What's the number one item on the agenda of the Christian Right? Abortion? School Prayer? No and No. Believe it or not, what's most important to a lot of conservative Christians is the Jewish State. Israel: Its size, its strength, and its survival. Why?
Bob Simon reports.
There is the alliance between America and Israel in the war on Islamic terror. But it goes deeper. For Christians who interpret the bible in a literal fashion, Israel has a crucial role to play in bringing on the Second Coming of Christ. This Friday, thousands are expected to gather on the Mall in Washington to express their faith and to lobby the administration. The rally is being organized by the Christian Coalition, which wants to make sure that the Bush Administration sees the struggle in the Middle East between Jews and Muslims their way - the Christian way.
At one congregation in Colorado, it's Israel Awareness Day. But this is not a Jewish congregation. They are all Christians. Not only are they holding these pep rallies all across America, they're also streaming here to Israel, to the dangerous streets of Jerusalem to express their undying devotion.
American Christian Zionists say they are now a more important source of support for Israel than American Jews or the traditional Jewish lobby.
"It is my belief that the Bible Belt in America is Israel's only safety belt right now," says Rev. Jerry Falwell, one of the leaders of the Christian Right. That's the bulk of Evangelical Christians; Falwell claims to speak for all of them.
"There are 70 million of us," he says. "And if there's one thing that brings us together quickly it's whenever we begin to detect our government becoming a little anti-Israel."
Falwell began to detect just that last April when President Bush called on Israel to withdraw its tanks from Palestinian towns on the West Bank. So Falwell shot off a letter of protest to the White House, which was followed by a hundred thousand e-mails from Christian conservatives. Israel did not move its tanks. Bush did not ask again.
"There's nothing that would bring the wrath of the Christian public in this country down on this government like abandoning or opposing Israel in a critical matter," Falwell says. The "Christian public" is, he says, Bush's core constituency.
"I really believe when the chips are down Ariel Sharon can trust George Bush to do the right thing every time," says Falwell.
Prime Minister Sharon can apparently trust the Christian Evangelicals to do the right thing too. They treated him like a rock star when they flocked to Jerusalem last week to celebrate the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles.
What propels them? Why do they love Israel so much? The return of the Jews to their ancient homeland is seen by Evengelicals as a precondition for the Second Coming of Christ. Therefore, when the Jewish state was created in 1948 they saw it as a sign. Israel's conquest of Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967 deepened their excitement, heightened their anticipation. And today's war between Jews and Arabs was also prophesized, they say. They've seen it all before – in the pages of the Bible.
"The Bible does not contain the word of God," says Ed McAteer. "Listen to me closely. The Bible is the word of God." McAteer is known as the Godfather of the Christian Right. He's a former Colgate marketing executive from Memphis, and was a founder of the Moral Majority.
McAteer believes that the current situation is the beginning of the final battle. "I believe that we are seeing prophecy unfold so rapidly and dramatically and wonderfully and, without exaggerating, makes me breathless."
He's not the only one. Countless millions of Americans are reading a series of novels called "Left Behind." They are topping bestseller lists all over the country, and they're being made into movies. They chronicle apocalyptic times. The setting is the twenty-first century, complete with war planes and TV correspondents.
But the plot is ripped from the pages of the Bible, so it all winds up here in Israel where, according to the Book of Revelations, the final battle in the history of the future will be fought on an ancient battlefield in northern Israel called Armageddon. It will follow seven years of tribulation during which the earth will be shaken by such disasters that previous human history will seem like a day in the country. The blood will rise as high as a horse's bridle here at Armageddon, before Christ triumphs to begin his 1000-year rule.
And the Jews? Well, two-thirds of the will have been wiped out by now. And the survivors will accept Jesus at last.
"The Jews die or convert. As a Jew, I can't feel very comfortable with the affections of somebody who looks forward to that scenario," says Gershom Gorenberg, who knows that scenario well. He's the author of the "End of Days," a book about those Christian evangelicals who choose to read the Bible literally. "They don't love real Jewish people. They love us as characters in their story, in their play, and that's not who we are, and we never auditioned for that part, and the play is not one that ends up good for us."
