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No zeal for Zion

Robert Nicholson | Why is evangelical support for Israel declining?


A group of Americans joined evangelicals from around the world to march in Jerusalem in celebration of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles in October 2009. Gali Tibbon/AFP via Getty Images (file)

No zeal for Zion
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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.

The real problem comes when thinking about a Jewish state, probably because evangelicals have a hard time thinking about their own nation.

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.


Robert Nicholson

Robert Nicholson is president and executive director of The Philos Project.

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SWEETHARMONY

"Dwindling affinity for Israel means a dwindling connection with the one heritage that can save us." I saw this in the headline quote on Facebook, and thought surely it was taken out of context. After reading the article, I was disappointed that it actually was in context. I will give the benefit of the doubt to the author and not assume he means "save us" in a spiritual sense (which only Christ can do, and has already done), but rather "save us" in a cultural or political sense. Which is less heretical, but still far-fetched, and nothing in the article really makes that argument, so the end statement of "the one heritage that can save us" seems to be used here for shock value only, which is disappointing and not what I have come to expect from a World article.

Overall, the author really seems to be bemoaning the fact that many younger evangelicals have discovered pre-millenialism is not the only church view on end times. Pre-mil may have been the dominant evangelical view in the 20th century, but the vast majority of Christians and church leaders and thinkers for the past 2,000 years have been either Post-mil or A-mil. Many younger evangelicals have rediscovered their reformation roots which far predate Pre-mil popularity, and a resurgence of reformed theology and an emphasis on good Biblical exegisis have led many to question the claims of pre-millenialism. Perhaps us younger evangelicals don't support the modern secular state of Israel for religious reasons because we believe the theology that this author is claiming, summed up in his belief that "dwindling affinity for Israel means a dwindling connection with the one heritage that can save us," is actually bad Biblical exegesis.

Now, I 100% support the secular state of Israel, and believe the US needs to strengthen our allyship with them. We need their help, and vice versa, to fight Islamic extremism. I think siding with Palestine over Israel would be a grave mistake. But I support Israel for political and practical reasons, not religious reasons driven by a misguided belief that the modern, secular state of Israel will "Save us."

Perhaps if the argument for strengthening our allyship with Israel was made from a practical and political stance, more young evangelicals would support them. But continuing to appeal to questionable theology, poor Biblical interpretation, and really, fear, is not going to work on younger evangelicals.

Tom HanrahanSWEETHARMONY

I agree that the phrasing used ("one heritage that can save us") is lousy theology. However, most pre-mil theologians would not word it that way, so let's not lump them all together.

Salty1Tom Hanrahan

Is he really meaning that Judaism can save us or is he meaning that Christ Jesus saves us?

JDIE7823

"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."
I suspect this should also be broken down between historic premillennialists and dispensational pre-millennialists. It is dispensationalism that is strongly supportive of the political state of Israel and also is the newcomer theologically. Historically speaking the dispensational view with its associated Zionism didn't even exist until about 180 years ago and is a distinctly western phenomenon. Amillenial and historic premillennial views, neither of which lead to Zionism or "affinity for Israel" in any political sense, are the majority by a wide margin when evaluating the Church across the globe over the last 2000 years.
" It is the tangible symbol of the tradition that created America" It is interesting to note that the theology that underlies the authors position was never articulated in any cohesive form until the mid 1800s and as such it could not have had any influence on the founding of the country which took place some 50+ years earlier.

Salty1JDIE7823

I don’t deny that holding a dispensational view or Zionist view would tend to make one more favorable to Israel. But I do take issue with this statement since I am reformed in theology and hold the book of Romans with esteem like the rest of scripture:

“It is interesting to note that the theology that underlies the authors position was never articulated in any cohesive form until the mid 1800s and as such it could not have had any influence on the founding of the country which took place some 50+ years earlier.”

I would challenge JDIE7823 to read Romans 7-11 focused on Israel and not walk away with a recognition that the Jews are a special people in God’s eyes. Specifically look at Rom. 11:11-36.

As theologically reformed, I do believe the nation of Israel was brought about by the hand of God where we will see revival in Israel just before the return of Jesus Christ.

Tom HanrahanJDIE7823

Good first point about differing kinds of premillenial types.
The article references other sources which discuss the connection of USA to Israel back to Puritan days; this contradicts your last point.
I also note the Philos project (of whom the author is the President) is not a "zionist" organization, so I would take care before quoting his "position".
Lastly, I agree with the author's point that this is more about decline in evangelicalism than anything else.

dcsfoyleTom Hanrahan

Tom, That article provides no evidence to back up it's claims, it's a blurb about a modern book written by a leftist professor who believes that the founding fathers wanted to form a prophetic republic and that conservatives should compromise on the flexibility of the Constitution. Also, Ben Franklin's seal design isn't evidence of the mindset he attributes to the founding fathers. I contest that as a secularist, Franklin is purely interested in the imagery of the Egyptians being swallowed up -- just as Britain had been in their recent conflict. (the article also incorrectly identifies the scene on the seal, its not Moses parting the Red Sea, but specifically Moses closing the seas over the Egyptians.)

