Misunderstanding Evangelicals and Israel

The dramatic shift in Israel’s leadership this summer, following former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s departure, gave pause to many American evangelicals who wondered if this would affect Israel’s divinely endorsed national mandates. This event must also be seen in connection with the end of former President Donald Trump’s administration in January. Conservative white evangelicals backed Trump broadly and Trump supported Netanyahu generously. Evangelicals wondered, what would the fall of both mean for Israel?

Evangelicals, Trump, Netanyahu, and Bennett

American evangelical support for Israel is so well established that it is commonplace today. Some churches actually celebrate in worship Israel’s Independence Day (May 14) as fervently as they celebrate America’s holiday (July 4), underscoring a deeper reality of unflinching evangelical zeal for Israel. Evangelicals cheered Trump’s move of the American embassy to Jerusalem as a righteous deed. They also supported his silence when settlements expanded and approved large funding promises to Israel’s economy. One evangelical pastor told this author that alongside abortion, Israel was perhaps the second trigger issue that moved the evangelical vote. Some saw Trump as another Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who helped Israel return to and reclaim the promised land in the Bible. Such a perception allows them to look the other way regarding Trump’s breathtaking moral lapses. And if Netanyahu was fulfilling those aspirations with Trump’s support, it began to look like divine work.

Jews also recognize this evangelical support. The Jewish online journal Mosaic (owned by the Tikvah Fund) describes it well. The first factor of evangelical support is a culture war that is intent on sweeping away the moral undergirding of modern life, while the second is outright support for the modern state of Israel, enjoining Jews and Christians to stand in solidarity. In addition, Mosaic suggests:

The second factor could be a more positive and enduring one. That is the cause of the modern state of Israel: a cause that counts certain devout Christians, especially evangelical Protestant ones, among its most fervent American supporters and that links the faith of practicing Christians and Jews through a shared commitment to the divine provenance of the Jewish homeland.

Such evangelical Zionism, though welcomed by many Jews, has always had its disquieting aspects, grounded as it is in interpretations of biblical prophecy that are almost entirely alien to Jewish sensibilities. Evangelicals of this particular stripe not only understand the establishment of Israel as a good and necessary thing in itself, providing the Jewish people with a geographical home; but like most Americans, they also value Israel as a stalwart ally and a lone bulwark of western liberal-democratic values in a harsh part of the world.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s victorious coalition government, which replaced Netanyahu’s, at first was greeted with suspicion. Bennett has removed Israel’s longest serving prime minister, one who was also intimately linked to Donald Trump. Will Bennett’s fragile coalition compromise the work that had been completed in the four years of the Trump Administration? The former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, worried aloud about how this will change the US-Israel relationship and implied that this might compromise evangelical support and that Israel should prioritize its relations with evangelicals, even over those with American Jews. Dermer was onto something. Prominent Christian Zionist Mike Evans wrote a fierce letter to Bennett in June saying, “I will fight you every step of the way. You have lost the support of evangelicals 100 percent,” adding, “We gave you four years of miracles under Donald Trump. We evangelicals delivered it. You delivered nothing. What appreciation do you show us? You sh– right on our face.”

Evangelical leaders are working hard to shore up confidence in Bennett’s efforts. The Philos Project, a Christian Zionist organization, published the names of 84 American religious leaders who promised to stand by him. 

On the other hand, evangelical leaders are working hard to shore up confidence in Bennett’s efforts. The Philos Project, a Christian Zionist organization, published the names of 84 American religious leaders who promised to stand by him. One endorser, Joel Rosenberg, reminded his followers that, “While Evangelicals do highly respect and appreciate Netanyahu, their love for Israel is not tied to one man. Christians of course know that at some point Netanyahu will move on, but they sincerely want to bless and strengthen Israel for the long haul regardless of who is in power.”

Many white evangelicals in America are brimming with suspicion and anxiety today. They easily succumb to conspiracy theories and tend to have a dramatic or even apocalyptic view of history. It is as if history itself, and Christian culture, are teetering on the edge of oblivion and every effort is needed to shore up God’s work at this critical time. The United States and Israel are two flashpoints that they watch nervously, and last year’s US election is a case in point. They viewed it as not about a political preference but as an existential threat to everything they believed in. Evangelical voting patterns in November 2020 were clear, and evangelical support of Trump in 2021 continues with remarkable numbers believing that the American election was fraudulent. About 74 percent of white evangelical Republicans believe that the election had widespread voter fraud and 67 percent support the so-called deep state conspiracy theory. Therefore, for many, the American political struggle is a religious one, and they look at Israel with this same anxiety wondering if the new leadership under President Joe Biden will continue the righteous causes supported by Trump.

Evangelicals and Changing Patterns

Many evangelicals say that this is not the full story.