"If you listen to the drama they're describing, essentially it's a five-act play in which the Jews disappear in the fourth act," he says.
But if that makes Gershom Gorenberg feel uncomfortable, these Christians maintain it's only because he doesn't understand how deeply they love him.
"The Jews need conversion," says Kay Arthur. "They need to know that the Messiah is coming. And the Bible tells us what's going to happen." Arthur heads an organization called Precept Ministries in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She brings thousands of pilgrims to the Holy Land.
The Christian fundamentalists believe the only Israelis who are really listening to God are the hard line Jewish settlers who live on the West Bank and Gaza and refuse to move. The Christians trudge up to these settlements as if they were making pilgrimages to holy shrines. That's because they and the settlers share a core conviction.
They believe that God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people. "Every grain of sand, every grain of sand between the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, and, and the Mediterranean Sea belongs to the Jews," says McAteer. This includes the West Bank and Gaza.
The three million Palestinians who live on the West Bank and Gaza? McAteer suggests the bulk of them could be cleansed from this God-given real estate and moved to some Arab country. Nothing can come between the Jews and their land. In fact, many fundamentalists believe that when Prime Minister Rabin signed the Oslo accords and offered to trade land for peace, it was not only a mistake, it was a sin.
"They were going against the word of God. You cannot go against the word of God. And I believe that God stopped it," says Arthur. She hints that God punished Rabin by assassinating him. "I think that God did not want that Oslo Accord to go through."
"God save us from these people," says political analyst Yossi Alpher, who served 12 years in Israel's intelligence agency, the Mossad. Later, he became Israel Director of the American Jewish Committee.
Says Alpher: "When you see what these people are encouraging Israel and the U.S. Administration to do that is, ignore the Palestinians, if not worse, if not kick them out, expand the settlements to the greatest extent possible, they are leading us into a scenario of out and out disaster."
But many American Jewish leaders who used to shun support from the Christian Right have changed their minds. Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, accepts their support.
"On this specific issue on this day we come together. And what is the issue? The issue is fighting terrorism," Foxman says.
That is precisely what the Bush Administration and the Israeli Government have been saying since September 11, that they are allies in the war on terror. But the Christian Fundamentalists go further. They say it is not just an alliance between nations but between religions.
"A lot of Muslims feel these days that Christians and Jews are getting together and ganging up on them," Simon said to Falwell.
"That's true. I'm sorry, that's true. I hope it will cease to be so. But I think that is the fact right now," says Falwell.
Falwell believes most Muslims want to live in peace but, he says, the lines have been drawn. Christians and Jews are on one side, Muslims on the other and, he says, those lines were drawn more than a thousand years ago.
"You wrote an approving piece recently about a book called 'Unveiling Islam,'" Simon said to Falwell. "And you — the authors of that book wrote, 'The Muslim who commits acts of violence in jihad does so with the approval of Mohammed.' Do you believe that?
"I do," Falwell answered. "I think Mohammed was a terrorist. He - I read enough of the history of his life written by both Muslims and – and - non-Muslims, that he was a - a violent man, a man of war."
"So, in the same way that Moses provided the ultimate example for the Jews and same way that Jesus provided the ultimate example for Christians, Mohammed provided the ultimate example for Muslims and he was a terrorist?" Simon responded.
"In my opinion," Falwell answered. "And I do believe that - Jesus set the example for love, as did Moses. And I think that Mohammed set an opposite example."
What frightens Alpher is that he hears much of Falwell's world view reflected in the words of the Bush Administration.
"When we hear expressions like "the evil ones," this kind of black and white view of good guys, the bad guys," says Alpher.
But as long as Jews are the good guys in this representation, this is good for the Jews, isn't it?
"It's not good for the Jews. It's not good for the Jews. We have to get God out of this conflict if we're going to have any chance to survive as a healthy, secure Jewish state," says Alpher.