Are American evangelicals cooling off in their support for Israel? Nearly a third of evangelicals identify with neutrality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to a new survey, and about half of those under 30 prefer Palestinians over Israelis. This represents unprecedented change for a community whose zeal for Zion has long been legendary, but perhaps the change is less about Israel than the crisis of American evangelism. We should be worried.
“The founders of my country saw a new promised land and gave their cities names like Bethlehem and New Canaan,” President George W. Bush told the Israeli parliament in mid-2008. “And over time, many Americans have become passionate supporters of 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 powerful political forces in American foreign policy,” Walter Russell Mead noted in Foreign Affairs. He also suggested that Americans view Israel through a cultural lens rather than a political one. The Protestant emphasis on scripture common to the American majority instilled Hebrew 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 the Hebrews in America,” Matthew Arnold once complained, and he was right. It was only in the context of the history of Israel that the history of America made sense.
But President Bush’s visit came seven years after demoralizing wars in the Islamic world, and just months before Barack Obama was elected on a platform for change. Evangelical influence had in fact reached its peak, and a cultural backlash was in sight.
Fourteen years later, the Evangelicals are on retreat. White evangelicals made up 23 percent of the population in 2006, today less than 15 percent (and just 7 percent of those aged 18 to 29). Most black Protestants reject the evangelical label on cultural grounds and distance themselves from their white brothers and sisters politically. And while a wave of evangelical conversions among Hispanic Americans is certain to change the country, the political effects of this phenomenon on the question of Israel are still unknown.
The real problem comes when you think of a Jewish state, probably because evangelicals find it hard to think of their own nation.
Meanwhile, evangelicals are turning on each other as their influence wanes, causing an already atomized subculture to disintegrate. The fierce debates over Donald Trump, gender issues, sex scandals and the “evangelical” revolt are symptoms of a deeper identity crisis that has crippled any attempt at public witness.
Indifference towards Israel is a key indicator of this crisis. Today, as in the past, strong pro-Israel sentiment correlates with key evangelical markers such as frequent church attendance and a high opinion of Biblical authority. Classical evangelical eschatology is an even stronger indicator. Advocates of post-millennial and millennial views, historically less common among evangelicals, are 51% less likely to support Israel than pre-millennials. No doubt the exaggerated fictions of Left behind and the unsettling joy with which some pastors have greeted the prospect of global annihilation has taken its toll on the premillennial base.
But the crisis is not just about theology. Almost 70 percent of evangelicals still hold traditional views about the land and people of Israel. The real problem comes when you think of a Jew state, probably because evangelicals find it hard to think of their own nation. Indeed, the political division is blatant: 40% of evangelicals said they voted for Trump in the Barna study, 42% for Joe Biden (and 58% of young people). Attitudes towards Israel diverge along this widening divide: 60% of pro-Israel evangelicals cite religious reasons for their support, while 90% of pro-Palestinian evangelicals cite political reasons or “instincts”.
This confusion will have negative consequences for US-Israel relations, but Israel will always have friends. Europe is rethinking its posture. Russia and China are eager to engage. Even the Arab world is reassessing its relations with Israel. Ironically, evangelicals worry about Israel just as some Muslims have begun to accept it.
It is the Americans, not the Israelis, who should be most concerned. Failure to transmit a cultural identity rooted in Jerusalem will give way to identities rooted in something else. Israel is an imperfect state like any other, but it can never be correct 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 their land offers the highest inspiration for our politics. There can be no promised land here if there weren’t any the first.
The waning affinity for Israel means a waning connection with the only heritage that can save us. Evangelicals are among the last bearers of this biblical heritage, and it is now up to us to maintain it.