Deceptive Documentary Portrays Evangelicals as Repugnant Other
Evangelical Christians have been a convenient bogeyman in American society since the 1920s when journalist H.L. Mencken assailed their fundamentalist ancestors during the Scopes Monkey Trial, describing them as “vermin” who were able to enjoy the fruits of modernity created by their intellectual superiors whom they hated. “The so-called religious organizations which now lead the war against the teaching of evolution are nothing more, at bottom, than conspiracies of the inferior man against his betters,” Mencken wrote. “They mirror very accurately his congenital hatred of knowledge, his bitter enmity to the man who knows more than he does, and so gets more out of life.”
In the 90-plus years since Mencken established the journalistic template on how to write about bible-reading and believing Evangelicals, the community has been portrayed as a collection of racist, backward, ignorant yokels unable to adapt to modern life, and the ultimate source of all that is bad and retrograde in American society.
In her magisterial text, The Book of Jerry Falwell, anthropologist Susan Harding reports that after the Scopes Trial, Evangelicals were characterized as the “repugnant other” against which their adversaries oriented themselves. The Scopes Trial and Mencken’s caricature cast Evangelicals “out of public life, marked them as a category of inferior persons whose very existence required an explanation.”
The negative energy in Mencken’s caricature has been directed especially at a subset of the Evangelical community, Christian Zionists, who sided with the Jewish state in its conflict with Arab and Muslim countries in the Middle East. At worse, these Christians were portrayed by their adversaries as ill-read warmongering simpletons intent on bringing about Armageddon in the Middle East. At best, they were depicted as a singular obstacle to peace that would break out if it weren’t for their nefarious influence on world events. (Jews living in the West Bank can probably relate.)
For many years, this negative portrayal was the final verdict on pro-Israel Evangelicals. Anti-Israel activists, particularly those in the American mainline, spent as much time defaming this community as they did defaming Israel itself. Following Mencken’s example, journalists went along for the ride, exhibiting no real curiosity about Evangelicals who supported Israel.
For them the popularity of Hal Lindsey’s Late, Great Planet Earth and The Left Behind series written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins was enough to defame the entire community of Evangelicals in the U.S.
People outside the community didn’t put much stock in Evangelical self-criticism, such as The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Knoll, nor have they ever come to grips with the nuanced and reasoned support for Israel enunciated by Evangelicals such as Gerald McDermott.
Mainstream journalists who staked their careers on asking, “Why do they hate us?” after 9/11 have simply lacked the curiosity to give American Evangelicalism and Christian Zionism a fair shake. Journalists had a story to tell, a caricature to affirm, an audience to pander to — the facts be damned.
The proof is in the pudding. Prior to the year 2000, journalists trekked to Jerusalem looking for evidence that Israel-supporting Evangelicals were crazies intent on bringing about Armageddon.
Writing about the subject in the early 2000s, David Parsons, spokesperson for the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ), declared, “It is fair to say that nearly every major media firm worldwide published or broadcast overblown stories about the rising Christian expectations of the Apocalypse and Second Coming of Christ.”
Parsons stated that half of the 200 interviews he gave to major media outlets between late 1998 and Jan. 1, 2000 were with reporters hoping to learn about Christian fanatics coming to Israel to blow up the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount with the goal of “forcing the end” and bringing about Armageddon. One reporter told Parsons, “We only want the crazies! Just give me the crazies. Where are they? Do you have their phone number?” (Maybe Parsons should have given the journalist the numbers of like-minded journalists.)
Two decades have passed since Jan. 1, 2000, and the orgy of Christian violence that many secular journalists bet on happening, didn’t. As it turned out, the arrival of the new millennium was a harbinger of jihadist — not Christian — violence, but that hasn’t stopped journalists from portraying Evangelical supporters of Israel as warmongers intent on bringing about Armageddon in the Middle East. Books and documentaries demonizing Evangelicals are a dime a dozen.
The most recent example of this phenomenon is “’Til Kingdom Come,” a deceptive documentary produced by Israeli filmmakers Maya Zinshtein and Abraham (Abie) Troen, who purport to cover new ground in exposing the evil machinations of Evangelical Christians in the United States. The film had its world debut in Israel in June 2020 and was shown in numerous film festivals in the U.S. in the ensuing months. The film was scheduled to be shown on PBS stations in late March, but as of this writing, the film’s broadcast is postponed pending an independent review.
The film levels several very specific allegations at this community, all of which produce feelings of enmity toward its subjects on the part of would-be peacemakers.
Zinshtein and Troen portray Evangelicals as pressuring former U.S. President Donald into handing over all of the West Bank to Israel, effectively depriving the Palestinians of any chance of obtaining a state of their own, when in fact, White House policy — which was lauded by Evangelicals — called for the creation of a Palestinian state on all of the Gaza Strip, approximately two-thirds of the West Bank, and even part of what is now Israel.
To obscure this reality, the film splices words Trump said in the latter parts of a January 2020 White House press conference together with a statement he made at the beginning of the same press conference. Originally the film’s audio quoted Trump as saying: “The United States will recognize Israeli sovereignty over the territory that my vision provides to be part of the State of Israel, including the West Bank described so vividly in the Bible.”
The words “including the West Bank described so vividly in the Bible” are culled from two different parts of the same press conference. What Trump actually said was, “The United States will recognize Israeli sovereignty over the territory that my vision provides to be part of the State of Israel.”
Zinshtein and Troen knew exactly what they were doing. Prior to showing viewers the doctored quote (which has been corrected in the version currently sold online), they set the stage for how it was to be interpreted with clips from four Israelis — three journalists and a Jewish settler living in the West Bank. The first journalist is shown speaking into a camera outside the White House as she declares in Hebrew that after moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, U.S. President Donald Trump will “serve Israel the ‘main course.’”
