Each July, Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States, holds a multi-day conference that culminates in a day of lobbying, during which more than a thousand CUFI members meet with representatives and staffers on Capitol Hill to push their pro-Israel agenda.
At the conclusion of this year’s event, CUFI’s co-executive director Shari Dollinger highlighted the congressional initiatives on which CUFI is focused—not just on the conference’s lobbying day, she said, but “365 days a year.” Dollinger noted that CUFI is particularly concerned with the DEFEND Act, a bill introduced in June 2022 by Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) that seeks to expand US cooperation with Middle Eastern countries to deter Iran via “an integrated air and missile defense capability.” CUFI especially welcomes cooperation with the Gulf Arab countries that normalized relations with Israel via the 2020 Abraham Accords: Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
Indeed, praise for the Abraham Accords and a preoccupation with Iranian aggression against both Israel and the Gulf states were frequently voiced at CUFI’s 2022 summit. Senator Ted Cruz claimed that the accords have caused “the flowering of a historic peace in the Middle East,” while former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who served as the event’s keynote speaker, disparaged diplomatic relations with Iran and proclaimed that she would “shred” any deal made with Tehran should she become the next US president—a statement that brought CUFI’s audience to its feet in delight.
Praise for the Abraham Accords and a preoccupation with Iranian aggression against both Israel and the Gulf states were frequently voiced at a recent Christians United for Israel 2022 summit.
Why are evangelical Christians such as those affiliated with CUFI so consumed by Israel, its normalization with Arab Gulf states, and its conflict with Iran? What is the ideology behind evangelical Christian support—particularly that of white evangelicals, who comprise around two thirds of all US evangelicals—for Israel and the Abraham Accords? What political influence have evangelicals wielded and do they continue to wield vis-à-vis US foreign policy, and what are the repercussions of this influence for Gulf states and for the Palestinian struggle for rights and self-determination? Finally, what is the potential future of evangelical influence on US foreign policy in the Middle East? Although the evangelical movement has effectively gotten the ear of successive US administrations—including the Biden Administration—all of which continue to support Israel even in the face of gross human rights abuses, a younger generation of evangelicals may mark a shift away from unflinching support of Israel and toward a more social-justice-minded model of political activism.
Christian Zionism and the Glory Days of Trump
CUFI is a Christian Zionist organization that espouses an eschatological belief that Israel is central to the second coming of Jesus Christ and therefore to the end of the world. While not all evangelical Christians are Christian Zionists, about 80 percent of evangelicals in the United States also express the belief that the modern state of Israel and the gathering of millions of Jewish people there are signs that Jesus will soon return to Jerusalem. Many also believe that Christians will be saved from the subsequent apocalypse through the rapture, while those embracing other faiths will have to convert or face being sent to hell.
For Christian Zionists who believe in the rapture, anything that supports Israel or furthers its development is celebrated because, for them, Israel’s growth signals that the End Times are growing ever closer. At CUFI’s most recent summit, for example, the founder and chair of the group, Pastor John Hagee, said that he thinks the rapture will happen soon. From this perspective, acts that excuse or accept Israeli settler colonialism, such as the Abraham Accords and the 2018 decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, are to be applauded, while perceived threats to Israel, such as Iran, are to be fiercely fought against.
For Christian Zionists, acts that excuse or accept Israeli settler colonialism, such as the Abraham Accords and the 2018 decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, are to be applauded.
Christian Zionists experienced the peak of their political power during the Trump Administration. Former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are both closely aligned with Christian Zionism, and Trump openly catered to white evangelicals, who voted for him with great zeal in both 2016 and 2020. In an August 2020 rally in Wisconsin, for instance, Trump told the crowd: “We moved the [US Embassy] to Jerusalem. That’s for the evangelicals.” He then went on to remark that “The evangelicals are more excited by that than Jewish people.”
The Trump Administration’s Israel-friendly moves drew praise from evangelical leaders, including Franklin Graham, who commended Trump on the “historic” agreements signed between Israel, Bahrain, and the UAE. And when Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, CUFI touted the move, proclaiming, “Today President Trump took the first step toward making the United States, Israel, and the entire world safer by scrapping the hopelessly flawed Iran Deal.”