There is no end of frustration among evangelical scholars and leaders who read media summaries of “evangelical views on Israel and Palestine.” These reports frequently misrepresent what is actually happening on the ground, ignore important trends, and fail to interview major thinkers in the evangelical tribe. What media outlets publish bears little resemblance to what is true, and they are often tempted to publish the voice of extremists. When, for instance, a publication like the Baptist Word and World leads off an article with citations from extreme Zionist Mike Evans, many evangelicals simply cringe. When journalists reach for John Hagee, the Zionist pastor in San Antonio, Texas, and president of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), many are filled with disbelief. Voices such as these represent a very narrow piece of the American evangelical world. Most evangelicals live outside such a bubble and yearn for CNN, ABC, or The New York Times to interview evangelical scholars or thought leaders who represent the nuances of evangelical beliefs.

Here is the not-so-secret reality that is setting off alarms: evangelicalism’s historic support for Israel is slipping. 

Here is the not-so-secret reality that is setting off alarms: evangelicalism’s historic support for Israel is slipping. Within Christian Zionist writing, there are open condemnations of evangelical institutions that are rethinking these issues and are blamed for the slippage. These include World Vision, Youth with a Mission, the Mennonite Central Committee, the Telos Group in Washington, DC, Sojourners and Relevant magazines, and Eastern University (Philadelphia) and other Christian schools that host conferences or have faculty who are critical of Israel.

Anyone who simply raises troubling questions about Israel’s 54-year military occupation of millions of Palestinians in the West Bank (including many Palestinian Christians) is suddenly labeled “anti-Israel” or, in some cases, “anti-Semitic.” Their institutions are condemned in a convenient gesture of collective incrimination. Consider the case of Tom Getman, an evangelical who had served as a legislative aide to the late Senator Mark Hatfield (R-Oregon) and worked for the cause of justice for Israel/Palestine for decades. To be sure, it is hard to imagine serving as the country director of World Vision in Israel/Palestine, as he was between 1997 and 2001, without seeing what the Israeli occupation is really doing and not asking tough questions.

What Are the Facts?

First, it is clear that a robust community of evangelicals firmly and inflexibly supports the state of Israel, and this is demonstrated through polling. In 2006, the Pew Forum found that 70 percent of white evangelicals agreed with the statement, “Israel was given by God to the Jews.” In 2013 that same question yielded 82 percent agreement. In 2005 the forum asked, “Has Israel fulfilled Biblical Prophecy?” Sixty-three percent said yes. Moreover, each July, thousands of conservative evangelicals gather in Washington, DC for the annual summit of CUFI. Speakers include pastors, senators, and yes, Benjamin Netanyahu. It is noteworthy that Israel is the largest recipient of American foreign aid as well as of conservative evangelical funding.  Estimates are that contributions to Israel from the evangelical community range between $175 and $200 million annually.

On the other hand, there is a measurable shift in thinking about Israel. In an important article in 2017, the evangelical Christianity Today reported how this trend is continuing and highlighted an age variable. The article, “Millennial Evangelicals on Israel: ‘Meh’,” notes that 77 percent of evangelicals over 65 years of age agree with the statement, “Do you support the existence, security and prosperity of Israel?” In the 18-34 age group, however, this number decreased to 58 percent, and fully 41 percent of younger evangelicals had “no strong views” on Israel. Evangelical Lifeway Research offered parallel data. When asked if the birth of Israel in 1948 delivered an injustice to Palestinians, 62 percent of older evangelicals said no and 49 percent said that Israel is not unfair to Palestinians. Among younger evangelicals, 19 percent say that Israel did behave unjustly in 1948 and fully 47 percent are unsure. Thirty-two percent of this younger cohort think that Israel has been unfair to Palestinians.

Demographic variables are obvious: being white, older, male, and leaning Republican will skew responses toward support for Israel. But if a respondent is younger, minority, female, or leaning Democratic, there is a shift in support away from Israel. 

The Lifeway survey was underwritten by Chosen People Ministries (a pro-Israel organization) and its president, Mitch Glaser, expressed concern. “I am concerned for the obvious decline in support for Israel among millennial followers of Jesus, who either do not know what they believe or do not seem to care,” he said. Darrell L. Bock, director of cultural engagement at the evangelical Dallas Theological Seminary, wonders if Israel is now on the “back burner” for younger evangelicals.

A Seismic Generational Shift

While overall evangelical support and sympathy for Israel is firm, there is a seismic shift at work and careful observers realize it. Demographic variables in this research are obvious: being white, older, male, and leaning Republican will skew responses toward support for Israel. But if a respondent is younger, minority, female, or leaning Democratic, there is a shift in support away from Israel. Educational level likewise appears to be a determinant in that educated evangelicals have more nuanced views and tend to shy away from unvarnished support.

