In the 1990s, computer scientists warned Americans about the threat of the Y2K bug that could render computers inoperative when the calendar shifted from Dec. 31, 1999 to Jan. 1, 2000. In response to the apparent threat, religious and secular writers alike warned of an impending apocalypse and told their readers they should stock up on food and ammunition in preparation for the collapse of civilization. As it turned out, the collapse did not take place. People went on with their lives and quietly forgot about the story.
Coinciding with the Y2K panic was another scare, this one related to Christian theology. Numerous commentators wrote articles about the prospect of violent attacks on the Muslim-controlled Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The attacks were to be perpetrated, the public was told, by Evangelical Protestants, most notably Christian Zionists, who were intent on bringing about Armageddon by starting a war with Muslims in the Holy Land. Dozens of newspaper articles and television segments were written about the end time beliefs of Christian Zionists. Readers were warned that if these wacky Christians were left unchecked, they could bring about a world war. Christian Zionists themselves tried to allay these fears, but they had a tough row to hoe, because some journalists just couldn’t lay off the story.
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 bring 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?”
To be fair, there was a fair amount of excitement surrounding the End Times during the last few years of the 20th century and the first few years of the 21st, but the fact is, nearly two decades have passed since Jan. 1, 2000 and the orgy of Christian violence that many secular journalists seemed to hope would happen, didn’t.
Christianity’s version of the “Y2K bug” that worried so many commentators didn’t materialize. Christian extremists didn’t blow up the Dome of the Rock to start off the new millennium, but oddly enough, it was Muslim terrorists who planned a number of “millennium” attacks to take place in cities like New York on New Year’s Eve, 1999.
Most of the plots were foiled, but approximately 20 months later, Al Qaeda did its best to bring about Armageddon with an attack on the United States that killed close to 3,000 people. In the years since, thousands of Muslims and non-Muslims have been killed in an orgy of violence motivated by millennial beliefs rooted in Islamic theology. In short, it wasn’t Christianity’s Y2K bug people needed to worry about.
It was Islam’s.
Charles Sennott Still on the Hunt
Nevertheless, nearly two decades after Christianity’s Y2K bug failed to materialize, one journalist, Charles Sennott, is still scouring the Holy Land looking for Christian crazies, just like he did in the late 1990s. These days Sennott’s quarry is not folks who want to blow up the Temple Mount, but antisemitic Christian Crazies intent on paving the way for the Second Coming of Christ by, mundanely enough, working to convince the Trump Administration to act on legislation passed by Congress in the 1990s that called for the U.S. to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Sennott, a former Middle East Bureau Chief for The Boston Globe, told his story about these Christian Crazies in a three-part podcast produced by a Boston-based nonprofit called The GroundTruth Project (GTP). Founded by Sennott in 2014, GTP describes itself as a “nonprofit media organization based in Boston at WGBH” which is “dedicated to training and mentoring the next generation of journalists.”
GTP’s financial backers include The MacArthur Foundation, The Ford Foundation, Google, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism, The Knight Foundation, the Luce Foundation, and WGBH, the public broadcasting conglomerate located in Boston. With the help of these donors, and by virtue of working with interns working on short-term stipends, GTP appears to have successfully positioned itself as a low-cost content provider for a number of news outlets, including PBS Frontline, PBS Newshour, Time, the Pacific Standard (a website committed to “social justice”) and Public Radio International.
In late April and early May 2019, GTP released a three-part podcast series about Christian Zionism titled “End of Days.” The overarching narrative of the series, produced by GTP founder and executive director, Charles Sennott, is that antisemitic and Islamophobic Christian Zionists intent on bringing about Armageddon, have, through their successful campaign to convince the Trump Administration to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, derailed the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Withering” Christian Population Trope
In the series, Sennott promoted the idea that Christian Zionists have also contributed to the suffering of a “dwindling” population of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land.
Sennott offered this trope in episode two of the three-part series — after GTP reporter Micah Danney (more about him below) interviewed Palestinian Christian Pastor Munther Isaac, a Lutheran pastor who is one of the chief organizers of the biannual Christ at the Checkpoint Conferences. During the interview, Isaac declared that the political positions of Christian Zionists put the continued existence of Christians in the Holy Land “at risk.”