With Trump having left office, it may be tempting to reason that evangelicals and the Christian Zionists among them now enjoy less political power. While in some ways this is the case, especially with figures such as Pence and Pompeo no longer in the government, it must be noted that CUFI claims to have more than 10 million members, and that white evangelicals make up around 14 percent of the US population. Even if CUFI’s membership numbers are inflated, its members, together with like-minded white evangelicals, still represent a significant group of voters—what has been called “the most powerful voting bloc in America” and described as “the largest single religious group among Republican voters with the power to sway party priorities.” And this group of voters is often essentially single-minded in its voting priorities. In early 2022, for example, CUFI’s Hagee exhorted his followers to “vote the Bible, vote the Bible, vote the Bible!”
Even before Trump came to power, white evangelicals constituted both a substantial voting bloc and a significant lobbying force.
Even before Trump came to power, white evangelicals constituted both a substantial voting bloc and a significant lobbying force. Although the group tended to stay out of politics during the first part of the twentieth century, civil rights movements from the 1950s through the 1970s, and especially the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, spurred evangelicals into political action. For example, in 1979, Baptist minister Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, a political organization that opposed abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, and gay rights, while also supporting increased military spending and vigorous patronage of Israel. Falwell and affiliates like Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, peddled the idea that God will only support the United States if the United States supports Israel—an idea that CUFI’s Hagee also espouses.
When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, his close relationship with Falwell and other conservative Christian leaders wedded the Moral Majority to the Republican Party, giving the evangelical movement access to political officialdom and giving it a new identity as the “Christian Right.” The presidency of George W. Bush, himself a born-again Christian, further shored up the influence of the Christian Right in US politics and foreign policy.
Today, many white evangelicals are looking ahead to the 2024 election with the hope that Trump, or someone like Nikki Haley or Mike Pompeo who promote similar ideas and policies, will take office. The CUFI summit saw much condemnation of Biden’s perceived weakness on Iran due to his desire to restore the 2015 nuclear deal. Hagee, for his part, has called for a preemptive strike on Iran, which he says has a “maniacal dream” of wiping Israel off the map. Hagee also argues that Iran aspires to export its Islamic Revolution throughout the Middle East and around the globe.
Although President Joe Biden has been advocating the revival of the Iran nuclear deal around the time of the CUFI summit, he announced that the United States is “not going to wait forever” for Iran to rejoin the deal, and said that he would be willing to use force against the Islamic Republic, albeit as a last resort. But while Biden may largely diverge from Christian Zionist desires to aggressively counteract Iran, his take on the Abraham Accords and his plans to build upon them are squarely in line with the evangelical movement.
Biden and the Abraham Accords
In the days leading up to President Biden’s July 2022 visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia, he published an op-ed in the Washington Post touting the fact that he was about to become the first US president to fly directly from Tel Aviv to Jeddah. The flight, he said, would be “a small symbol of the budding relations and steps toward normalization between Israel and the Arab world, which my administration is working to deepen and expand.”
It is no secret that Biden and Israeli leaders would like to see Saudi Arabia join Bahrain and the UAE in officially normalizing relations with Israel.
To be sure, it is no secret that Biden and Israeli leaders would like to see Saudi Arabia join Bahrain and the UAE in officially normalizing relations with Israel (although covert ties have been occurring for years), but they acknowledge that such a development will take time. In June 2022, for example, then Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said of normalization with Saudi Arabia, “It could be that three foreign ministers after me, someone will be standing on the podium and will celebrate this.”
Despite the fact that in March 2022 US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that normalization agreements “are not a substitute for progress between Palestinians and Israelis,” the Biden Administration has not expressed any tangible interest in Palestinian self-determination during its eager pursuit of additional agreements between Arab countries and Israel. As NPR’s Asma Khalid wrote, Biden “has not articulated grand schemes to broker an Israeli-Palestinian deal, but instead wants to see a stable, secure Middle East that does not erupt into violence. His team sees the Abraham Accords as a tool that can promote stability.”
