Few developments could have excited President Trump’s evangelical base more than his intention to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This base came through for him in the 2016 election, with 81 percent of white evangelicals voting for him. When he promised during his campaign that moving the embassy was high on his agenda and even said it would be one of his first acts as president, many evangelicals cheered.
But other evangelicals—myself included—were cautious, viewing this move as an idea that needs to be left on the shelf. And they are worried now. Despite media portrayals giving the impression that evangelicals have one point of view when it comes to Israel, in reality there is a wide range of perspectives.
Some conservative evangelicals have built a remarkable theology around the modern state of Israel. It’s as if a biblical story has come alive again from the scriptures. In the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament), Jerusalem was established as Israel’s capital by King David about 1,000 years before Christ. Notwithstanding various wars and a Babylonian exile that led to the loss of the city, Jerusalem remained Israel’s de facto capital in the Jewish imagination. Even in the New Testament, Jerusalem is assumed to be Israel’s capital. But another war in 70 A.D. led to a longtime loss of the city. Modern Israel did not recapture Jerusalem until 1967.
The key to understanding this perspective is to recognize that these conservative evangelicals are building a bridge from ancient biblical Israel to the modern secular State of Israel. So, promises made almost 4,000 years ago to Abraham apply to the modern Israeli state. “The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you,” God says in Genesis 17:8. For these evangelical interpreters, a verse like this one is not just something ancient; it provides a political mandate for Israel’s privileges today. And Genesis 12:3, “I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse,” originally intended as a word of protection for Abraham’s tribe, now can become a mandate for anyone living today. We are obligated, the argument runs, to bless modern Israel. In the U.S., blessing Israel means recognizing its sole ownership of Jerusalem.
These evangelicals’ perspectives stem partly from a high regard for the Bible and its story about the fate of the Israelites, which has led to an outsized fascination with Judaism. They believe that Israel has a unique place in history as God’s special people, so Israel deserves deferential treatment—and Jerusalem deserves the same. For some, Israel enjoys an exceptionalism that sets it apart from the entire world. There are even evangelicals who believe that promoting the importance of Jerusalem is one more building block in the fulfillment of prophecies that sets the stage for the Second Coming of Christ. The average conservative evangelical is filled with a tangle of commitments that are often tough to sort out. She just knows that if Israel wants something—in this case, Jerusalem—Israel deserves to have it.
The legitimacy of this position rests entirely on the legitimacy of the theological move from antiquity to the 21st century. If the theological bridge can be built, modern secular Israel enjoys the biblical promises and privileges no other nation can enjoy, including the privilege of having all of Jerusalem despite an international outcry. The problem is that this bridge is fundamentally unsound. It uses the Bible for modern political ends that many of us find illegitimate.
Numerous evangelicals like me are less enamored of the recent romance between the church and Republican politics, and worry about moving the U.S. embassy. For us, peacemaking and the pursuit of justice are very high virtues. We view the ethical teachings of the scriptures as primary, and recognize that when biblical Israelites failed in their moral pursuits, they were sorely criticized by the Hebrew prophets and became subject to ejection from the Holy Land. Amos 5:24 shows that even the use of the Jerusalem Temple can be problematic to God: “Take away from me [God] the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Many of us look at modern Israel today and see a country that Amos would barely recognize. How, we wonder, can anyone build a bridge from ancient Israel to modern Israel today? Amos would hardly recognize in Tel Aviv a city based on biblical ideals.
What’s more, anything that detracts from the movement toward a peaceful resolution of conflict must be avoided. We do not promote what we call the “territorialism” of the Bible. We anchor our thinking not in the Old Testament’s land-based promises, but in the gospel, where the tribal or local theologies about Israel become global and universal, welcoming all people from every tribe and every land into a divine promise of blessing. Paul can refer to gentiles as children of Abraham (Romans 4:11) because it’s through faith, not ethnic lineage, that one gains access to the blessings of God. This shift in emphasis, which challenges the exclusivity of any one tribe and universalizes blessing, explains the world-mission of the ancient church and the inclusion of gentiles in Jesus’s Jewish messianic movement. From this vantage, arguments for ethnic land claims—such as disputes over Jerusalem—sound foreign.
Finally, although there is little doubt that Jerusalem is the historic capital of biblical Israel, the ancient world did not view “capitals” as we do today. Tribal societies like Israel had one major city that generally housed a palace and a temple. Life orbited around this city and its defeat was the defeat of the nation itself. Today things are considerably different. Modern Tel Aviv, where all Israel’s embassies are located, did not exist in biblical times and now it is a substantial city of 500,000. Nevertheless, Jerusalem is the religious or perhaps the emotional capital of Israel.
But Jerusalem is also the religious and emotional capital of Palestinian life. The east side of the city is home to Palestinians who are either Muslim or Christian. Although their functional capital is in Ramallah, it is Jerusalem they look to for both churches and mosques. In Islam, Jerusalem is the third-holiest city (after Mecca and Medina). The 7th-century Dome of the Rock is there, as well as the historic Al-Aqsa mosque. Palestinian Muslims are defensive about protecting their portion of the city and they see an embassy move as another step toward identifying all of Jerusalem fully with Israel. To say it troubles them is to put it mildly. Some Palestinians view it as a “declaration of war.”
Moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is simply provocative. And this is a part of the world where the peace process requires us to avoid provocation at all costs. There’s a reason why the world’s embassies have stayed out of Jerusalem. It’s not based on anti-Israel antagonism; it’s a pragmatic decision to support the peace process and to view Jerusalem as a shared city that respects everyone’s privileges.
I’ve had career diplomats in the State Department tell me privately that an embassy move would be foolish. Unfortunately, many of these seasoned men and women are leaving their careers, or are being pushed out. We need people like them now to remind the White House that in the Middle East, even symbolic gestures can have very real, dangerous consequences. But we also need evangelicals to do this. Trump listens to his evangelical advisers—and they are the ones who can lead him back to the Hebrew prophets, where a different point of view can be found.