Isaac’s statement prompts Sennott to intone that in his previous research about the Holy Land, he found that “the Christian presence has diminished from as much as 20 percent after World War I to down below two percent of the total population today. It’s a withering presence that demographers believe will virtually disappear in the next generation. Then the living Christian presence in the Holy Land will have ended in the land, where the faith began.”
The numbers simply do not bear this out, unless by the “Holy Land” you mean “the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip” and nowhere else.
In 2014, an English charity called “Embrace the Middle East” conducted a survey that found that Gaza’s Christian population totaled 1,313 people. An Israeli census conducted in 1967 revealed 2,478 Christians. This indicates that the population of Christians in this area has decreased by 47 percent over the past fifty years. Numerous reports indicate that the number of Christians has fallen even further since 2014. It may very well be true that Christians will disappear from this area very soon.
But in the rest of the Holy Land? Hardly, especially in Israel.
For example, in 1949, there were 34,000 Arab Christians living in Israel. In 2017, the latest year for which there are numbers available, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reported there were 133,000 Arab Christians living in Israel. That’s an increase of 291 percent.
In absolute terms, that is a huge increase. So much for the Christian presence in Israel “withering.”
The numbers indicate that the Christian population in the West Bank has remained steady over the years, as well.
According to a census conducted by the Jordanian government (and cited in a booklet published by the Diyar Institute, a pro-Palestinian organization), there were approximately 35,000 Christians living in the West Bank in 1961. The most recent estimate from Open Doors indicates that a total of 46,000 Christians live in what the organization calls “The Palestinian Territories.”
Given that there are probably fewer than 1,000 Christians living in the Gaza Strip, that indicates that the population of Christians in the West Bank has increased by approximately 10,000 since Israel took control of that territory during the Six Day War.
This should not come as a surprise. A few years ago, the previously mentioned Diyar Institute stated that the population of Palestinian Christians in the Gaza Strip, east Jerusalem, and the West Bank had increased, since the early 1960s. In a 2012 report, the institute declared that “the number of the Christian population has grown ever so slightly in the past 50 years.”
Not the First Time
The notion that Christians are “withering” or “dwindling” in the Holy Land is a persistent trope in Sennott’s reporting. In January 1999, when he was working as Middle East correspondent for The Boston Globe, Sennott wrote, “The Christian presence in what is now modern Israel and the disputed West Bank and Jerusalem has dropped from as much as 20 percent of the population in the early part of this century to no more than 2 percent today.”
What Sennott omitted from his 1999 report is that while the Christian population in Israel had declined as an overall percentage of the total population in Israel (which makes sense given the increase in Jewish and Muslim populations in Israel) the number of Christians in the Jewish state has increased substantially since 1949, the year after Israel was established.
In a letter to The Boston Globe sent on February 3, 1999, CAMERA’s Alex Safian highlighted the fundamental flaw in Sennott’s reporting. “According to the most recent figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics, since 1949 Israel’s Christian population has increased by at least 272 percent.” Safian continued:
In recent years, Israel’s Christian population has been increasing even faster than its Muslim or Jewish populations (despite large-scale Jewish immigration). For example, from 1980 to 1994 Christians increased by 75 percent, Muslims by 57 percent and Jews only by 35 percent. Viewed as a proportion of Israel’s population, Christians have increased from 2.3 percent in 1980 to 3.2 percent in 1996. Clearly, such absolute and relative growth can hardly be described as “dwindling.”
Sennott made the same mistake twice, the first time in 1999. He was called out on it back then and yet he made it a second time in 2019. All this indicates that the facts simply do not have much of an impact on Sennott’s reporting. He’s got a narrative and he’s sticking to it, regardless of what the numbers say and what he’s been told previously.
“Militant” Christian Zionists
The “dwindling Christian” story isn’t the only narrative Sennott recycled in his “Ground Truth” reporting. Another story he recycled is the apocalyptic danger presented by Christian Zionism. On Oct. 2, 1999, Sennott wrote about a meeting organized by the previously mentioned International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ). Sennott declared, without attribution, that ICEJ’s Washington office “has become known as a political lobbying group for Israel’s rightist Likud party,” an assertion that the group’s spokesperson, David Parsons (quoted above) says is an outright untruth. “There is absolutely no evidence for this statement at all,” Parsons wrote in an email to CAMERA.
