A wide spectrum of the Baltimore faith community participated in the 59th annual Interfaith Institute at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation on March 11. Approximately 250 attendees gathered, as Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen introduced keynote speaker Dr. Matthew D. Taylor.
Taylor joked about hitting the “trifecta of controversy” with his speech, titled: “Evangelical Christianity, American Politics, and the State of Israel.”
His goal, Taylor said, was to give attendants a historical and theological context for the relationship between Evangelical Christianity in America and support for the state of Israel.
The first half of Taylor’s hour-long speech was devoted to tracing the history of modern evangelical practices from the time it arrived on America’s shores to today. In the 19th century, American Protestantism was a central identity for most Americans and there was little differentiation between Protestants and Evangelicals.
“There are not a lot of clear lines you can draw between Protestants in the nineteenth century, between those who would call themselves Protestants and those who would call themselves Evangelicals,” Taylor said.
But by the early 20th century, a movement emerged in an attempt to carve out “true Christianity” within Protestantism.
“The fundamentalists are frustrated,” said Taylor, “because this idea of evangelicals is so nebulous that they want to carve out for themselves, ‘Here is true Christianity;’ they are holding on to the fundamentals of Christianity, which largely have to do with the Bible.”
This group, termed Fundamentalists, positioned themselves as different from the rest of American Protestants by embracing the “fundamentals” of Christianity while the rest of American Protestantism redefined themselves as “mainline” in opposition to the “radical” Fundamentalists.
Modern Evangelical support for Zionism, Taylor said, began in the late 19th century and stemmed from a belief that Jews must be returned to Israel in order to bring about the messianic age of Jesus. Today, 75-80 percent of American Evangelicals support the state of Israel.
Taylor concluded his presentation with the observation that while Israel and Evangelicals may be working together to support the state of Israel, “You can have interfaith collaboration without interfaith dialogue,” he said. As such, while Evangelicals are thinking theologically about the need for Jews to return to Israel to bring about the messianic age, Israelis are thinking temporally about the need to protect Israel.
Rabbi Geoff Basik of Kol Halev Synagogue, responded to Taylor’s talk by bringing the political and moral into Taylor’s scholarly talk.
Basik thought that the modern religious right was making the “choice of policies over principles,” noting that they were making decisions that he saw as contradicting the moral g
uidelines set out in their religious beliefs. Such a system, Basik said, was one he could not endorse.
The comments illuminated just how interfaith the gathering really was. While some of who stood up identified themselves as Jewish—one of whom was American-Israeli—several Christians also gave comments, as well as two students—from two of the three schools represented—and one woman who identified herself as Muslim.