Then the film cuts to another Israeli journalist also speaking in Hebrew outside the White House as he declares that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s goal is to “get a green light for some form of annexation in the West Bank, so he can go back to his base and say, ‘I promised something historic, and I delivered.”
And then it cuts again to Yossi Dagan, head of the Samaria Regional Council, who says he’s at the White House to support Netanyahu and the U.S. President so Jews living in the West Bank can get “full sovereignty without allowing a Palestinian terror state to exist.”
Then the film cuts to Israeli journalist Barack Ravid, who declares that American Evangelicals and Israeli settlers are working together and operating “like a vice, applying pressure, both from Israel and the U.S. to achieve their common goals.”
Put it all together and Zinshtein and Troen are telling their viewers audience that the goal was to annex the West Bank, hand it over to the Jews, and deprive the Palestinians of a state. And then they manipulated the words of the former president to make it look like that’s what Trump intended to do, even though his written plan, titled “”Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People,” explicitly called for the creation of a Palestinian state on the Gaza Strip, most of the West Bank, and even some Israeli land.
Another allegation leveled at American Evangelicals is that they interfered with Israeli security policy by lobbying the U.S. Congress to defund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency over the objections of Israel’s security establishment. What Zinshtein and Troen leave out is that UNRWA has hired — as staffers — Hamas members who have in turn used the agency’s classrooms to incite against Israel and have used UNRWA property to store rockets used to attack Israel. They also failed to inform their viewers that many believe that by granting aid to the descendants of Arabs who lost their homes in the 1948 War, UNRWA is prolonging the conflict by subsidizing the refusal of Arab countries (where these descendants were born) to grant them citizenship. Another fact that the filmmakers omitted is that Israeli Prime Benjamin Netanyahu himself had asked the U.S. to defund UNRWA in 2018.
But Zinshtein and Troen did more than omit crucial facts. They manhandled words that came out of the mouth of David Brog, founding executive director for Christians United for Israel, in a manner similar to what they did to the words that came out of the mouth of former U.S. President Trump.
In addition to omitting crucial aspects of Brog’s 2018 speech to CUFI from their film, the filmmakers also cobbled together statements made at disparate points in his speech to portray Evangelicals as attempting to stop aid to the Palestinians. Crucially, the initial version of the film shown to American audiences quoted Brog as saying, “We think Congress should express support for limiting our contributions to Palestinian refugees.”
I’ve seen video of Brog’s actual speech and I can tell you that what Brog actually said was, “Congress should express support for limiting our contributions to UNRWA…”
It’s a huge difference. Brog and CUFI were calling on Congress to withhold money from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency because they believed the organization made things worse for people living in the Holy Land. But at the same time, Brog and CUFI called on Congress to reroute money withheld from UNRWA to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). “The rest of the aid we give to UNRWA should be shifted to USAID, the United States’ charitable arm abroad, so that we can give that money to Palestinians in need and possibly others in need on the basis of humanitarian criteria on the basis of actual need, not through this politicized UNRWA process that is dedicated to maintaining and growing a disgruntled refugee class,” Brog said.
Another accusation leveled at Evangelicals in Zinshtein and Troen’s film is that they support Israel not out of love or a sense of justice for the Jewish people or a belief that God’s land promises to the Jewish people will last like the Bible says, as long as the stars endure (Jeremiah 31: 36–37), but out of a desire to bring about Armageddon that brings about the death or conversion of the Jews and culminating in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. This allegation, which clearly terrified many of the people who watched the film on internet film festivals in late 2020 and early 2021, would make people worry about Evangelical influence on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
This was exactly the point. Zinshtein and Troen’s caricature of war-mongering Evangelicals serving as spoilers to the peace process was conveyed directly in the film with a clip of Avram Burg, a former Israeli cabinet minister. In the clip Burg declared on Israeli TV that he did not want money from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, led by Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein, because it came from warmongering Evangelicals.
“I don’t want Rabbi Eckstein’s money,” Burg said. “The funds are donated by warmongers who are encouraging war between Israel and the Muslim world.”
In fact, Evangelical leaders promoted the Abraham Accords and helped engineer normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates by encouraging Israeli Prime Minister to delay annexation of territory in the West Bank and giving Trump the cover he needed to seal the deal.
Filmmakers Maya Zinshtein and Abie Troen knew about the role American Evangelicals played in bringing about the Abraham Accords, but that did not stop them from portraying Evangelicals as promoting Armageddon in the Middle East.
How do we know Zinshtein and Troen knew about the role Evangelicals played in bringing about the normalization agreement between Israel and the UAE a calendar year before it happened?
They told us.
On Aug., 21, 2020, eight days after the news of the accord between Israel and the UAE (and Evangelical involvement in this agreement) broke, the Twitter account for Zinshtein and Troen’s documentary posted a now deleted Tweet that declared: “Something that nobody is talking about: the #Evangelicals are also intermediaries (!) in the #UAEIsrael agreement. So what’s next? #Iran”
The tweet linked to a currently unavailable clip of a 2019 interview with Rev. Johnnie Moore talking about the role former president’s Evangelical Advisory Board played in bringing about the deal. This tweet was soon deleted, probably because it undermined the entire premise of Zinshtein and Troen’s documentary — that crazy warmongering Evangelicals should be kept away from the levers of power.
The upshot is not that Evangelicals need to be kept away from the levers of power, but that Zinshtein and Troen should not be trusted as documentary filmmakers. American Evangelicals are not the war-mongering devils “‘Til Kingdom Come” portrayed them as, but have in fact, played a moderating role on conflict in the Middle East.
It is time for journalists to cultivate some genuine curiosity about American Evangelicals. Recreating the caricatures handed down to them from the early 1900s does not qualify as journalism; it is bigotry.