Christian Zionism, the Religious Right, and Donald Trump: History’s Role in Contemporary Politics

“Make America great again,” Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign slogan, might not sound religious to the average political observer.

“Looking at his [Trump’s] language, and particularly even something that most of us would agree is not really religious, like "Make America great again,” you’ll see that it actually has a historical background,” says Dan Hummel, history scholar and Ash Center History and Public Policy Fellow AY 2016–2017.

Starting in the 1970s, the religious right emerged as an important political constituency, and with it came a new type of revivalism that focused on restoring the morals of the nation—not the individual soul. Hummel explains that this revivalist nationalism became embedded in the contemporary politics of Christian America and, by 1980, Ronald Reagan drew upon the movement with his presidential campaign slogan, “Let’s make America great again.” By using revivalist language about American decline, particularly moral and religious deterioration, Reagan implied that his then-potential presidency would renew the country spiritually.

Hummel recalls Reagan’s slogan and the words of religious figures like Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell when he hears Trump’s rhetoric. As Hummel writes in a 2016 Religions academic journal article, “We can observe a gradual secularization of revivalist nationalism, one that could even accommodate a non-evangelical figure like Donald Trump.” He concludes, “Trump is the most recent in a long line of deft leaders—media savvy, charismatic, at home in front of a crowded stadium—who have continued to rely on revivalist forms to shape and share their message.”

 

 

"A historical approach can also help us understand the diverse and often unfamiliar reasons why people support different policies and outcomes based on factors including religious beliefs."

 

 

Trump’s language is just one example of how historical references can cast a new light on modern politics and policy. Hummel has long understood that religion plays an important part in politics and that it influences many of our actions. In his role as a historian, he has worked to reveal how religious political movements, like revivalist nationalism, have changed over time.

Hummel is principally an expert in Christian Zionism, a religious movement with both biblical and modern roots. Growing up an evangelical Christian, Hummel had a reservoir of knowledge about Israel and the Church’s support for the state from a young age. That knowledge was expanded during his undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral studies on the history of US-Middle East relations and diplomacy, ultimately culminating in a dissertation about the rise of Christian Zionist activism after 1948.

Since the 1940s, Christian Zionism has become a global movement with a vast network of organizations. Both American and global Christian Zionism have promoted a theological, political, and cultural transformation in Christian attitudes toward Jews and Israel which has shaped US-Israel diplomacy and Jewish-Christian relations around the globe. Hummel has documented the movement’s growth and changes, working in both American and Israeli archives, in Hebrew and English.

Before 2016, Hummel’s documentation ended in 1980, a modern time period for most historians. However, Hummel knew that there was a growing interest in Christian Zionism and that his work had contemporary implications. He then joined the Ash Center’s History and Public Policy fellowship program and was encouraged to take the next step with his work. Under the guidance of Moshik Temkin, Associate Professor of Public Policy and resident Ash faculty affiliate, and other historians at Harvard Kennedy School, Hummel tackled present issues and changes in the movement.

Dan Hummel
Hummel continues to think about the modern implications of history

While at the Ash Center, Hummel wrote about “the new Christian Zionism,” the shift of Christian Zionism from an Anglo-American movement to a global movement with strong roots in countries like Brazil, Nigeria, and South Korea. Hummel notes, “There's an interesting history in how a movement that used to be largely American has become a global movement.” The change in the movement is evocative of the way other historians talk about the 20th century as the height of American influence. Today, global powers outside of the US are influencing policy regarding Israel as they do on a number of other issues. Hummel remarks, “The Christian Zionist lobby in America today is not nearly, I would say, as influential as a lot of people think they are.” Hummel understands the lobby instead as one part of a complex and increasingly international movement.

Now a Kingdon Fellow at the University of Madison-Wisconsin, Hummel has not stopped thinking about the modern implications of his work and his forthcoming book, A Covenant of the Mind: Evangelicals, Israel, and the Construction of a Special Relationship (University of Pennsylvania Press), will address Christian Zionism through the present. He sees value in continuing to draw a connection between history and public policy. “I think a lot of policymakers and people in the policymaking process just don't know the history,” Hummel says. “A historical approach to public policy problems can give us a sense of what has worked before and why, and that is so important to understanding if a policy in the future will perform the same way it has in the past.” He concludes, “A historical approach can also help us understand the diverse and often unfamiliar reasons why people support different policies and outcomes based on factors including religious belief.”