s years of conflict with members of the Western alliance. “Because of President Trump, NATO is stronger,” Pompeo said.
The speech sparked criticism on a number of fronts, in particular because Pompeo was the first secretary of state in several decades to give a speech at a party convention. Numerous former U.S. ambassadors spoke out to say that Pompeo was politicizing foreign policy.
Pompeo also may have violated the Hatch Act by giving the speech during an official trip, since the act forbids government officials from using taxpayer-funded resources for partisan purposes.
The State Department claimed that no taxpayer money was used in support of the speech, but Pompeo arrived in Israel on a government aircraft, and his significant costs for security, lodging and transportation while on an official trip are all funded by the government. The House Foreign Affairs Committee’s oversight panel has begun a preliminary investigation into Pompeo’s use of taxpayer funds for his speech.
Less remarked upon was the fact that Pompeo used the nation of Israel as a backdrop for a partisan and religious message to white evangelical Christians, who have been Trump’s most loyal voting bloc but have shown some signs of disappointment with the president in recent months.
Pompeo spoke at length about Trump’s policy choices: brokering a peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates; declaring that Israel has authority over the disputed Golan Heights; and recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving the U.S. embassy there.
“That’s for the evangelicals,” Trump said last week, adding of the embassy move: “You know, it’s amazing with that: The evangelicals are more excited by that than Jewish people.”
On Tuesday night, Pompeo described Jerusalem as “this very city of God … the rightful capital of the Jewish homeland.”
Israel matters to many white evangelical Christians given their deeply embedded beliefs about how the world will end, a topic known in theological circles as eschatology. One strain of such beliefs, “dispensational premillennialism” interprets the Bible as predicting a historic and violent conflict in Israel as part of the end of the world that will bring about God’s kingdom.
A former congressman from Kansas, Pompeo has been an evangelical Christian since his days as a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Pompeo has been a regular attendee at a Bible study of Cabinet members led by Ralph Drollinger, a former basketball player who has become influential among Christian conservatives in Washington over the past 10 years. Drollinger’s group, Capitol Ministries, teaches that Christians will be “raptured” out of the Earth before a period of great conflict and “tribulation” takes place. During that time, the group’s statement of beliefs reads, “The righteous judgments of God will be poured out upon an unbelieving world.”
The establishment of a heavenly kingdom, the group believes, “will be the fulfillment of God's promise to Israel to restore them to the land which they forfeited through their disobedience. The result of their disobedience was that Israel was temporarily set aside but will again be awakened through repentance to enter into the land of blessing.”
Darrell L. Bock, a professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary who is an expert on eschatology, cautioned against reading too much into the location of Pompeo’s speech, or into how the religious beliefs of white evangelical Christians impact politics. Other issues, such as abortion and religious liberty, influence who they support far more than end-times beliefs, he told Yahoo News.
“There are people who make more of this than probably ought to be made. It’s symbolic but it’s not significant,” Bock said. Nonetheless, he said, there are many Christians who believe that “God has made certain commitments to Israel, and these commitments remain and will one day be realized.”
Yet Pompeo has spoken publicly about the way that his belief in a “rapture” informs his politics. Two days after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges legalizing same-sex marriage, Pompeo spoke to a religious gathering in Kansas and said what he called the “disappointments of the last week” were a “call to action.”
“We will continue to fight these battles. It is a never-ending struggle … until the Rapture,” Pompeo said.
End-times theology has long been an overlooked but important part of the fundamentalist Christians’ worldview.
Former President Ronald Reagan’s “belief in Russia’s demonic end-time destiny was deep-seated and well-documented,” wrote Paul Boyer, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in his 1994 book, “When Time Shall Be No More.”
“Millions of men and women view world events and trends, at least in part, through the refracting lens of prophetic belief,” Boyer wrote in that book. “Those who inhabit this world take very seriously the Bible’s apocalyptic sections and derive from them a detailed agenda of coming events."
Boyer quoted former evangelical preacher Billy Graham as preaching about the role of the Middle East in the end of the world during a sermon attended by then-President George H.W. Bush in the run up to the 1991 Gulf War. “These events are happening in that part of the world where history began, and, the Bible says, where history as we know it will someday end,” Graham said.
The “Left Behind” books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, a fictional series first released in the 1990s about the end of the world based on fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible, sold millions of copies and were turned into films.
Gershom Gorenberg, an American-born Israel journalist who has written a book about fundamentalist religious beliefs about Israel, “The End of Days,” wrote on Twitter on Tuesday that Pompeo’s speech was “apocalyptic foreign policy in a nutshell: Israel not as a real country but as fantasyland, backdrop for Christian myth.”
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