WASHINGTON – Almost 400 miles away from Cleveland, sweltering in a Washington, DC heat wave, thousands of potential voters stood on their feet, opening their arms in testimony, waving American and Israeli flags and vowing that for Zion’s sake, their voices would be anything but silent.
Christians United for Israel’s annual summit was booked years in advance of the announcement that the Republican Party would hold its nominating convention in Cleveland the same week, but the powerful grassroots-based organization sees itself as playing a central role in the drama that continues to unfold in the 2016 elections cycle – and beyond.
The organization sprang to its feet in advance of the Republican convention, when the platform committee sat down to draft party doctrine for the coming election. CUFI sought to restore language describing Jerusalem as “undivided” – asserting support for Israel’s claims over all of the city, on either side of the Green Line.
“Our 501c4 [lobbying organization] was instrumental in having the word ‘undivided’ added to the Republican platform,” says Pastor John Hagee, the organization’s founder and spiritual mentor. “It was extracted previously and we as an organization want to see Jerusalem the eternal capital of the Jewish people undivided today, tomorrow and forever.”
With three million largely politically inclined members, many of whom are decidedly conservative, it surprised no one that a CUFI member was already on the platform drafting committee – and the relevant subcommittee. CUFI leaders spoke to the member as well as to key figures in the Republican Party and the Trump campaign.
CUFI sent out a letter expressing its concern regarding the Jerusalem language on the Thursday before the platform committee voted. By Sunday, the wording in the draft was changed to include the key phrasing.
“On that Thursday, the CUFI action fund sent the letter to the platform committee seeking the change. The changes that we sought were made by Sunday evening as reported by CNN,” one CUFI representative told The Times of Israel. “The change was made not because our elected officials received 3.1 million phone calls, but because they knew that if the change wasn’t made they would [receive those calls].”
Strength in numbers
CUFI leaders are quick to point out that the organization’s strength is drawn from exactly this principle – a combination of numbers and mobilization that makes politicians look up and notice. Established 10 years ago, the organization whose members tend to refer to it by its acronym – CUFI – exploded from 1 million members in 2012 to 2 million in 2015 and added another 1.1 million members in the past 18 months alone.
“There are 60 million evangelicals in America and they all have a Bible base to support Israel,” says Hagee, considering how much more his organization could expand. “It would certainly be within the bounds of reason that we could get 6 to 8 million of those to be a part of Christians United for Israel in the days to come.”
In the meantime, the organization has flexed its muscles in recent elections, stressing to politicians, particularly – but not exclusively – Republicans, the importance for their voters of providing full-throated support for Israel.
“We’ve been able to say that this is a message that you need to communicate to the base. That you need to be very strong, not ambivalent; strong in support of Israel if you would like to win the support of this base,” adds David Brog, the organization’s former lay leader and current member of the board of directors.
“CUFI has helped create a situation where someone wanting to win the Republican nomination and wanting to win the Republican base to turn out on election day needs to strongly support Israel. This resonates very deeply and we’ve been focused on creating that climate in America,” he said.
Brog notes that even the “grandfather” of evangelical politicking, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, included support for Israel among his main political aims. But for years, that plank, so to speak, of the evangelical agenda, took second seat to domestic topics like abortion and family values.
“I think 9/11 started a process in which Israel, which had always been a priority for evangelicals but lower on the list, started to emerge higher on the list,” Brog explains. “At the same time, where we’ve played a role is coming in and filling a gap left by the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition in being a way for those evangelical Christians concerned about this issue to have a voice in an organization.”
‘If you want to win over a certain block you had better be strongly and solidly pro-Israel’
“They all know that if you want to lead the Republican Party and win the Republican primaries, you need to win over this incredibly large voting block of American Christians and American evangelicals,” Brog adds. “If you want to win over a certain block you had better be strongly and solidly pro-Israel.”
Hagee says that having a mobilized, pro-Israel Christian base “absolutely” influenced the increased focus on Israel among Republican primary candidates who might have otherwise concentrated on other topics.
“One thing I’ve learned, and one of the things you learn in Washington, is that politicians can count very well and they have a passion to become re-elected,” Hagee smiles. “That when you represent 3.1 million votes, this is a significant force that they must be reconciled with. Because that force is going to vote for the pro-Israel voice, period.”
In the recent Republican primaries, candidates ran the gamut from being perceived as adversarial to Israel (Rand Paul) to enthusiastic supporters of Israel (Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz). While this support did not provide enough fairy dust to win in a bitterly contentious season, CUFI argues that the organization has drawn candidates to include and strengthen support for Israel in their policies and their rhetoric.
In speaking with The Times of Israel, Hagee avoids commenting directly on the adjustment of Republican candidate Donald Trump’s stance on Israel. Initially, Trump was viewed with concern by some pro-Israel activists after he pledged to be “neutral” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, refused to vow to “tear up” the Iran deal and seemed to consider limiting defense aid to Israel.
“I think Donald Trump is a very smart man,” Hagee smiles. “I think he recognizes that a voting bloc of 3.1 million people is something to which he wants to pay attention.”
The GOP frontrunner has beefed up his rhetoric – and his contact with the organization. In fact, as the Republican spectacle unfolded in Cleveland last week, Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s top adviser on Israel, was at the Washington conference center meeting with CUFI’s leadership.
“People were very pleased with his remarks and appreciative that Donald Trump would send his personal representative to express his support for Israel,” Hagee recalls.
Although CUFI says it doesn’t keep count, most of its members associate themselves with the more conservative Republican Party. But for CUFI members, Hagee argues, the contentious Republican primaries were not as divisive as they could have been.
“It’s not a challenge because we really don’t care what Washington thinks,” says Hagee. “We don’t really care because we have a mandate from the Bible and that mandate is to be supportive of Israel and the Jewish people. Therefore, we want to hear from the candidate who is going to articulate specifically what they are going to do concerning Jerusalem, concerning standing with Israel in their common defense, and doing what they can to repair the broken-down bridges of the past seven and a half years.”
“I am waiting for the major candidates to make a clear declarative statement about specifically what they are going to do for the state of Israel and the city of Jerusalem,” Hagee acknowledges.
At the same time, the organization’s charismatic leader has all but endorsed Trump by name.
“I’m going to vote for the candidate that’s going to make the US military great again,” he says, using Trump’s signature phrase. “I’m going to vote for the party that is going to solve the immigration problem, not the one that has created the immigration problem. I’m going to support the party that brings jobs back from China,” he continues. “I’m not going to vote for the party that has betrayed Israel for the past seven years.”
Hagee, who last endorsed a presidential candidate in the 2008 match-up between President Barack Obama and Senator John McCain, says that he and CUFI “aggressively encourages Christians to vote.”
“I press the issue on national television,” he stresses. “I tell them elections have consequences, and that the disappointments of the past have been evidenced by the fact that three million evangelicals did not vote in the past election. God forbid that happen again. We are going to storm the voting booths of America this time around.”