However, it is doubtful that the Abraham Accords actually promote stability. They are largely a means of increasing trade between Gulf countries and Israel, particularly in the defense and surveillance industries, which predominantly serve to shore up modes of military aggression and to suppress domestic dissent, including dissent against normalization with Israel—a popular stance among Gulf populations that largely support Palestinian rights despite their governments’ policies. In the words of analyst Dana El Kurd, the accords are better understood “not as a peace agreement but as a form of authoritarian conflict management.”
The Biden Administration has ignored the accords’ potential to increase authoritarian abuses, just as it continues to excuse Israeli human rights violations, proclaiming, for instance, during Israel’s latest “preemptive” assaults on Gaza that killed 49 Palestinians, among them 17 children, that US “support for Israel’s security is long-standing and unwavering.” Biden also refused to meet with the family of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier in May 2022, while his administration also failed to conduct a transparent investigation into the killing, instead offering the vague statement that her death was simply “the result of tragic circumstances.” The Biden Administration’s words and actions serve to support the Israeli settler colonial project and the violence it carries out against Palestinians, while also serving a Christian Zionist agenda.
While Biden may not enjoy the close ties with white evangelicals that Trump and other government officials have, he has still made it a point to reach out to this demographic more than his Democratic predecessors.
While Biden may not enjoy the close ties with white evangelicals that Trump and other government officials have, he has still made it a point to reach out to this demographic more than his Democratic predecessors, employing, for example, evangelical outreach strategist Josh Dickson as deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Dickson is a one-time Republican who hails from a conservative evangelical family but who is now more progressive. And although Hagee and CUFI are usually quick to criticize Biden, Hagee’s recent comments on the president’s travel to the Middle East were at points almost friendly, as he wished Biden a “successful trip to the region” before adding that the president ought to be tougher on Iran.
The Future of American Evangelicals and Christian Zionist Lobbying
Despite CUFI’s size and influence, it is important to emphasize the diversity that exists among evangelicals and that CUFI naturally does not speak for all. As Gary Burge of Calvin Theological Seminary has written, “Voices such as these represent a very narrow piece of the American evangelical world,” while at the same time, he argues, “evangelicalism’s historic support for Israel is slipping.”
Research and polling do show that younger evangelicals are moving away from supporting Israel. For instance, a 2017 poll conducted by Lifeway and underwritten by Chosen People Ministries, a pro-Israel organization, found that among younger evangelicals, 19 percent said that Israel’s creation was an injustice, while 34 percent disagreed and almost half of all respondents were unsure where they stood. Among older respondents, only 9 percent considered the creation of Israel an injustice, while 62 percent disagreed and 28 percent were unsure.
Even more recently, polls commissioned by University of North Carolina faculty showed a dramatic decrease in support for Israel among evangelicals ages 18 to 29, from 69 percent in 2018 to 33.6 percent in 2021. The researchers noted that while the 2018 poll did not show significant racial differences in terms of support for Israel, the 2021 poll found substantial differences between white and Black respondents, with the latter expressing considerably more support for Palestinians, which perhaps is indicative of progressive changes within a diversifying evangelical movement. And as Walker Robins of Merrimack College has pointed out, the younger generation of evangelicals “is more interested in social justice, less invested in the culture wars and increasingly weary of conservative politics.”
There is a shift in evangelical opinion that could signal a similar shift in the not-too-distant future toward less support and lobbying for initiatives like the Abraham Accords.
This shift in evangelical opinion could signal a similar shift in the not-too-distant future toward less support and lobbying for initiatives like the Abraham Accords. Instead of unquestioningly supporting Israel and pro-Israel US policy, young American evangelicals may instead join the ranks of analysts and activists in North America, the Middle East, and beyond who question the framing of the Accords as a vehicle for peace, and instead point to the accords’ true role as whitewashing for Israel’s settler colonial regime and as a means of increasing regional military trade and collaboration among authoritarian states to better track and repress domestic dissent. The Biden Administration and future administrations should similarly recalibrate their policy toward Israel so as to work toward justice and democracy rather than supporting authoritarians and human rights abuses.