This shift can be seen in responses provided by evangelical leaders. Many young evangelicals are saying that it is time to be equally supportive of Israel and the Palestinians, which helps the cause of peace. Matthew Vega, a young Black scholar who graduated from evangelical Wheaton College and is now completing a PhD at the University of Chicago, is studying Black and Palestinian liberation movements and their link to theology. His recent article, Black and Palestinian Christians’ Struggle for Freedom, is circulating widely.

Evangelical authors signal the same shift. There is now an entire bibliography of writers who come from within the evangelical world and have written extensively about Israel and Palestine. Consider the following: Frederic Martin, American Evangelicals and Modern Israel (2016); Mae Elise Cannon, A Land Full of God (2017); Stephen Sizer, Zion’s Christian Soldiers? (2007); Robert Smith, More Desired than Our Owne Salvation (2013); and my own, Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told about Israel and the Palestinians (2003, 2013). There are even websites devoted to rethinking this entire issue such as christianzionism.org and palestineportal.org.

Since about 1985, evangelical scholars and pastors have critiqued unequivocal support for Israel and worked toward a more balanced view, producing a number of political analyses, theological studies, and personal testimonies. 

Those who are worried about this slippage are correct. There is a shift at work and it has a number of dimensions. Evangelical publishing (in text and film) tells the story. Since about 1985, evangelical scholars and pastors have critiqued unequivocal support for Israel and worked toward a more balanced view, producing a number of political analyses, theological studies, and personal testimonies. These opinion-shapers are generally younger, well-educated, ethnically diverse, and come from the evangelical mainstream.

It takes little effort to listen to younger evangelicals, such as those on college campuses, and hear this change. Two things are clear. First, young women are at the forefront, with an unprecedented ethical passion. The older cohort of stereotypically argumentative, white, middle-class males from conservative churches does not even know this wave is on the horizon. Second, this younger generation is more troubled by injustice than they are inspired by biblical prophecy. They want to devote their lives to the common good, and this includes direct participation in ethically troubling contexts such as Israel/Palestine. Their parents were shaped in the 1970s and 1980s by an evangelicalism that was tone-deaf to cries of injustice, such as the apartheid struggles in South Africa or the civil rights movement in the United States. This new generation finds such ethical disengagement incomprehensible.

Younger generations also believe that the Israel-Palestine conflict has theological dimensions. Religion (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) has actually exacerbated this conflict. Fervent believers in these different faiths take their preferred views to be God’s view; this includes Christians who insist that scripture is clear on contemporary Israel, despite the theological complexity of the issues and the church’s historic lack of consensus.

But it is flatly untrue that these more progressive evangelicals deny that Israel has a right to exist or that they “hate Israel”; rather, they believe that Israelis deserve secure borders and a hopeful future, particularly considering the centuries of anti-Semitism Jews have endured. Progressive evangelicals also believe that the over seven million Palestinians in Israel, the occupied West Bank, and besieged Gaza Strip deserve a secure and hopeful future.

The father of Israeli Zionism, Theodor Herzl, was an avowed atheist with marginal respect for Arabs; his vision of a Jewish state contributed to the founding of Israel today. 

This issue is further complicated when some evangelicals conflate biblical Israel with modern Israel. The former was a theocracy centered on temple worship, and the latter is an intentionally secular state. The father of Israeli Zionism, Theodor Herzl, was an avowed atheist with marginal respect for Arabs; his vision of a Jewish state contributed to the founding of Israel today. But the confusion is understandable because the early Zionists tried to exploit the Bible for political aims. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, also an atheist, was fond of studying the Bible, especially the book of Joshua, so he could use it to argue for Jewish “chosenness” and justify Israel’s “divine” claim to the land.

Today’s new voices calling for a new political order that sympathizes with both sides are not convinced that modern, secular, multi-religious Israel is the direct fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies that God made to biblical Israel. Nor are they convinced that Israel is entitled to divine privileges other nations may not claim. Israel is morally obligated (just as all people are) to promote justice and fairness for all people under its rule, as the Old Testament prophets made perfectly clear.

It is noteworthy that the passion for justice in Israel/Palestine among younger evangelicals is mirrored by the same call among younger Jews in the United States. All believe that the world is messy and complicated and that it is time to fix it and refrain from supporting ideologies that have inflamed prejudice and conflict. All want to bring the mercy of God to the world.

It is easy to hear the shrill voices defending religious exceptionalism and nationalism among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Some evangelical bloggers sing in this choir regularly, but perhaps they should pause and consider if what they are doing genuinely contributes to peace in the Middle East. As the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “…the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” And that is what is happening now. The sanitized narrative that has been heard about Israel for a generation is wearing thin. Some say that it is time to be pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, and pro-Jesus, a heartfelt belief of a rising new generation of evangelicals.

Gary M. Burge is Professor of New Testament and Dean of the Faculty at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The views expressed in this Viewpoint are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC or its Board of Directors.