H-Diplo Article Review 1173: Hummel on Ballout, “Vanguard of the Religious Right"

christopher ball Discussion

H-Diplo Article Review 1173

4 April 2023

Laila Ballout. “Vanguard of the Religious Right: U.S. Evangelicals in Israeli-Controlled South Lebanon,” Diplomatic History 46:3 (June 2022): 602–626. https://doi.org/10.1093/dh/dhac011

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Thomas Maddux | Production Editor: Christopher Ball

Review by Daniel G. Hummel, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Laila Ballout’s insightful article detailing American Pentecostal connections in South Lebanon in the decade before the 1982 Lebanon War joins a growing body of scholarship that emphasizes the role of religious and informal networks in shaping the conduct of US foreign relations. Thanks to work by Lauren Turek, Melanie McAlister, Anna Su, and Augusta Dell’omo (among many others), we are gleaning the broader canvas on which globe-spanning networks of churches, media outfits, and NGOs headquartered or guided by American religious actors both enabled and, in some cases, limited the official conduct of US foreign relations.[1]

In one sense, the importance of religious actors in US geopolitics should not be surprising. Prior to the twentieth century, Christian missionaries were key players in US diplomacy, as classic works by Paul Varg and Joseph Grabill made clear, and more recent studies by Emily Conroy-Krutz and Ussama Makdisi, and synthetic works by George Herring and Andrew Preston, further illuminate.[2] As late as World War II, as David Hollinger’s and Matt Sutton’s recent studies show, missionaries in regions such as Southeast Asia and the Middle East were absolutely crucial to the conduct and maintenance of official US policy.[3]

Yet in another sense, the influence of religious actors—especially Pentecostals, evangelicals, and fundamentalists—still manages to surprise. There at least three reasons for this. First, US foreign policy did professionalize and secularize throughout the twentieth century and marginalized the local influence and expertise of missionaries, leading to a far less overtly religious cast of characters, especially beginning in the early Cold War.[4] Second, diplomatic historians themselves dropped the thread of religion in their studies of US foreign relations for much of the mid- and late-twentieth century. The ‘religious turn’ that includes the above-mentioned scholars is well underway and we are still relearning some old truths.[5] Third, and somewhat paradoxically, these specific groups of actors—Pentecostals, evangelicals, and fundamentalists—have tended toward political conservatism and have downplayed the importance of governmental support and action to their own work, and the importance of their work to the conduct of the government.[6]

The result is that articles like Ballout’s are illuminating to even those historians who are relatively familiar with the field. More than once while reading I muttered a satisfied ‘of course’ that both revealed new information and confirmed hunches. Of course some US Pentecostals were deeply interested in the Lebanese nationalist aspirations, combining both a sense of Christian solidarity against Arab Muslims and Christian Zionist-inflected views of Israeli interests in Lebanon. Of course George Otis, a secondary figure in the usual telling of American Pentecostalism, was the connector to a whole host of other Pentecostal leaders and instrumental to the involvement of more famous names like Pat Robertson. And of course the Israeli political establishment, including and especially prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin (bridging both Labor and Likud-led coalitions), worked to instruct American Christian Zionists on how to think about Lebanon and Lebanese Christians in ways that furthered their own interests in the region.

In short, this article, and undoubtedly the book to which it will belong, helps fill in gaps, some quite large, in the US Pentecostal engagement in the Middle East. At the same time, it bridges religious and diplomatic interests in a way that pays attention to both without conflating the divergent motives, plans, and power dynamics at play between the US government, the Israeli government, Lebanese nationalists, and Pentecostals themselves.

My of course epiphanies should not, of course, imply that Ballout’s accomplishment is obvious or easy. The article is meticulously researched and organized, offering a narrative of the years 1970-1990 that focuses on Otis’s awakening to Christian Zionism and growing involvement in Middle East missions. Otis then transitioned, after the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975 and the 1978 Israeli invasion of South Lebanon, toward radio ministry. He deepened connections with both the Israeli government and Lebanese nationalist Major Saad Haddad and his South Lebanon Army (SLA). The “Voice of Hope” radio station founded by Otis became one of Haddad’s mouthpieces from 1979 to his death in 1984. Alongside a discourse of religious freedom and Biblical prophecy fulfillment, Pentecostals like Otis also explained their interest in Lebanon through a “politics of rescue” that amounted to an argument that “their work in Lebanon was driven by the need to prevent Christian ‘genocide’” (605). 