Sennott also reported that, at the gathering, one speaker from Kiryat Arba “told the audience that if Palestinians threw stones at his car, he would shoot to kill them.” He omitted, however, Parsons’s response. “I moderated that seminar and immediately distanced the ICEJ from his statement,” Parsons wrote. “Sennott was in the room at the time and heard me challenge the speaker that his view was ‘not the way of Abraham.’ For him to omit this from his reporting was either negligent or more likely devious,” Parsons told CAMERA.
Sennott seemed to have second thoughts about his fear-mongering about Christian Zionists. On Oct. 26, 1999, Sennott wrote another story for The Boston Globe about the roundup and arrest of 20 Christians (16 of them from the U.S.) by Israeli security forces who were afraid they were going to start trouble in Jerusalem. In the article, Sennott quoted a number of sources, including Gershom Gorenberg, who believed that the police may have overreacted when they arrested and strip-searched the Christians and ransacked the apartment where they were staying. “There was a clumsiness in the handling of this that should raise questions,” Sennott quoted Goremberg as saying. The problem is that if they had read and believed Sennott’s previous reporting about Christian Zionists, Israeli police would have been remiss if they had not acted the way they did.
Still, whatever second thoughts Sennott may have had after the arrest of Christian Zionists in 1999 did not translate into more responsible reporting 20 years later. In his reporting for GTP, Sennott reduces Christian Zionism to a belief in a singular doctrine about Armageddon, or as he puts it, “the end of days” a phrase he intones ominously (and repeatedly) during the podcasts (and which he used in his 1999 scare-mongering). In his reporting about the movement, Sennott declares time and time again that Christian Zionism is the belief that the return of Jews to Israel presages the return of Jesus Christ and a violent showdown, or Armageddon. Sennott declares this belief to be antisemitic because it entails the destruction of the Jewish people being a requirement of the Messiah’s return.
This belief, typically described as premillennial dispensationalism, or dispensationalism, has been an important aspect of Christian Zionism, but as Faydra Shapiro reports in her 2015 book, Christian Zionism: Navigating The Christian-Jewish Border, “Many Christian Zionists are eager to break the perceived connection between support for Israel and systems such as dispensationalism and the Bible prophecy movement, with its emphasis on showing that we are living in the final days before the end times.” Shapiro continues:
In my research it became clear very quickly that the connection between premillennial dispensationalism and Christian Zionism has been vastly overdrawn. Overwhelmingly my informants either did not consider themselves dispensationalists or—more often—did not know what it or premillennialism meant. The International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem (ICEJ), for example, has repudiated dispensationalism’s teachings and officially distanced itself from dispensationalism… (Shapiro, Faydra L.. Christian Zionism: Navigating the Jewish-Christian Border (p. 12). Cascade Books – An Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.)
In her text, Shapiro reports that her “informants overwhelmingly supported their Christian Zionism on rather broader pillars than dispensationalism. The first and most important of these is biblical authority.”
Arguments along these lines can be seen in The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land edited by Rev. Gerald R. McDermott, Ph.D. who serves as Anglican Chair of Divinity, History, and Doctrine at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama.
The main thrust of this text, published by InterVarsity Press (a major Evangelical publishing house) in 2016, is that responsible, thoughtful Christians can support the Jewish state without resorting to premillenial dispensationalism or the belief that Israel plays a role in the End Times. “The authors of this book reject those dispensationalist approaches that they can plot the sequence of chronology of end-time events,” McDermott writes in the introduction, adding that these events “are in God’s secret providence.”
In the same text, McDermott writes, “Christian Zionism goes back two thousand years to the New Testament, and has been sustained with varying intensity ever since” and that for most of this time, Christian Zionism “had nothing to do with dispensationalism.”
Instead of documenting the changes that have taken place in Christian Zionism since he first started writing about the movement in the 1990s, Sennott dismisses them as mere window-dressing with the help of Harvey Cox, Dean Emeritus of Harvard Divinity School. Citing Cox, Sennott reports that Christian Zionists have “tempered their message.” Cox himself is quoted as saying that as Christian Zionists have gained access to power, they have worked to make their ideas “more palatable” to the general public.
