Amer­i­can Pres­i­dents, Reli­gion and Israel

Paul Charles Merkley
  • Review
By – August 20, 2012

Pro­fes­sor Merkley’s book is both time­ly and infor­ma­tive. At the close of the 2004 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion Amer­i­cans were sharply divid­ed on the ques­tion of what role, if any, reli­gion should play in the polit­i­cal life of the nation. Amer­i­cans of all per­sua­sions, and those who pro­fess no reli­gious affil­i­a­tion at all, have expressed con­cern either that the shift­ing line between Church and State is being breached, or, on the oth­er hand, that the Fed­er­al gov­ern­ment and its rep­re­sen­ta­tives are oblig­at­ed to pre­serve and fos­ter the Judeo-Chris­t­ian eth­ic that they believe secures the moral foun­da­tion of the Unit­ed States. 

Among Amer­i­can Jews, the issue is fur­ther nuanced, since reli­gious and sec­u­lar Jews are at odds on the top­ic of moral val­ues,” while shar­ing a com­mit­ment to Israel and main­tain­ing the spe­cial his­toric rela­tion between the Jew­ish State and the Unit­ed States. 

Merkley traces the rela­tion between the Mid­dle East poli­cies of U.S. pres­i­dents from Tru­man through George W. Bush and the faith and reli­gious prac­tices of that head of state. The author iden­ti­fies a sym­me­try in the atti­tudes of Amer­i­can pres­i­dents between 1948 and 2004. When Har­ry S Tru­man declared I am Cyrus,” a ref­er­ence to the Per­sian monarch who reestab­lished Jew­ish hege­mo­ny in the Holy Land in 539 B.C.E. after over­throw­ing the Baby­lon­ian Empire, he was, in effect, pred­i­cat­ing his sup­port of the new­ly estab­lished Jew­ish State on his belief in the Bible. From Tru­man through Ford, U.S. pol­i­cy con­cern­ing Israel, accord­ing to Merkley, has been based more often than not on Evan­gel­i­cal tra­di­tion. Even when not the sole moti­vat­ing fac­tor deter­min­ing pres­i­den­tial deci­sion mak­ing on the Mid­dle East, it is at least among the major influ­ences that shaped pres­i­den­tial atti­tudes toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. 

Begin­ning with Pres­i­dent Carter, the Peace Process” has replaced the role of Amer­i­ca as defend­er of Israel, locat­ing the Amer­i­can- Israeli liai­son in a more sec­u­lar con­text where moral absolutes and accept­ed norms of inter­na­tion­al law are con­so­nant with a nego­ti­at­ed peace. Pres­i­dent George W. Bush, how­ev­er, one of the most vocal­ly reli­gious occu­pants of the White House, may well reclaim the title of mod­ern day Cyrus, in the opin­ion of Merkley, return­ing the U.S.-Israel bond full cir­cle to the days of Har­ry Truman. 

Pro­fes­sor Merkley’s book is an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to the study of the spe­cial ties that have exist­ed between Israel and this coun­try, the phe­nom­e­non of Chris­t­ian Zion­ism and the so-called reli­gious right in the U.S. polit­i­cal and diplo­mat­ic arenas.

Stephen H. Gar­rin is a past man­ag­ing edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World and a past assis­tant to the direc­tor of the Jew­ish Book Council.

Discussion Questions