It hasn’t always been that way. There was a time when the region bore witness to what men and women, acting in accordance with their Christian convictions, could accomplish.
This is the subject of a fascinating book entitled Power, Faith & Fantasy: The United States in the Middle East 1776 to 2006, by Michael Oren. Oren, who grew up in New Jersey, is the Israeli ambassador to the United States, as well as being a respected historian.
As the subtitle suggests, Oren’s goal is to correct the impression that American involvement in the region only goes back to the post-World War II period and was motivated by concern over Middle East oil.
While oil does play an important part in the story, our involvement in the region is as old as the republic and, for most of our history, was driven by specifically Christian concerns. First and foremost among these concerns was the gathering of the Jewish people in their biblical homeland.
This idea long predated Hal Lindsey. It figures in the writings of John Milton and John Locke. In the United States, what is called “Restorationism” received its fullest exposition in an 1844 book called The Valley of Vision: The Dry Bones of Israel Revived.
In it, the author called for “elevating” the Jews “to a rank of honorable repute among the nations of the Earth” by restoring their ancient homeland. This, in turn, would “flash a splendid demonstration among all kindreds and tongues of the truth” of the Christian faith. The author’s name, by the way, was George Bush and you may have heard of some of his descendants.
Christian interest in the Middle East went beyond words. Oren chronicles the history of Christian missionaries in the region. As Oren notes, converts were scarce. Then, as now, conversion from Islam to Christianity was punishable by death; and few, if any, Jews expressed an interest in Protestant Christianity; and much the same could be said of the region’s native Christians.
But that doesn’t mean that they had no impact. These missionaries founded the region’s first modern universities and introduced modern medicine to the Middle East. Many of the region’s future leaders were educated at institutions such as the Syrian Protestant College, later called the American University in Beirut, and Robert College in Istanbul counts two prime ministers and a Nobel Laureate among its alumni.
They also helped to make the desert bloom by founding agricultural communities that anticipated the kibbutzes (or actually kibbutzim) that produced many of Israel’s founders. They did this despite the very real dangers to their personal safety. For example, when his brother Frederick was killed by raiders, Johann Grossteinbeck left for America where he Americanized the family name by shortening it. And you may have heard of his grandson, John Steinbeck, who went on to write books such as The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden.
It is only the post-war period in which oil and power politics dominate American involvement in the region — and even then faith plays a role. Lyndon Johnson’s support for Israel in 1967 was partially driven by his grandfather’s admonition to “take care of the Jews, God’s chosen people.”
Like I said, the news hasn’t always been bad, even if it’s terrible now. Oren’s book is a wonderful corrective to much of what we think we know about the region and our relationship with it. And I recommend it highly.
BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.
Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.
Publication date: July 2, 2013