Though Otis had no direct connection to the US government, Ballout argues that his radio station effectively stood in for American influence in the region. “The Voice of Hope weakened U.S. claims of neutrality in the region,” she argues, “and entangled its creators within the conflict in Lebanon that flared intermittently from 1975 to 1990” (604). Later, Otis gifted his station to Pat Robertson, who created an independent television station (Middle East Television) which moved away from political messaging and toward basic American distractions of sports and game shows. Though less directly addressing the conduct of diplomacy, Robertson’s entry into the story facilitates the article’s most entertaining quotation, from New York Times’ reporter Thomas Friedman, who in 1986 observed: “only in Israel could you find Jews watching ‘ABC’s Monday Night Football’ on a pirate evangelical Christian station broadcasting from predominantly Shiite Moslem southern Lebanon” (625).

The diplomatic consequences of Otis’s work were less trivial: “U.S. evangelicals’ support for Saad Haddad and their entanglement into war in Lebanon illustrates how domestic forces can complicate the policymaking of even sympathetic U.S. administrations” (626). While the Reagan administration tended toward supporting Israel (and regarded Pentecostal conservatives as part of the Christian Right base of the Republican Party), its attempts at playing the moderator in the region proved disastrous, and Pentecostals in South Lebanon were no help. The Sabra and Shatila massacres of Palestinian refugees in the summer of 1982 by Lebanese Christian nationalists—including Haddad’s SLA—had received international, including American, condemnation. But Pentecostals remained loyal. Haddad claimed that his forces had been “falsely accused” and Pentecostals like Otis interpreted the whole episode as a “satanic plot” to undermine Christians in Lebanon (624). “If anything,” Ballout writes, “it appears that evangelical-Haddad relations had strengthened after 1982.” The crosscurrents of official diplomacy, informal networks, and domestic politics acted as a drag on the Reagan administration that further complicated, rather than clarified, its freedom of action.

Ballout’s article offers an additional insight worth mentioning here. By centering Pentecostal activity in Lebanon over the much more commonly studied evangelical Christian Zionism and US-Israel connections, Ballout provides a larger context for assessing the role of American religious actors in the Middle East. She concludes that “the story of the Voice of Hope demonstrates how US evangelicals became embroiled into Middle Eastern politics beyond Israel and helps place evangelical relationships with Israel into their regional context” (626). This desire to place US-Israel relations in regional and global contexts is a welcome development and is one of growing interest; Walter Russell Mead’s new history of US-Israel relations is one popular example that echoes Ballout’s concerns.[7]

For historians of religion and US foreign relations, Ballout’s work highlights how we need a larger synthesis that contextualizes both Israel and Lebanon into a longer and broader history of US evangelical-Middle East engagement. Along with work such as Heather Sharkey’s studies of Western Christians in nineteenth-century Egypt and Melanie McAlister’s analysis of US evangelicals in modern Iraq (among many other examples), this article brings into focus a synthetic narrative that is shaped by local contexts, chronology, and specific religious commitments, but that also has a continuity in a set of interests generated largely through religious culture and institution-building that often diverged from official American diplomacy or the wishes of US foreign policymakers.[8]

For all its strengths, Ballout’s article could have clarified what exactly, religiously-speaking, occurred in Lebanon. The distinction between “Pentecostal” and “evangelical” is a case in point. Ballout refers to the actors in her article as both “Pentecostals.” and “evangelicals” and she seems to use the two words interchangeably. Yet the network she explores is almost exclusively Pentecostal in nature. From Otis to singer Pat Boone to televangelist Pat Robertson, traveling evangelist Gordon Lindsay, founder of Christians United for Israel Donald M. Lewis, and Messianic Jewish leader Moshe Rosen, the direct involvement in Voices of Hope and South Lebanon traced in this article was a Pentecostal and charismatic Christian affair.

While the distinction between Pentecostals and other conservative Protestants, including evangelicals, often gets overlooked, it matters for a few reasons in this case. First, through the 1970s the boundaries between US Pentecostals, evangelicals, and fundamentalists remained much less porous than in later decades. Pentecostal networks were more exclusive and more shaped by their distinctive theological commitments. To take one example, the talk of “satanic plots” and spiritual warfare, while present in other parts of conservative Protestantism, had particular meaning to Pentecostals like Otis. Certain personal actions, like prayer and practicing spiritual gifts, and certain public projects, such as building radio stations, fit into a Pentecostal theological logic of spiritual warfare. Radio stations, for example, were not just tools to evangelize the gospel message—as they may have been for a non-Pentecostal evangelical who was affiliated with Billy Graham. For Pentecostals like Otis and Robertson, the act of broadcasting prayers, recitations of the Bible, and words of spiritual power over the airwaves were seen as weapons (in the most literal sense) in an active spiritual war for the fate of the region.

