No zeal for Zion
Robert Nicholson | Why is evangelical support for Israel declining?
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Are American evangelicals cooling in their support for Israel? According to a new survey, nearly one-third of evangelicals identify with neutrality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and roughly half of those under 30 choose the Palestinians over the Israelis. This represents an unprecedented shift for a community whose zeal for Zion has long been legendary, but maybe the shift is less about Israel than about the crisis of American evangelicalism. We should be concerned.
“The founders of my country saw a new promised land and bestowed upon their towns names like Bethlehem and New Canaan,” President George W. Bush told the Israeli parliament in mid-2008. “And in time, many Americans became passionate advocates for a Jewish state.” His speech came six decades after most Americans backed the UN proposal to create Jewish and Arab states in Palestine.
“Widespread Gentile support for Israel is one of the most potent political forces in U.S. foreign policy,” Walter Russell Mead noted in Foreign Affairs. He also suggested that Americans see Israel through a cultural rather than a political lens. The Protestant emphasis on Scripture common to America’s majority instilled Hebraic thought patterns as well as feelings of kinship with the children of Israel and the Jewish state. “From Maine to Florida, and back again, all America Hebraises,” Matthew Arnold once complained—and he was right. It was only in the context of Israel’s story that America’s story made sense.
But President Bush’s visit came seven years into demoralizing wars in the Islamic world, and just months before Barack Obama was elected on a platform of change. Evangelical influence had in fact peaked, and a cultural backlash lay in the offing.
Fourteen years later, evangelicals are in retreat. White evangelicals were 23 percent of the population in 2006, today less than 15 percent (and just 7 percent of those ages 18 to 29). Most black Protestants reject the evangelical label on cultural grounds and depart from their white brothers and sisters on policy. And while a surge of evangelical conversions among U.S. Hispanics is certain to change the country, the political effects of that phenomenon on the question of Israel are still unknown.
Meanwhile, evangelicals are turning on each other as their influence wanes, driving an already-atomized subculture toward disintegration. Fierce debates over Donald Trump, gender issues, sex scandals, and the “exvangelical” revolt are symptoms of a deeper identity crisis that has paralyzed any attempt at public witness.
Indifference toward Israel is a key indicator of this crisis. Today, as in the past, strong pro-Israel sentiment correlates with key evangelical markers like frequent church attendance and high views of Biblical authority. Classical evangelical eschatology is an even stronger indicator. Proponents of postmillennial and amillennial views, historically less common among evangelicals, are 51 percent less likely to support Israel than premillennialists. No doubt the overwrought fictions of the Left Behind series and the unsettling glee with which some pastors have greeted the prospect of global annihilation have taken their toll on the premillennial base.
But the crisis isn’t just about theology. Nearly 70 percent of evangelicals still hold traditional views about the land and people of Israel. The real problem comes when thinking about a Jewish state, probably because evangelicals have a hard time thinking about their own nation. Indeed, the political division is stark: 40 percent of evangelicals reported voting for Trump in the Barna study, 42 percent for Joe Biden (and 58 percent of the young). Attitudes toward Israel diverge along this widening rift: 60 percent of pro-Israel evangelicals cite religious reasons for their support, while 90 percent of pro-Palestine evangelicals cite political reasons or “gut feelings.”
This confusion will bear negative consequences for the U.S.-Israel relationship, but Israel will still have friends. Europe is rethinking its posture. Russia and China are eager to engage. Even the Arab world is reevaluating relations with Israel. Ironically, evangelicals are becoming anxious about Israel just as some Muslims have begun to accept it.
It’s Americans, not Israelis, who should be most concerned. The failure to transmit a cultural identity rooted in Jerusalem will give way to identities rooted in something else. Israel is a flawed state like any other, but it can never be just a state—not for American Christians. It is the tangible symbol of the tradition that created America, and the image of the Jewish people gathered on its land offers the highest inspiration for our politics. There can be no promised land here if there wasn’t one there first.
Dwindling affinity for Israel means a dwindling connection with the one heritage that can save us. Evangelicals are among the last bearers of that Biblical heritage, and it is now on us to uphold it.
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