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.