Word of Caution About Evangelicals

Jonathan Steinberg, chairman of the history department at the University of Pennsylvania, said that George W. Bush is, in a sense, dead.

Of course, the president is alive and well in Washington. And Steinberg was not suggesting that he's a lame-duck president. What the scholar meant was that the hard-drinking scion of an aristocratic New England family – who attended Yale, and belonged to the Skull and Bones secret society – figuratively ceased to exist in 1985 when he became a born-again, evangelical Christian.

Steinberg's comments came during his Sept. 25 lecture at the Gershman Y, where he led off the season's Joseph P. Sobo Sunday Brunch Series. His topic was the worldview of evangelical Christians – who now comprise roughly 30 percent of the country's population, a number he feels will continue to rise – and how their religious beliefs shape their overall attitudes toward Jews and the State of Israel.

"The single most important distinguishing characteristic of Jews in the Christian world is that they are the people of the Old Testament," Steinberg, who specializes in European and Jewish history, told the roughly 100 people in attendance.

He explained that in today's political terms, it means that evangelicals – who ascribe to a more literal interpretation of the Bible than mainline Protestants – believe that the Bible's recording of God's promise of the Land of Israel still holds true.

Evangelical churches have been known to celebrate Israeli Independence Day, and many were bitterly opposed to withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The flip side, he said, is that many also believe that the second coming of Jesus will lead to the conversion of the world's Jews to Christianity.

He said that a major question on the part of the Israeli government and American Jewish community is to what extent they'll mobilize Christian-right support for the Jewish state, knowing that – in their heart of hearts – many really do hope for the conversion of the Jews.

One audience member asked whether it's true that Bush is a tried-and-true evangelical. For if so, how could he support Israel's decision to withdraw from Gaza, or encourage Israel to make future territorial concessions?

"Pressure groups don't get everything they want," he said. "The president cannot do what he might like all the time."



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