Please note that JDIE7823 did not claim that Philos project was a Zionist organization. If you can't see that the author is, on his own, espousing modern Zionist views, then you should take more care in your "reading."

Tom Hanrahandcsfoyle

Take care in my reading? OK, I read it again. I see “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.”; I trust we agree that is not how most dispensationalists would write.

I also read numerous points to back up its claims, as opposed to “no evidence”. No point in re-quoting half of the article.

Lastly, it would be truly odd for an organization (Philos) to be run by someone with opposing views.
---
Thank you for the background on the modern book referenced.

KSTR7093

This article appears to be a good reason for World magazine to not be in the opinion business...

dcsfoyleKSTR7093

My thought as well.

Salty1KSTR7093

And World without the opinion section doesn’t have opinions? That is why some journalists left. They didn’t like the idea that their opinions were questioned if it was the truth - a very elite thinking on journalism.

KSTR7093Salty1

I’m sorry- I don’t understand how your question applies to my comment. (I apologize if my comment was not as clear as it could have been.) I did not state nor would I ever claim, that World did not have opinions. The quote: “There are as many opinions as there are experts” attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt, is still true. I’d simply prefer that World would remain focused on news reporting and allow the reader to do their own thinking (and opinion forming).

As far as the injection about some folks leaving World— well, it reminded me of Worlds’ recent article about the Bethlehem Baptist Church (Breach of Trust). At the end of that lengthy article, my thought was – the issue seemed simply to be a normal part of doing life and work within a large group of individuals. (I’ve done my share of life and work in places with large groups.) I also had a curious thought as I read the various columns from the departing World journalists: Would World now do a lengthy article on themselves, along with organization charts, on their disagreement and fallout? I’ll be waiting for that article!

I remind myself frequently that “Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.” 1 Cor 8:1
Thanks and blessings.

dcsfoyle

This is the first time that I've read a column in WORLD with which I completely disagree. Zionism will not save us, nor is it biblically required. The "crisis of Evangelicalism" is due to the fact that it's no longer socially expedient to be a churchgoer and so the younger generation is foregoing that tradition. I'd contend that most who would have identified themselves as Evangelical in decades past were not Christians in the first place, and consequently did not raise their children to be Christians.

With the departure of these social Christians comes a natural decline, for the church, in its overall political capital, and along with that, a decline in specific political positions held at times in the past. I'd also say that with the resurgence of Calvinism and it's back-to-the-Bible stripping of traditionalism from church life over the last 30 years, there has been a decline among these believers of buy-in for the Zionism embraced by earlier generations. (I realize this addresses what must be a small subset, but I thought it worth noting because it's the tradition in which I was raised.)

I don't see any of this decline as a problem. Despite its origins, the state of Israel is a political state, not a religious one (let alone Christian). It should be supported, defended, or abandoned on its political merits alone, not on a mystical feeling of heritage and connection.

Lastly, regarding this sentence: "The failure to transmit a cultural identity rooted in Jerusalem will give way to identities rooted in something else." The author should know that as Christians we do not root our identity in Jerusalem, but in Christ Alone.

Salty1dcsfoyle

I think the falling away of the youth is due to the direct attack they are facing by those hostile to the gospel. Rather than address this battle, many Christians are content to slip in their insulator worlds not addressing the fight that includes everything from CRT beliefs, secular atheism, evolution, BLM ideology, homosexuality and so many other beliefs that run counter to Christianity.

The failure of Reformed Christians to understand the special privileges that God bestowed on the Jews is more due to their failure to read Romans in context - which is rather laughable given the emphasis placed on the book. Read Romans 11:28 and tell me the Jews are not special!

Yes, our identity is found in Christ but we should understand the importance how God brought the message of salvation through the Jews. - “… they are beloved for the sake of the fathers” (Rom. 11:28).

JDIE7823Salty1

For those reading the comments, please don't mistake Salty1's position as representative of Reformed Theology even though he/she claims to be reformed. As one who has spent the last 20 years studying the Reformers, Puritans and modern Reformed authors I just felt I had to throw in this disclaimer.

Salty1JDIE7823

It is a reformed view if you would read Romans correctly. The Jews are a special people by the fact that God chose them to be the means which the gospel was brought into the world.

Romans 11:28 RSV

“ Romans 11:28
New International Version
28 As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs.”

dcsfoyleSalty1

Salty 1, God brought his message of salvation through the Jews, not through a modern political state of Israel. Do I think that God has no future plan for the Jews? I absolutely believe he does! I also believe that whatever plan he has for them is wrapped up in the revelation of the truth of Christ, his son, who they have thus far rejected. There is no alternate method of restoration to God, the New Testament is clear. There will be no restoration of the sacrificial system, Christ has already paid the final sacrifice. There will be no new glory-filled temple in Jerusalem, Jesus told us himself that we worship now in spirit and in truth.

