In 1995, the US Congress voted to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. But until Donald Trump, presidents both Republican and Democratic resisted implementing the move, worried it could set off deadly violence. Yesterday, Trump’s advisors and family members Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner finally inaugurated the new Jerusalem embassy—while the death toll of Palestinian protestors ticked steadily up to over 50, including several children.
Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Barack Obama all faced pressure from wealthy potential campaign donors to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, but Trump is listening to a voice they were not: evangelical Christians who appear to believe in the “Rapture.” Some, like vice president Mike Pence and secretary of state Mike Pompeo, hold posts inside his cabinet. For Rapture Christians, returning Jerusalem to the Jewish people is a key to the second coming of Christ.
Robert Jeffress, a pastor who preaches the Rapture, delivered the new embassy’s opening prayer. Jeffress has previously said that Mormons are heretics, Jews fated to hell, Islam promotes pedophilia, and homosexuals are filthy. He prayed, “We thank you everyday that you have given us a president who boldly stands on the right side of history, and more importantly on the right side of you, oh God, when it comes to Israel.”
Ahead of the embassy opening, over 63% of Americans opposed the move.
A new ideology in the White House
Belief in the Rapture, also known as millenarianism or eschatology, has multiple variations, but the core view is that there will an apocalyptic war, Jesus will return, and true Christians will be “raptured” or ascend to heaven, with the rest of the earth’s inhabitants punished. Rapture believers are split about the order of events, but they are united in the belief that only Christians will be saved.
Preachers of this scenario include the recently-deceased Billy Graham, mega-church founder Pat Robertson (who says Trump is implementing “God’s plan“) and many lesser-known “end is nigh” prophets around the country.
In the Trump White House, a weekly bible study group calls its brand of faith “historical evangelicalism.” Biblical scholars say the group shares the “end of times” message of “Rapture” theologians in its statement of faith and founder Ralph Drollinger’s own published lessons.
The bible study group is run by Capitol Ministries, an organization with the stated mission “to teach God’s Word and share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with state legislators, judges, and constitutional officers.” Capitol Ministries supporters include ten members of Trump’s cabinet, including in addition to Pompeo, labor secretary Alex Acosta and housing secretary Ben Carson according to the Capitol Ministries website. Drollinger, a UCLA basketball player-turned politician-turned-preacher, has also been holding weekly bible study groups with dozens of Congress members since 2010.
On May 8, as Trump was pulling the US out of the Iran deal, Capitol Ministries put out its latest study, “The Bible on When War Is Justifiable,” rebutting pacifism. If Jesus calls us to be “peacemakers,” it asks, “then how could a Christian Cabinet Member or Congressman support the idea of going to war?” The answer, Drollinger, explains, is simple: Saint Peter instructs men to submit “to every human institution” and the Book of Revelations discusses the “righteousness” of a God who “judges and wages war.”
Drollinger turned down a request for an interview through a spokeswoman.
Jerusalem is key
A fundamental part of believing in the Rapture is believing that all of Jerusalem (currently split between Arab and Israeli-held territory) must be returned to the Jewish people, and then the rest of the world must go to war. For Christians awaiting end times, Israel “is at the center of the end of history,” said Greg Carey, a professor of the New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary. “History will culminate with this great battle” in Israel, Carey said.
Some White House officials and supporters have described the Trump administration’s actions in Israel with similar language. ”When we open the American Embassy in Jerusalem, we will in a very real sense end this historic friction, we’ll embrace reality,” vice president Pence said in an interview with the Christian Broadcast Network on May 3. Trump supporter and Fox News host Jeanine Pirro said Monday that the president had fulfilled a biblical prophesy.
Critics warn that Rapture-believing evangelicals pose a threat to global peace. “They want to bring on the Kingdom of Christ, and their version is weaponized,” said Mikey Weinstein, the founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a watchdog group that tracks Christian fundamentalism in the military. “They want to do whatever they can do to bring their version of Jesus back.”
If you believe in the Rapture, “there are only two groups, the righteous and the unrighteous, or the godly and the ungodly,” said Valarie Ziegler, a professor of religious studies at DePauw University. “It leads to very binary thinking. Any other religion will be a false religion, by definition.”
Last January, some Christian leaders in the Middle East refused to meet with Pence when he came to the region, calling his push for the relocation of the Embassy part of a “sick ideology” that perverts Christianity’s message of justice and compassion.
Widespread in the US
The idea that the apocalypse is coming is shunned by many mainstream Christians, biblical scholars, and theology experts. But it has been part of US history since the late 1800s, and continues to spread through megachurches and hundreds of publishers, online discussion boards, and local bible study groups.
Millenarianism rejects both evolutionary science, and the biblical scholarship that reanalyzed the Scriptures as historical documents, rather than the literal word of God. It is remarkably popular. The “Left Behind” series of Christian apocalyptic novels first published in 1995 have sold over 80 million copies. “There are tens of millions of Americans who are part of religious communities who hold a Rapture theology,” Carey said. While it’s impossible to know how committed the individuals are to the ideology, they’re an important voting block, he said.
“Rapture theology is not a majority position but it is a powerful enough force to shape elections,” he said. White, evangelical Christians voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016.
Anti-environmentalism, isolationism, King Cyrus
Rapture theologists and historical evangelicals hold several other views that hew closely to Trump administration policies. They believe that earth was created for man’s use, for example, and that environmentalism is a form of blasphemy.
In an April 2 Bible study, Drollinger focused on the “huge and dire error” of “radical environmentalism”. He argues that humans are incapable of destroying the earth on their own, because it is up to God to “continually renew the face of the earth until He forms a new heaven and a new earth in the end times.”
Rapture believers also tend to be suspicious of international alliances, including the United Nations, global trade pacts, and even the European Union, Carey said. In particular, “they are very suspicious of any international alliance that can accomplish peace,” he added. “Because history is not headed towards peace.”
While Trump’s alleged adulterous affairs and irreverent style might make him seem an unlikely vessel for Christian prophesy, he has been compared in evangelical circles to King Cyrus the Great, an ancient Persian king who predicted the Jews’ return to Jerusalem. In March, Benjamin Netanyahu made the comparison, and Pirro did the same on Fox News today.
Christian evangelicals “don’t like Trump because they think he is holy,” explains Ziegler. “They like him because they think he’s God’s tool.”