A second point of relevance for the Pentecostal nature of Ballout’s actors is that it helps explain how South Lebanon fit into the larger (and not entirely American) networks of Christian activists in the region. Here the article’s reference to Israel and Christian Zionism is helpful. Ballout includes an oblique mention to the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ), a Christian Zionist organization founded in 1980 largely by American and European Pentecostals (623). Today, the ICEJ is the largest Christian Zionist organization in the world, and a node for a global network of Christian Zionists that include US Pentecostals but is mostly anchored in the much larger Pentecostal and charismatic networks of churches in the Global South. The ascendance of the ICEJ in twenty-first century Christian Zionist activism did not take place in isolation. In the US, Christians United for Israel, which claims 10 million members as of 2022, is the dominate lobby group. It was founded by Pentecostal pastor John Hagee in 2006 (using the same name as Donald Lewis’s organization from the early 1980s mentioned by Ballout) and is largely stocked with Pentecostal leaders. In sum, Ballout’s study of Otis doesn’t just tell us how “evangelicals” (used loosely) engaged with Lebanon, it shows how Pentecostals (like Otis) came to dominate this engagement over other potential leaders including evangelicals (like Billy Graham) and fundamentalists (like Jerry Falwell). As we have learned with the ascendance of Pentecostals in the Christian right since the 2000s in US domestic politics, the particular ways in which Pentecostals understand the relationship between spirituality, culture, and politics has profound effects on how they act in the world.[9]

There is more ground to till in this history, but Ballout’s article offers a useful example for how to bridge religious, diplomatic, and international stories in a way that synthesizes them while also acknowledging the nuanced relationships between historical actors. Its effectiveness lies not only in its comprehensive research and clarity, but in its willingness to move toward, rather than flatten, the differing institutions, motives, and politics that collided in South Lebanon.


Daniel G. Hummel is an honorary research fellow in the History Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Director of University Engagement at Upper House, a Christian study center on the campus of UW-Madison. He is the author of Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, and U.S.-Israeli Relations (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019) and the forthcoming The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism: How the Evangelical Battle Over the End Times Shaped a Nation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2023).


[1] Lauren Frances Turek, To Bring the Good News to All Nations: Evangelical Influence on Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Relations (Ithaca New York: Cornell University Press, 2020); Melani McAlister, The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018); Anna Su, Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016); and Augusta Dell’Omo, “Infernal Handiwork: Trinity Broadcasting Network Aids Apartheid South Africa, 1980–1994,” Diplomatic History 45: 4 (September 6, 2021): 767–93.

[2] Paul A. Varg, Missionaries, Chinese, and Diplomats: The American Protestant Missionary Movement in China, 1890-1952 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958); Joseph Grabill, Protestant Diplomacy and the Near East: Missionary Influence on American Policy, 1810-1927 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1971); Emily Conroy-Krutz, Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic, United States in the World (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015); Ussama Makdisi, Faith Misplaced: The Broken Promise of U.S.-Arab Relations: 1820-2001 (New York: PublicAffairs, 2010); George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); and Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (New York: Knopf, 2012). See also Mehmet Ali Dogan and Heather J. Sharkey, eds., American Missionaries and the Middle East: Foundational Encounters (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2011).

[3] David A. Hollinger, Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017); Matthew Avery Sutton, Double Crossed: The Missionaries Who Spied for the United States During the Second World War, Illustrated edition (New York: Basic Books, 2019).

[4] See, for example, Mark Thomas Edwards, Faith and Foreign Affairs in the American Century (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2019).

[5] On the ‘religious turn’ see Turek, “An Outpouring of the Spirit: A Historiography of Recent Works on Religion and U.S. Foreign Relations,” Passport: The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Review 48: 2 (2017): 25-32.

[6] See, for example, Axel R. Schäfer, Piety and Public Funding: Evangelicals and the State in Modern America, Politics and Culture in Modern America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

[7] Walter Russell Mead, The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People (New York: Knopf, 2022).

[8] Heather J. Sharkey, American Evangelicals in Egypt: Missionary Encounters in an Age of Empire (Princeton University Press, 2008) and McAlister, “What Would Jesus Do? Evangelicals, the Iraq War, and the Struggle for Position,” in David Ryan and Patrick Kiely, eds., America and Iraq: Policy-making, Intervention and Regional Politics (New York: Routledge, 2009), 123-153.

[9] See, for examples, Joseph Williams, “The Pentecostalization of Christian Zionism,” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 84: 1 (March 2015): 159–94 and Damon Berry, “Voting in the Kingdom: Prophecy Voters, the New Apostolic Reformation, and Christian Support for Trump,” Nova Religio 23: 4 (April 15, 2020): 69–93.