I say again, there is no biblical reason to throw *religious* support behind a state that continues to reject Christ like their progenitors did 2000 years ago. Political support, perhaps, but not religious support.

Salty1dcsfoyle

You are saying things I never said. It is the classic straw man argument! Calvin would support my view that the Jews hold a special place by the fact that the gospel came through them and their forefathers. How easy it is to graft the natural branch back into the tree.

dcsfoyleSalty1

Please enlighten me on the nature of this straw man.

You keep saying we need to support the Jews — and you add no qualifications to this statement. I thought that’s what I was addressing.

Salty1dcsfoyle

I never did say that the message of salvation came “through a modern political state of Israel”. I never said “there was an alternate method of restoration to God”. I never said “there will be … restoration of the sacrificial system”. I never said “there will be … (a) new glory-filled temple in Jerusalem”.
I never said that the Old Testament law can save you.

So yes, you are ascribing to me a theology that I don’t believe based on your view of Zionism. The Jews are viewed as precious to God because they were the ones he chose to work through bringing the gospel message. Just like the Jews rejected Jesus, God opened the door to the gentiles, but it would be so easy for God to again graft them back into the tree because they aren’t a wild shoot. I believe that at the very end days, there will be a revival among the Jews being one of the signs of Jesus’ second coming. I don’t believe the Jewish state of Israel has spiritual value per se, but I do think that by the fact that they represent the patriarchs whereby the message of salvation came to the world, God holds them as special:

“ Romans 11:28
New International Version
28 As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs.”

JMAN3581

Sadly, evangelicals worship Christmas and Easter. Both holidays were invented to replace the, sun worshiping, pagan orgies which they copy. Heritage is now one inch deep. As a Sunday school teacher is see the writers of the "Bible Studies" haven't even used a word search for what they state as history. "Google Christians" is what are are becoming. Some of us still worship the "King of the Jews", as Pilate correctly identified Jesus. We are hiding in the "catacombs" that are not a site on social media.

DaRev

"Dwindling affinity for Israel means a dwindling connection with the one heritage that can save us." - a heritage that saves us? What exactly does that mean? We are saved through Jesus Christ - our Messiah - who had a partiular human lineage.. Not through all of Judaism, especially not Zionism. Could the author clarify?

Salty1DaRev

I think that is the point he was making that when we lose our Christian identity and embrace worldly identities we fail to understand the importance of the Jew (Rom. 11:28).

dcsfoyleSalty1

Could you show how declining to support the modern, political state of Israel is evidence of embracing a worldly identity?

Salty1dcsfoyle

Yes, the “woke” crowd in the church are not politically embracing Israel which is a Democracy but accept the Palestinian view that Israel is evil. Here I don’t deny I have some support for the Palestinian Christians, but to totally reject Israel is foolish.

DDAV4942

While I tend to a premillennial view of eschatology, I do not believe scripture mandates support for a political state of Israel. I do believe, however, that it is in the best interest of evangelicals to favor the nation which shares so many of our important values, such as a preference for democratic institutions, respect for human life, and traditional Judeo-Christian morals and ethics. There are good reasons to be concerned about the future of evangelicalism, especially with the younger evangelicals seeming to be highly influenced by a wider culture at odds with historic bible-based values and growing lack of confidence or even respect for God's written revelation as a judge or guide for our choices among those still willing to wear the evangelical label.

Allen Johnson

I'm an evangelical who believes that God opposes oppression and injustice, no matter who perpetrates it. And having spent significant periods of time with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, I believe what I saw and experienced daily, that being Israeli (and especially radical Jewish settler) oppression and violence toward Palestinians.
Is the land a "holy land"? Consider the well-known story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). After a discussion on whether the Jews or Samaritans had the right holy place, Jesus responds by saying that a time is coming and is now, that true worship will not be in Jerusalem (or the Samaritan holy mountain), but in The Spirit and in truth.
Righteous Jews do not oppress, do not dispossess others of their lands and dignity. And righteous Palestinian Christians seek peace.

Salty1Allen Johnson

Allen, have you read your Old Testament? It seems to me that God took the lands away from those who formerly held them and gave them to the Israelites. Were the Jews wrong for taking the lands? In fact, this has always been what happened when another people took control of a new land. So although, I am not completely unsympathetic to my brothers and sisters who are Palestinian, I do recognize that in a change of power, like what we saw when the Jews were given the land, there may be injustice.

Another more provocative question is, “Did God intend to give the land to the believers who came to the new world?” I think this is true, so although I do think the trail of tears was an injustice, I don’t cry over the fact that the Indians were pushed westward and put on reservations. Throughout history a defeated people lost their lands and never did they get as much as the American Indians received. Go drive by many Indian reservations with their Casinos and the great wealth that many have. They have logging, farming, oil rights and so much more. There are many poor tribes too, which I don’t necessarily want to overlook, but compared to history they have a lot.

JLAM7708

Is there a plan to make Opinions available as a podcast like many of the other World venues?