If Sennott is going to interview an expert critic of Christian Zionism such as Harvey Cox, then why not interview an expert from within the movement, such as McDermott?
The fact is, Christian Zionists have taken many of the criticisms directed at their movement to heart over the years, particularly those directed at Tim LaHaye, author of the Left Behind series and Hal Lindsay, author of The Late Great Planet Earth — texts that embarrass many Evangelical Protestants. In response to this criticism, they have reworked their understanding of scripture and theology, but with Cox’s testimony, Sennott portrays these efforts as mere window dressing.
Would he do the same thing to Muslim theologians who are struggling heroically to encourage their fellow Muslims to reinterpret their scriptures and doctrines in more peaceful manner?
Not in a million years.
To further tip the scales against Christian Zionism, Sennott asks Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Christian in Bethlehem, if he thinks Americans “understand the influence of Christian Zionism and the Christian Evangelical movement and the way it’s working inside here and how it is viewed with by the Palestinian people.”
Raheb is an interesting person to ask about Christian Zionism. He has close ties to the Palestinian Authority and has said nice things about Hamas, a Palestinian terror organization that seeks Israel’s destruction. In 2016, Raheb said the church is in constant contact with Hamas, which he described as “a Palestinian political movement that has an important role.” Raheb was not so restrained in his answer to Sennott’s question about Christian Zionists, however.
The majority [of Americans], I don’t think realize what kind of crazy Christians these Christian Zionists are and actually how dangerous they are. They want to bring all the Jews here [to the Holy Land] so that one third will be killed by the sword, another by the fire, and the third will convert to Christianity. They are actually calling for the annihilation of Judaism, so this is antisemitism.
So there it is. Hamas seeks to annihilate Israel and Raheb says the group plays an “important role” in the politics of the Holy Land. Christian Zionists seek to defend Israel from Hamas and yet Raheb makes it clear he regards Christian Zionist theology as a greater threat to Jewish welfare than Hamas terrorism.
This is simply outrageous. Hamas has murdered its opponents in the streets of Gaza on a number of occasions while premillennial dispensationalists play by the rules of American democracy, a point acknowledged by Timothy Weber, author of On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend (Baker Academic, 2005). Weber, one of the harshest critics of the Christian Zionist movement, made this admission at a conference on Christian Zionism held at North Park University in Chicago in 2005. At a closing panel of the conference Weber stated:
I just need to point out that dispensationalists are not throwing bombs. They are not attacking people in the streets. You may argue that they are promoting things that may lead to that by other people. That’s arguable. I think that that is certainly a possibility. But in our own context, in our own world and our own culture they play by the rules of American democracy. They attack verbally. They promote their own ideas. They denigrate others. But that’s the American way.
Let’s be clear. Sennott gave a Palestinian Christian pastor who has affirmed the legitimacy of Hamas (an organization that seeks Israel’s annihilation and promotes vicious antisemitism) as a political player in the politics of the Holy Land, a chance to comment on the evils of Christian Zionism. Is Raheb the type of source a responsible reporter would approach to learn the “ground truth” about Christian Zionism?
Did Sennott have any idea who he was interviewing?
In any event, Sennott’s reductionist error that equates Christian Zionism with hopes for Armageddon is akin to reducing Islam to jihad without any reference to the efforts of many Muslim scholars to reinterpret how violent passages in the Koran and the Hadiths are applied to the modern world. Such bigoted and sloppy reporting regarding Islam would not be tolerated by WGBH or any other institution affiliated with public broadcasting. Why does Sennott think he can get away with it in reference to Christian Zionism at the WGBH-supported Ground Truth Project?
Conflating Christian Zionism and Messianic Judaism
Another error that reveals how little Sennott actually knows about Christian Zionism comes in the first segment of the three-part series. In this segment, Sennott conflates Christian Zionism with Messianic Judaism. While there is significant overlap between the two movements, there is also a great deal of conflict between them, a fact Sennott misses altogether.
In the segment Sennott declares that some Christian Zionists find the moniker “Christian Zionist” to be a pejorative and prefer the word “believer” to describe them. Then in a mish-mash pastiche of sound-bites spliced together, Sennott uses the testimony of the people he’s interviewed, apparently at the Friends of Zion Museum in Jerusalem to prove his point. The sound bites are as follows:
“I grew up in a believing home.”
