US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) hugs Emirati Ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba at the NYU Abu Dhabi campus in Abu Dhabi on January 13, 2019. Photo: AFP/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds

While President Donald Trump fended off critics over a dragged-out government shutdown and fresh reports he had sought to conceal communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin, his evangelical envoy sang his praises from the Middle East.

America’s top diplomat Mike Pompeo greeted his audience in Cairo with a prophetic turn of phrase. 

“This trip is especially meaningful for me as an evangelical Christian, coming so soon after the Coptic Church’s Christmas celebrations. This is an important time. We’re all children of Abraham: Christians, Muslims, Jews. In my office, I keep a Bible open on my desk to remind me of God and His Word, and The Truth.”

He continued that he was in Cairo to herald another truth, that America was a “force for good” in the Middle East.

Pompeo proceeded to rip into former President Barack Obama, who some fringe evangelists have accused of being a secret Muslim and even the anti-Christ. The secretary of state used his speech to air domestic grievances, blaming Obama for the rise of the Islamic State and empowerment of Iran.

“Remember: It was here, here in this city, that another American stood before you. He told you that radical Islamist terrorism does not stem from an ideology. He told you that 9/11 led my country to abandon its ideals, particularly in the Middle East.

“The results of these misjudgments have been dire,” Pompeo told an assembled group of blank-faced students, eliciting little palpable reaction.

“We grossly underestimated the tenacity and viciousness of radical Islamism, a debauched strain of the faith that seeks to upend every other form of worship or governance. ISIS drove to the outskirts of Baghdad as America hesitated. They raped and pillaged and murdered tens of thousands of innocents. They birthed a caliphate across Syria and Iraq and launched terror attacks that killed all across continents,” he said.

Pompeo’s messianic message came as challengers for the 2020 US presidential race began announcing their candidacies. Over the past two weeks, Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Obama’s secretary of housing Julian Castro, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren have all stepped up to the plate, hoping to be the Democratic challenger to Trump.

The incumbent is expected to retain his party’s mantle. But the businessman who campaigned on taking his “art of the deal” style negotiation tactics to run Washington will now have to justify a dipping stock market and the longest government shutdown in US history. To win in 2020, Trump will need America’s evangelicals firmly in his corner.

Never-ending struggle

Years before assuming the office of secretary of state, Mike Pompeo told attendees at a rally in his native Kansas that it was not only a right, but a duty for Christians to combine their faith with service to country.

Politics, he said, “is a never-ending struggle … until the rapture.” The rapture being the belief among many evangelical Christians that believers and the resurrected dead will rise up to heaven with the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Dr. Andrew Chesnut, Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, explains that Christian Zionists — now hegemonic among white evangelicals — believe that for the rapture to occur, Jews must return to the “promised land”, or Israel.

“Be a part of it. Be in the fight,” Pompeo urged the congregation.

The current secretary of state has also said there is a threat to America from “people who deeply believe that Islam is the way and the light and the only answer”.

“They abhor Christians, and will continue to press against us until we make sure that we pray and stand and fight and make sure that we know that Jesus Christ our savior is truly the only solution for our world.” 

Pompeo appears to have thrown his full weight into that crusade as America’s top envoy abroad.

“As a Christian Zionist, Pompeo shares Israel’s belief that the great force for evil in the Middle East is Iran, and he underscored this in his Cairo speech, that the US would not rest until every Iranian boot was expelled from Syria.

“Moreover he views US policy in the Middle East as a force of Christian good in a region torn apart by Islamic extremism, namely ISIS and Iran, especially the latter,” said Chesnut.

Pompeo is consistently unfazed and unabashed by the mercurial inclinations of his boss, taking the latest Syria withdrawal directive in his stride and branding it as part of the grand plan, in which the security of Israel and the stability of Arab states willing to normalize relations with Israel is paramount.

US allies have meanwhile made their own contingency plans; the Syrian Kurds of the YPG are in talks with Bashar al-Assad’s government, key Gulf states are reopening their embassies in Damascus, and the Turks have announced they will proceed with military moves against the YPG regardless of the US pullout. None of those parties appear to have been Pompeo’s audience.

Instead, he appeared to be sending a strong signal to a key constituency back home.

Passion for Israel

Protestants make up more than 40% of the US populace, with dedicated evangelicals forming the majority of that pool.

Leading voices in the evangelical community in the run-up to the 2016 race decided that Trump, despite questionable morals, could serve as a vessel for their ambitions. The Pew Research Center found that white evangelicals voted “overwhelmingly” for Trump in the last vote.

As of April 2017,  75% of white evangelical Protestants approved of Trump’s job as president, compared to an approval rating of 39% with the general public, according to Pew.

One key issue for that constituency is unequivocal support for Israel, to where evangelicals believe the Jewish people must return.

“White Evangelicals figure among the largest sector and most loyal of Trump’s political base so Pompeo’s self-references to being an evangelical coupled with his implementation of pro-Israel policy in the Middle East plays perfectly to Southern Baptists and Pentecostals, for example, who are more Zionist than American Jews,” said Chesnut.

Then-CIA Director and Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo (L), Vice President Mike Pence, and President Donald Trump meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House on March 20, 2018. Photo: Saul Loeb /AFP

Pompeo’s evangelical counterpart Mike Pence in July 2017 said, “my passion for Israel springs from my Christian faith… It’s really the greatest privilege of my life to serve as vice president to a president who cares so deeply for our most cherished ally.”

The vice president promised then that “the day will come when President Donald Trump moves the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It is not a question of if, it is only when.”

That promise came to pass in December 2017, when Trump pledged to move the embassy, and again in May, when the new building was inaugurated in Jerusalem.

The US relationship with the heir to the Saudi throne is also viewed as an invaluable component of the effort to maintain Israel’s security in a hostile region.

The young prince Mohammed bin Salman in April said, the “Israelis have the right to have their own land.” The statement was viewed as a veiled recognition of Israel’s right to exist and it was made without gaining any concessions. While his father, King Salman, has since put his son in his place on the matter of ceding Jerusalem to the Israelis, it is only a matter of time before the father fully passes on the reigns to the new face of the kingdom.

On Monday, Pompeo sat down with the crown prince in Riyadh, a critical endorsement meant to turn the page once and for all on the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. It was also a public dismissal of the elected leaders of the US Senate, who passed a resolution holding the crown prince responsible for the killing.

The former CIA chief instead gave credence to the Saudi investigation, which has not implicated the crown prince in the affair. Up to five Saudis may face the death penalty for the murder, but they have not been named and not expected to include the crown prince’s micromanaging aide Saud al-Qahtani, who is also accused of personally overseeing and participating in the torture of women’s rights activists.

Pompeo on Monday night concluded his tour with a deliberate nod to Oman, which welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a surprise visit in October. With that visit, the sultanate went from being viewed as Obama’s suspicious backchannel to Iran, to gaining notice as a key piece of a promising regional equation. An equation that, for the ideological Christians in the Trump administration, divides the world in terms of good and evil.

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