Last Thursday, Donald Trump announced, via Twitter, a radical shift in foreign policy, saying it was time to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied territory of Golan Heights, seized from Syria in 1981. As international headlines quickly pointed out, the tweet contradicted both international law and a UN resolution; seemed a transparent gift to embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, just weeks before he faces re-election amid a corruption scandal; and cheered Israeli conservatives hoping to have Israeli control of the West Bank recognized as well. Upon hearing the news, NBC reported, Netanyahu hugged U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was visiting Israel as part of a five-day tour of the Middle East. Less discussed was the way in which the tweet capped off a week showcasing the Trump administration’s favored relationship with American evangelicals.
The Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), among Pompeo’s traveling press team, sat down with the secretary in Jerusalem, and breathlessly reported something quite different from the mainstream press’s legalistic coverage: that Trump might just be “a modern-day Esther, poised to defend Israel and save the Jewish people.”
To convince U.S. evangelicals to overlook Trump’s personal failings, the president has previously been compared to Persian King Cyrus, a nonbeliever in the Bible who nonetheless became an instrument for fulfilling God’s will, conquering Babylon and allowing Jews to return to Israel. The comparison has also resonated elsewhere: Last March, an Israeli organization minted a coin pairing images of Cyrus and Trump, while Netanyahu underscored the comparison in a Washington, D.C., speech thanking Trump for moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
Pompeo’s statement elevated the stakes, referring to the biblical story of Queen Esther, who used her beauty and wiles to prevent a massacre of Persian Jews—a feat commemorated in the annual Jewish holiday of Purim, also celebrated last Thursday. Netanyahu, too, declared Trump’s tweet “a miracle of Purim.”
Republicans have ventured the comparison before, with both Sarah Palin and George W. Bush. The story of Esther, journalist Sarah Posner has observed, has long been used by Christian Zionists—evangelicals who believe the return of Christ depends on an apocalyptic scenario in which Jews return to Israel, and convert to Christianity—to argue for an invasion of Iran.
For Trump, it’s a particularly audacious comparison. “Esther’s story is that of a young Jewish woman in the ‘harem’ of the Persian king, and through her wit, grace, and charm ends up as queen—and able to avert the bloodlust of an antisemitic minister,” Steven Gardiner, an anthropologist and senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, wrote to me via email. “In other words, Esther was a woman placed in the terrifying and untenable position of sexual servitude, but nonetheless managed to save her people. No one less resembles that position than Donald Trump.”
Much ink has already been spilled over the bargain Christian leaders in the United States made regarding Trump, backing a candidate with a highly questionable personal life in exchange for Supreme Court seats. Less noticed is how the Trump administration, particularly when it comes to foreign policy under the deeply religious supervision of Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence, continually pitches itself to the Christian Right.
Last Monday, just before his departure to the Middle East, Secretary Pompeo held a press call about international religious freedom. Domestically, the Trump administration has chiefly interpreted religious freedom as a matter of exemptions to laws protecting LGBTQ people and women’s healthcare, or efforts to lift restrictions on churches’ political campaigning. Internationally, religious freedom has meant a laser-like focus on Christian persecution, with scant attention to the plight of any other religious minorities: The October release of North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson, detained for two years in Turkey on terrorism charges, was one high-profile victory.
Monday’s call excluded the entire State Department press corps, restricting participation to a small group of “faith-based” media outlets. When an invitation was accidentally sent to a member of the mainstream press and then rescinded, bringing the exclusive briefing to light, the department doubled down, refusing to provide a transcript of the call or a list of its participants, and arguing that, as a roundtable discussion targeted at “audience-specific media,” it wasn’t subject to normal transparency practices.
Journalists as well as former State Department spokesperson John Kirby were appalled. “These officials are public servants,” Kirby told CNN. “What they say—in its entirety—is inherently of public interest.” Particularly, he added, on a topic as “universally relevant as religious freedom in the Middle East.”
One of the media organizations on the call, Religion News Service (not itself a faith-based publication, but a secular outlet that covers the religion beat), reported a partial list of other participants, including the Jewish wire service Jewish Telegraphic Agency; the center-right Jewish magazine Algemeiner; the evangelical World Magazine; and two Catholic publications, America magazine and the newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Kansas City.
Notably missing from this line-up were any Muslim media organizations, remarkable given the call’s reported inclusion of the administration’s soon-to-be-released Israel-Palestine peace plan.
Monday’s call wasn’t the first time that Pompeo’s department has privileged faith-based media over mainstream reporters. Last July, just ahead of the department’s first-ever “ministerial for international religious freedom,” as New York Times religion reporter Elizabeth Dias noted on Twitter, Pompeo had sit-down interviews with four evangelical news outlets, including the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), before a press conference call where evangelical publications World Magazine and Christianity Today were picked first for questions, and mainstream newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, were only invited to pose questions at the end of the call. And evangelical figures have also had enhanced access to policy decisions. In early March, the administration hosted a meeting with evangelical leaders—including prominent (and deeply controversial) Christian Zionist leaders like Pastor John Hagee—to “hear any concerns and red lines” they might have on a potential Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, according to an Axios source, and to reassure them that any plan would protect Israeli interests.
CBN’s sit-down with Mike Pompeo was only the latest episode in the network’s close relationship with the Trump administration—one that, as Al Jazeera argued last fall, is just as mutually beneficial as the better-known link to Fox & Friends, but is often overlooked as a part of the administration’s effective state media because of the niche audience it targets. CBN’s audience, and its interests, both help explain the administration’s policy moves and may exert influence on them, appealing to a president known for being easily swayed by flattery.
CBN’s stated mission is to ready the U.S. “for the coming of Jesus Christ.” To that end, it focuses heavily on Middle East issues. It airs the weekly program Jerusalem Dateline, and regularly features guests like Joel Rosenberg, the author of a series of Middle East-set evangelical apocalyptic or political thriller novels and a member of Pompeo’s inner circle, who has helped broker interviews between the Secretary and the network. Earlier this month, Rosenberg appeared on CBN to discuss his latest work of fiction, The Persian Gamble, which posits that Iran used U.S. money to buy North Korean nukes. Rosenberg said he’d recently explained the book’s plot to President Trump. “How do you know that’s not happening already?” Trump apparently replied.
The steady undercurrent to CBN’s focus is the Christian Zionist conviction that the return of Christ depends on a specific scenario involving the return of Jews to Israel. It’s a belief that Pompeo seems to share, having told a Kansas church audience in 2015 to keep fighting “until the rapture.”
Even amid an administration stacked with evangelical staffers and advisors, Pompeo stands out. As former CIA director he described the “war on terror” as a holy war and said the U.S. “worshipped other gods and called it multiculturalism.” He now readily tells audiences about how he keeps a Bible open on his State Department desk to remind him of God’s truth. One of the driving motivators of Pompeo’s State Department increasingly seems to be what Gardiner calls “well-documented beliefs in the prophetic necessity of the establishment of a ‘Greater Israel’ in order to usher in the End Times”—hardly a stabilizing central principle in an era of nuclear risk. Meanwhile, holding “separate interviews with religious broadcasters,” Gardiner pointed out, means “reaching the white evangelicals who are the single most unwavering part of the voting base of an embattled president.”
It’s easy to get distracted by the secular spectacle of Trump’s manic Twitter feed, filled with arbitrary bits of outrage or lavish praise, depending on whichever leader has flattered him lately. But as last week showed, better than others, there’s a more disciplined administrative force at work behind the scenes, crafting an intensely ideological foreign policy.