“I have always been a believer.”
“My dad is a Jewish believer.”
“Jewish man who is also a believer.”
“Or a believer in Yeshua.”
“Or us as believers.”
“As Evangelical new covenant believers.”
“We’re grafted into the vine of the Jewish people.”
As these sound-bites are played one after the other, denying sources the opportunity to have their story heard in a contextualized and coherent manner — an opportunity Sennott gives to numerous critics of Christian Zionism — GTP producers introduce ominous sounding synthesizers to portray the sources of these statements as weird, other-worldly folks, aliens almost. (More about that below.)
Then, after these sound-bites, Sennott reports that among this group, “is a small strain of Jews who’ve converted” to Christianity and who prefer to be called Messianic Jews “because they identify first and foremost as Jewish yet also believe in Jesus or Yeshua in Hebrew.”
What Sennott fails to report is that Christian Zionist organizations (whom he portrays as a font of antisemitism because of their belief that Jews will be punished at the end of days for denying Jesus) tend to keep their distance from Messianic Jews in order to maintain their relationships with the Jewish community. As Shapiro reports, “Messianic Jews so deeply alienate the mainstream Jewish community that for Christian Zionists to be too closely associated with them is felt to seriously hamper their strategic alliance-building mission.”
The fact is, despite Sennett’s talk of the underlying antisemitism of Christian Zionism, leaders of the movement work to avoid offending the sensibilities of Jews with whom they work. Messianic Jews (and Evangelicals in general) have been critical of Christian Zionists for their tendency to downplay efforts to convert Jews to Christianity. The fact is, Christian Zionists have been a centerpiece in the effort to improve Jewish-Evangelical relations after the Holocaust.
If Charles Sennott is going to devote a three-part series to Christian Zionism, this should be the type of thing GTP would get right, but he missed it altogether.
Use of Sound
Oftentimes when Charles speaks about Christian Zionism or when the movement’s members and supporters speak on their own behalf, there is weird and creepy music playing in the background.
For example, nearly every time Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, is mentioned (and sometimes when he is interviewed), there is some weird synthesized music playing in the background. At one point toward the end of episode three, Eckstein’s interview with Sennott is aired without this music playing in the background, but other times, it is there and very noticeable. This same music is played repeatedly at other times during the podcasts.
This weird alien-sounding music is clearly intended to make the listener feel uncomfortable or anxious about the person being described or speaking. It’s like a soundtrack from a science fiction movie, whenever the monster comes on the scene. It’s as if there’s a desire to portray Christian Zionists as the creepy, alien, other.
Christian Zionists as Spoilers
The underlying premise of the series is that Christian Zionists (or more generally Evangelical Protestants in the U.S.) have derailed the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians by convincing President Donald Trump to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move which galvanized the Israeli right and fed into the prophetic hopes of crazy end-timers. Late in episode one, Sennott reports, “For Palestinians, the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem was the point at which the long, faltering Israeli-Palestinian peace process effectively collapsed.”
And in the closing segment of the podcast, Sennott intones that the moves supported by Christian Zionists have, to many political observers “have put an irreparable crack in the foundation of the Arab-Israeli peace agreement.” He continues:
To Christian Zionists, this is all part of the prophecy of the end of days, but for people on the ground, the people who live here, Jews, Muslims and Christians, one thing is clear: Hope for peace is fading, like the light at the end of day.
To buttress this narrative, Sennott invokes the Hamas-incited “March of Return” riots that have taken place at the boundary between Israel and the Gaza Strip as proof that the decision to move the embassy has sparked the conflict. Hamas has been launching attacks from the Gaza Strip on a regular basis since Israel withdrew from the area in 2005. Why are these riots really any different than previous attacks against Israel?
And the fact is, Palestinian leaders have been declaring the peace process dead for a long time.
- In 1996, Palestinian Legislative Council member Haider Abdelshaafi told Ha’aretz, ”The peace process has reached a dead end…a solution of no peace.”
- Ahmed Abdel Rahman, secretary-general of the Palestinian Authority said, “The peace process is dead,” in June 1998.
