Move May Prompt Paradox in Religions
DANVILLE, Va. — Everyone who worships at the Tabernacle quickly learns three facts about its deeply conservative pastor. He comes from a broken home. He rides a canary-yellow Harley. And he loves the Jews.
There is some murmuring about the motorcycle. But the 2,500 members of this Bible-believing, tradition-respecting Southern Baptist church in southern Virginia have embraced everything else about the Rev. Lamarr Mooneyham.
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Out of his painful childhood experiences, Mooneyham, 57, preaches passionately about the importance of home. Out of his reading of the Bible, he preaches with equal passion about God’s continuing devotion to the Jewish people.
“I feel jealous sometimes. This term that keeps coming up in the Old Book — the Chosen, the Chosen,” says the minister, who has made three trips to Israel and named his sons Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. “I’m a pardoned gentile, but I’m not one of the Chosen People. They’re the apple of his eye.”
Scholars of religion call this worldview “philo-Semitism,” the opposite of anti-Semitism. It is a burgeoning phenomenon in evangelical Christian churches across the country, a hot topic in Jewish historical studies and a wellspring of support for Israel.
Yet many Jews are nervous about evangelicals’ intentions. In recent weeks, leaders of three of the nation’s largest Jewish groups — the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Union for Reform Judaism — have decried what they see as a mounting threat to the separation of church and state from evangelicals emboldened by the belief that they have an ally in the White House and an opportunity to shift the Supreme Court.
“Make no mistake: We are facing an emerging Christian right leadership that intends to ‘Christianize’ all aspects of American life, from the halls of government to the libraries, to the movies, to recording studios, to the playing fields and locker rooms . . . from the military to SpongeBob SquarePants,” the ADL’s national director, Abraham H. Foxman, said in a Nov. 3 speech.
Julie Galambush, a former American Baptist minister who converted to Judaism 11 years ago, has seen both sides of the divide. She said many Jews suspect that evangelicals’ support for Israel is rooted in a belief that the return of Jews to the promised land will trigger the Second Coming of Jesus, the battle of Armageddon and mass conversion.
“That hope is felt and expressed by Christians as a kind, benevolent hope,” said Galambush, author of “The Reluctant Parting,” a new book on the Jewish roots of Christianity. “But believing that someday Jews will stop being Jews and become Christians is still a form of hoping that someday there will be no more Jews.”
The result is a paradox — warming evangelical attitudes toward Jews at a time of rising Jewish concern about evangelicals — that could be a turning point in the uneasy alliance between Jewish and Christian groups that ardently back Israel but disagree on much else.
The Rev. Donald E. Wildmon, chairman of the evangelical American Family Association, warned in a Dec. 5 radio broadcast that Foxman was “in a bind” because the “strongest supporters Israel has are members of the religious right — the people he’s fighting.”
“The more he says that ‘you people are destroying this country,’ you know, some people are going to begin to get fed up with this and say, ‘Well, all right then. If that’s the way you feel, then we just won’t support Israel anymore,’ ” Wildmon said.
Philo-Semitism is far from universal among the 60 million to 90 million U.S. adults who identify themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians. But it has strong roots, not only in the Hebrew scriptures shared by both faiths but also in the belief that today’s Jews and Christians have common antagonists, such as secularism, consumerism and militant Islam.
In his sermons, Mooneyham returns again and again to God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12: “I will bless those who bless you, and curse him who curses you.”
It is a theme echoed in many conversations at the Tabernacle, a plain red-brick church in a community that has seen one factory after another close, yet where the congregation made a Christmas offering of $25,000 to help pay for the immigration of Russian Jews to Israel.
“I believe everyone in this church felt it was the best thing we’ve ever done with missionary money, to help the Jewish people go home,” said Dorothy Pawlowski, 72, who tithes to the church.
And it is a message being passed to the next generation. On Thursday nights, J.J. Vogltanz, a deacon, uses a Christian textbook to lead his three home-schooled children in science experiments designed to illustrate Bible verses. One of the first things he taught them about Jesus, he said, was that “he was a Jew.”
Asked whether he also taught his children that the Jews rejected Jesus, Vogltanz, 34, paused. “I’m not sure it’s constructive to assign blame,” he said.
Mark A. Noll, a professor of Christian thought at Wheaton College, a center of evangelical scholarship in Illinois, said evangelicals are beginning to move away from supersessionism — the centuries-old belief that with the coming of Jesus, God ended his covenant with the Jews and transferred it to the Christian church.
Since the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations have renounced supersessionism and stressed their belief that the covenant between God and the Jewish people remains in effect.
Evangelicals generally have not taken that step, but “among what you might call the evangelical intelligentsia, questions of supersessionism have come onto the table,” Noll said. “It’s in play among evangelicals in the way that it was in mainline Protestantism and Catholicism — but wasn’t among evangelicals — 30 or 40 years ago.”
At Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical training ground in Pasadena, Calif., President Richard J. Mouw hosted a kosher breakfast for 20 rabbis a week before Christmas. “More and more, we’re inviting Jews as guest lecturers,” Mouw said. “We’re looking at rabbinic literature and how we can better understand the Bible through rabbinic eyes. That’s a real push for us.”
Jacques Berlinerblau, a visiting professor of Jewish civilization at Georgetown University, said the rise of philo-Semitism in the United States has led Jewish scholars to look back at previous periods of philo-Semitism, such as in Amsterdam in the mid-17th century. He said revisionists are increasingly challenging the standard “lachrymose version” of Jewish history, questioning whether persecution has been the norm and tolerance the exception, or vice versa.
Still, some Jews think that philo-Semitism is just the flip side of anti-Semitism.
“Both are Semitisms: That is, both install the Jews at the center of history. One regards this centrality positively, the other regards it negatively. But both are forms of obsession about the Jews,” said Leon Wieseltier, a Jewish scholar and literary editor of the New Republic.
The Southern Baptist Convention, to which the Tabernacle belongs, passed a resolution in 1867 calling on its members to convert Jews and renewed that call as recently as 1996. Its former president, Bailey Smith, declared in 1980 that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew,” and it currently supports about 15 congregations of messianic Jews, who are popularly associated with the organization Jews for Jesus.
So Mooneyham has a ready answer for Jews who doubt his motives: “I think they have a right to be suspicious of just about everybody, given the history.”
He also has a personal story. The pivotal moment of Mooneyham’s childhood came at age 7 when his parents, in the middle of a divorce, took him and his three sisters to a church parking lot in Burlington, N.C., and parceled them out to relatives for a few weeks. Those few weeks turned into years. The family never came together again.
Nearly 45 years later, the pastor was watching television before a Sunday morning church service when he came upon an infomercial by Rabbi Yechiel Z. Eckstein, founder of a group called the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Eckstein was standing in Israel with an elderly woman from Russia who said she was finally home.
“She started crying, he started crying, and I started crying,” Mooneyham said. “Then I said, ‘Lord, help me, because I’m really going to throw my congregation a curveball today. We’re going to help Jews — we’re not going to witness to them, we’re just going to help them. Because I know what home means.’ “
Since that day five years ago, according to Eckstein, the Tabernacle has sent more than $175,000 to the fellowship, which has a donor base of 400,000 Christians and has contributed more than $100 million to Israeli causes.
“I can only say that what we’ve done should speak for itself, because we’ve given and we’ve asked nothing in return,” Mooneyham said. “And that’s the way it will stay.”