Unless a face-to-face with Jesus has straightened out his theology or his politics — or both — Ed McAteer no doubt was smiling down from heaven this week as the United States relocated its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
No religious figure worked harder for such an outcome than McAteer, who died in 2004 at the age of 78. That fact perhaps will be lost on most evangelical Christians today, who likely never heard of McAteer. But the reality is that Donald Trump would not be president today, the Moral Majority would not have existed, and the U.S. Embassy would not be in Jerusalem today without the seeds planted by McAteer from the 1970s through the 1990s.
I met McAteer when I was a Baptist journalist and had the pleasure of interacting with him on numerous occasions — including attending his annual prayer breakfasts “for the peace of Jerusalem,” most often held in conjunction with the annual conventions of the National Religious Broadcasters. These enormous events brought together televangelists, evangelical pastors, Christian Zionists, Jewish religious leadership and Israeli officials in an uneasy couple of hours of pageantry and prayer. In those days, the political gap between American Jews and Evangelical Christians was so wide that it took a force of will like this former toothpaste salesman to bring them together even for breakfast.
The main course was not eggs and bacon, of course, but following what McAteer believed was the undying biblical mandate to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”
In reality, these events — like McAteer’s entire life’s mission after retiring as a successful sales manager for Colgate-Palmolive in Memphis, Tenn. — were intended to meld a particular Christian view of the end-times with a kind of Zionism that rallied faithful Jews to political action as well. At the breakfasts, the 12 tribes of Israel were called out in pageantry as large banners were paraded through the banquet hall, and religious and political figures made speeches and gave prayers.
It was from this base that future political candidates — all the way up to Donald Trump — were nurtured to believe that a bedrock principle of American conservatism was to support the political state of Israel at all costs. This is part and parcel of the end-times theology known as premillennial dispensationalism, the kind of theology popularized later by the Left Behind books and movies.
McAteer burst onto the public scene in 1980 when he organized the National Affairs Briefing, which brought about 15,000 pastors and other conservative Christian activists to Dallas. It was there that presidential candidate Ronald Reagan cozied up to the nascent Religious Right by famously declaring, “I know you can’t endorse me, but I endorse you.”
With those words, the Religious Right and the Republican party got hitched in a way that reverberates to this day.
Earlier, McAteer played a key role in convincing Jerry Falwell, then just an independent Baptist televangelist, to enter politics and found the Moral Majority in 1979.
In a 1981 interview with The New York Times, McAteer said his agenda was “public policy concerning moral issues,” including school prayer and a strong national defense, opposition to abortion, pornography and Communism. And support for Israel, of course.
One of my most memorable interactions with McAteer was the time he tried to explain to me why apartheid actually was good for South Africa. Understanding his unwavering support for Israel was easy compared to that.
McAteer was a long-time lay member of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, and his pastor was Adrian Rogers, one of the leaders of the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention that — not coincidentally — began in 1979.
Had he lived long enough, McAteer would have loved Donald Trump, and Trump would have loved him. McAteer could have been named U.S. ambassador to Israel by Trump, a role for which McAteer was promoted by the Religious Right in 2001 but which President George W. Bush declined to embrace.
In an article written for the Baptist Standard after that slighting, I quoted McAteer: “We were dropped like a hot potato once they got out of these Christians what they wanted.”
And then at the time of his death I noted in an interview with Associated Baptist Press that McAteer “was one of the few people who grew weary of political leaders making promises to the Religious Right to get elected, and then not keeping them. Which is, in time, what drove him to support more and more fringe candidates. He’s a fascinating case study of a true believer.”
And that’s why, no doubt, Ed McAteer and Donald Trump would have made quite a pair.