- Yassir Arafat told Iranian President Mohammad Khatami that ”The peace process is now dead,” in August 2000.
- Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian terrorist serving time in Israel’s prison system, declared that the peace process was dead seven years ago. “The peace process has failed, it’s finished, it’s not worth desperately trying to resuscitate a corpse,” he wrote in January, 2012.
- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the peace process was dead in 2014.
Palestinians have been declaring the peace process dead since the 1990s, but Sennott wants us to believe that embassy move was the final nail in the coffin.
In his effort to portray Christian Zionists as the spoilers of peace process, Sennott omits vast swaths of history that would serve to exculpate the movement for the lack of peace.
For example, he makes no mention of the terror attacks during the Second Intifada that gave an entire generation of Israelis (many of whom support a two-state solution) good reason to believe that peace with the Palestinians is not in the cards with current Palestinian leaders. Predictably, he makes no mention of the extremist ideology promoted by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and other terror groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
He also omits any reference to the 2000 Camp David negotiations in which Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians a state of their own on all of the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank, an offer which Yassir Arafat rejected and to which he failed to make a counter offer.
And predictably, Sennott makes no mention of Arafat’s refusal of the Clinton Parameters put on the table a few months later. (The Clinton Parameters would have given the Palestinians a state of their own on even better terms than those Barak offered during the summer of 2000.)
By any measurement, this was a catastrophe. In January 2001, Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, warned Yasir Arafat – who had turned down Barak’s offer at Camp David in 2000 – to embrace the Clinton Parameters, but was unsuccessful. “I hope you remember, sir, what I told you. If we lose this opportunity, it is not going to be a tragedy. This is going to be a crime.” (The New Yorker, March 24, 2003).
Nor did Sennott mention Ehud Olmert’s failed effort to negotiate a peace with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008, who simply would not return Olmert’s phone calls after he made his initial offer.
Despite all this, Sennott blames Christian Zionists for the collapse of the peace process.
Sennott also provides a distorted view of the conflict when he declares in episode two that “in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, the United Nations voted in favor of granting a homeland to the Jewish people. Arab nations, however, rejected the UN resolution….”
In fact, the UN Resolution 181 did not just vote to establish a Jewish state but called on Palestine to be divided between Jews and Arabs. The Arabs did not merely reject the establishment of a Jewish state in the former British Mandate, but the creation of an Arab state as well. This is a crucial omission because it serves to obscure Arab and Muslim hostility toward Jews and Israel, which has been much more of a spoiler to the peace process than Christian Zionists who have supported Israeli efforts to negotiate with the Palestinians.
GTP’s Man in Jerusalem
Another troubling aspect of the GTP’s coverage of Christian Zionism is the behavior of its junior fellow, Micah Danney, as he worked to get information about Evangelical communities in the Holy Land. His interaction with the people at the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, documented here, do not seem to be above board.
Moreover, there’s substantial evidence that Charles Sennott used Danney not as a correspondent to get at the “ground truth” of what’s going on in the Holy Land, but as a mule to bring back the raw material that Sennott needed to weave a story that confirms his pre-existing beliefs about Christian Zionists as crazy end-timers intent on bringing about World War III. In episode two of the podcast series, Sennott declares that Danney was a “unique choice for this reporting assignment.” He continues:
He grew up steeped in Christianity. His father was a mainline Protestant preacher in Nyack, New York. As a teenager, he had gotten into some trouble, but he also really knew his scripture. Both of these parts of his past, his struggle with the law and his familiarity with the scripture would prove to be critical in gaining access to this community. Micah’s journey begins with a laying of hands upon him and ends with his being cast from the garden quite literally, but I’ll explain that later.
Sennott says that Danney’s trouble with the law as a youth was one of the factors that allowed him to gain access to the Christian Zionist community in Jerusalem. What exactly does this mean? Did Danney portray himself as a wounded, troubled seeker looking for solace in Jerusalem’s expat community of Christians and use this relationship to get the quotes Sennott needed to tell the “Christian Zionists” are crazy narrative?
That’s what it sounds like, particularly in light of how people responded to him. At one point, a group of Christians in Jerusalem prayed over Danney. They also open up to him during a car ride to a place called the Fountain of Tears with James and Alissa Patton, a married couple affiliated with the King of Kings church in Jerusalem.
