In a tranquil Kentucky forest, Pastor Boyd Bingham IV of the Binghamtown Baptist Church sets up metal targets, loads his assault rifle, and blasts away. “We are the people who put Donald Trump in power,” he says. “And he pushes our agenda.”
Backing Trump is not the only agenda-driven alliance Bingham and his fellow evangelists have pursued, as Maya Zinshtein shows in her chilling, even-handed documentary “‘Til Kingdom Come.” Though they live in one of the poorest counties in the United States, Bingham’s congregation contributes generously to support the state of Israel, with small donations collected from church members, including schoolchildren who fill buckets with their pennies and pocket change. They are among the millions of evangelicals across the country who give more than $120 million annually to the cause.
This unlikely association began with the efforts of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, a Massachusetts native who in 1983 founded the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. His group received little support until televangelist Pat Robertson took an interest. He invited Eckstein on “The 700 Club” and was so impressed, he gave him a hefty check. Another appearance on Robertson’s show raised $4 million from viewers in 30 minutes. Though met with suspicion by some Israelis, soon Eckstein’s movement was passionately embraced by evangelicals everywhere.
The money raised goes to Israeli charities and helps the poor, minorities, and Holocaust survivors (in one affecting scene, an elderly, indigent Holocaust survivor who had been crippled in a terrorist attack receives a box of food). The organization also contributes millions to the Israeli Defense Forces, the country’s potent military, and has bonded with the right-wing Israeli settler movement, which seeks to absorb all the occupied territories and restore Israel to its biblical borders.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who relies on the support of the settler movement, became an advocate of Eckstein’s group, as did the Trump administration, which regarded evangelicals as a fundamental part of the president’s political base. The combined efforts of Trump, Netanyahu, the settlers, and evangelicals triumphed in 2018 when Trump relocated the US embassy to Jerusalem, setting off Palestinian demonstrations in which many were killed and wounded.
Why all the love between these seemingly antipathetical groups? Three years ago, Zinshtein learned about the connection and decided to investigate. She spends time with both Pastor Bingham IV and his father, Pastor William Bingham III. She accompanies Eckstein and his daughter, Yael, as they promote their organization, participate in multimillion-dollar fundraising events, appear with evangelical leaders, and bring tour groups of evangelicals to biblical sites in Israel where they can observe settlers restoring Palestinian lands to the nation they believe rightfully claims them.
The evangelical support for Israel, she learns, comes with apocalyptic complications. As Bingham III explains to a class he is teaching on end-times prophecies, once fully restored Israel will be afflicted by war, natural disasters, and disease. Jerusalem will be “trodden down.” Believers in Jesus will be raptured, Jesus will return, and the final battle of Armageddon will begin, seven years of warfare in which two-thirds of Jews will be exterminated and the remaining third will be forced to convert to Christianity.
“When Israel is involved in major warfare, pay attention!” the Rev. John Hagee, an evangelical heavyweight, booms out to his congregation. “When you see these signs, lift up your heads and rejoice! Your redemption draws nigh!”
Not a good deal for the Jews it would seem. Zinshtein confronts Yael Eckstein (her father died in 2019) with these anti-Semitic beliefs, and she is at a loss for an answer. “It’s a paradox,” she says. “Once you get five steps ahead of it, it gets really frickin’ complicated. So I don’t go those five steps.”
Asked if his work with Israel seems hypocritical, Bingham III drops all pretenses. “You blind, stupid Jewish people, can’t you see . . . the historical, biblical evidence?” he says. “How can you be so blind — because you’re just a little bit arrogant? Now you’re going to go through the Tribulation and get your tail busted and get humbled . . . You’ll say you know that little crazy wacky preacher in Kentucky who told us all this — he’s right!”
Meanwhile, Bingham IV cleans and oils his rifle and sets it aside before putting on his robes and handing out diplomas to the church’s high school graduating class. “I believe we have been given a glimpse of what the future will be,” he says in voiceover. “It’s all according to His plan. We’re God’s instruments.”
“‘Til Kingdom Come” can be seen in a live virtual premiere screening Feb. 25 at 8 p.m. and in virtual cinemas beginning Feb. 26. On March 29 it will be broadcast on PBS’s “Independent Lens” and streamed on the PBS Video App. Go to www.abramorama.live/tilkingdomcome or https://to.pbs.org/2Nvlwzh.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.