During the drive, Alissa tells Danney that Yeshua is his savior. “There’s no greater purpose for your life than to know Yeshua as your messiah, as your savior.” Between praying over him and telling him about the goodness of Yeshua, it seems as if the Christian Zionists that Danney met with in Jerusalem wanted to help him on his faith journey. In a conversation with Sennott, Danney admits as much, saying, “They wanted to bring me to the light.”
Gaining access to sources can be a difficult thing, but it seems a bit cynical, manipulative and conniving for a reporter to use his unhappy adolescence to gain access, to “get inside” a religious community the way the podcast suggests he did. It’s not as if GTP was dealing with a secretive and paranoid extremist group like Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. The groups Danney was sent to cover operate out in the open.
Using these techniques, Danney got the quotes Sennott needed to tell his story. These quotes include embarrassing statements about how Muslims do not worship the same God as Christians and Jews, that the messiah hoped for by Muslims is not really the Messiah but the anti-Christ and how Russia’s presence in Syria is a precursor to Armageddon. Predictably, the weird ominous music plays in the background while they are heard to say these things, suggesting that by merely uttering these statements, James and Alissa Patton will bring about a world war.
You wouldn’t know it from Sennott’s de-contextualized reporting, but people have been talking and writing like this for a long time. Apocalyptic thinkers have, to the bemusement of their critics, been saying things like this for centuries. For apocalyptic writers, the identity of the anti-Christ has shifted, according to Paul Boyer, author of When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (1972, Belknap) from the Pope, to Anglican Bishops, King Charles I, French Canadians, King George III, Hitler, Mussolini, Sun Yung Moon, JFK, Napoleon, Ronald Reagan, Saddam Hussein, environmental leaders, a homosexual, a Jew and computers. In every one of these designations, the anti-Christ is shorthand for “someone we don’t like” or “the people we’re afraid of.” (Just ask E. Michael Jones, a Catholic antisemite who recently declared that when the anti-Christ returns, he’ll be a “homosexual Jew.”)
As Boyer writes, “Prophecy writing’s populist appeal arose … from its vigorous, if selective and superficial, engagement with contemporary issues.” Boyer continues:
Continually mining the headlines for end-time signs, the promulgators of this belief system addressed subjects of widespread concern, from communism and nuclear war to family disruption and the computer. Readers of these prophecy popularizations could recognize their own world and confront their own fears and anxieties, spread upon a vast canvas of eschatological meaning.
In other words, people embrace these scenarios not because they are trying to start a war, but because they are afraid of the world they live in and are looking for a larger narrative to give it order and a way to think about the people with whom they are already in conflict.
Hopefully, someday, a reporter will go beyond fear-mongering stereotypes and start asking why Christian Zionism is such a profoundly attractive movement to so many Christians in the United States. That would take real curiosity that sadly enough, is simply not on display by the folks at the GroundTruth Project who produced this series.
Ironically enough, Sennott is like the leaders of religious sects who, after predicting the date the Messiah would come, were forced to change the date when it didn’t happen, or failing that, change the meaning of what they meant by the Apocalypse.
Twenty years ago, Sennott was worried about Christian Zionists bringing about terrible violence on the Temple Mount and it didn’t happen. Today he’s worried about Christian Zionists being on the winning side of a political debate over moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, which didn’t bring about the apocalyptic violence as many commentators suggested it would.
To pump up the excitement, Sennott accuses Christian Zionists of killing the peace process by convincing the Trump Administration to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He blames this move for the death of the peace process, which according to many Palestinians has been dead for a long time.
Sennott is engaged in a form of what scholar Richard Landes calls “apocalyptic jazz, an improvisational discourse which consistently leads down a path of increasing excitement in which the increase becomes part of the elan.” It’s good for generating excitement and outrage on the part of NPR listeners who download Sennott’s podcasts, but it’s not a good way to inform them of the “ground truth” about what is actually going on in the Holy Land. That’s the problem with apocalyptic fantasies: you can always find evidence to buttress your scenario.
The next time Sennott feels the need to go looking for folks in the grip of an apocalyptic fantasy he should just look in the mirror.