Evangelicals and Israel

What American Jews Don't Want to Know (but Need to)
Evangelicals and Israel
From a rooftop, Jerusalemites watch an evangelical Christian parade in support of Israel; a marcher carries a flag with a Star of David and a lion. © AP/Kevin Frayer, 2006.
 
Essay
Robert W. Nicholson
Oct. 6 2013

At a time when the state of Israel lies under existential threat from jihadist Islam, and under ideological and diplomatic assault in foreign ministries, international organizations, churches, universities, editorial offices, and other circles of advanced Western opinion—and when even some Jews in the Diaspora seem to be growing disenchanted with the Zionist cause—millions of evangelical Christians unabashedly continue their outspoken, wholehearted, stalwart defense of both the Jewish state and the Jewish people.

By all rights, this rather stunning fact—the fact of a vibrant Christian Zionism—should encourage a welcoming response from beleaguered Jewish supporters of Israel. Instead, it has caused palpable discomfort, especially among Jewish liberals. Wary of ulterior religious motives, and viewing evangelicals as overly conservative in their general outlook on the world, such Jews either accept the proffered support with a notable lack of enthusiasm or actively caution their fellow Jews against accepting it at all. To many, the prospect of an alignment with evangelicals, even one based on purely tactical considerations, seems positively distasteful. Very few have attempted to penetrate the evangelical world or to understand it in any substantive way.

This is a pity, for many reasons. It is also a serious strategic error. For the reality is that today’s Christian Zionism cannot be taken for granted. For one thing, not all evangelicals do support Israel. For another, more alarming thing, a growing minority inside the evangelical world views the Jewish state as at best tolerable and at worst positively immoral, a country that, instead of being supported on biblical grounds, should be opposed on those same grounds.

Jewish supporters of Israel who view evangelicals monolithically may judge this latter development to be a matter of little significance. I would argue otherwise. A debate is beginning to take hold within the evangelical world, and the Jewish future will be greatly affected by how it unfolds.

 

1. Getting Personal

As a Christian who often finds himself working among Jews, I am accustomed to people being fascinated by my background and interrogating me at length on this or that point of doctrine. But even among my Jewish friends I am constantly struck by the profound lack of understanding of evangelical Christianity and of the factors behind Christian Zionism.

My own odyssey into the Jewish world started nine years ago when, impelled by a convergence of religious and political concerns, I approached the cantor of a local synagogue and asked for help in the finer points of modern Hebrew. Caught completely off guard by this request from a devout Baptist, he said he would have to sleep on it. Whatever he struggled with that night I don’t know, but the next day he readily agreed to take me on; for the next two years, we met twice a week in the synagogue library to pore over Hebrew texts and discuss Jewish language, Jewish faith, and the history of the Jewish people.

Although he never said so explicitly, the cantor’s first instinct was to be suspicious of my motives. He had heard about evangelical Christians who “loved” Israel, but like most Jews he found the subculture puzzling and bizarre. Still, during the many hours we spent together I believe he came to understand me, to appreciate my interest, and to comprehend the sincerity of my faith and my intentions. When our two years ended and I went on for a degree in Jewish studies, he expressed confidence that I would one day prove a “blessing” to the Jewish people.

As was borne in on me in the ensuing years, the cantor’s initial wariness was typical. And it could hardly have been otherwise. The fact that people bearing the name of Christ had spent centuries demonizing the Jewish people and shedding Jewish blood placed the burden squarely on me to justify myself and explain my intentions.

“Can there be a greater stumbling block than Christianity?” Maimonides asks in his Mishneh Torah:

All the [biblical] prophets spoke of the messiah as the redeemer of Israel and their savior who would gather their dispersed and strengthen their observance of the commandments. In contrast, Christianity caused the Jews to be slain by the sword, their remnants to be scattered and humbled, the Torah to be altered, and the majority of the world to err and serve a god other than the Lord.

For centuries, Maimonides’ attitude was shared by Jews wherever they lived in Christendom. Even when not sequestered in ghettos or compelled to wear identifying marks on their clothing, their marginal status in Christian society precluded significant interaction between the two communities. The suggestion of Jewish-Christian cooperation on anything but the most trivial matters of daily existence would have seemed not only absurd but almost unthinkable.

Even today, when so much has happened to alter the terms of this status quo—most dramatically, the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948—memories of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and innumerable pogroms and persecutions have not dimmed; nor should they. Today’s religiously observant Jews tend to share Maimonides’ concern that excessive contact with Christianity is a “stumbling block” to traditional Jewish life. For their part, secular Jews are worried about what they see as the encroachments of evangelical Christians, with their irrational and provincial prejudices, into the American public sphere. How can one fraternize or collaborate with such people? Even in furtherance of a noble cause, as a Jewish woman of my acquaintance memorably phrased it, the idea feels “icky.”

My purpose here is not to polemicize in favor of a Jewish-evangelical partnership on every social issue. The two sides disagree on a fair number of things, and neither side should be ashamed of its position. My purpose instead is to inform. What do evangelicals really think about the Jewish people, what are the roots of Christian Zionism—and what is now driving growing numbers of evangelicals to change their minds about the Jewish state?

 

2. Defining a Movement

Set aside media stereotypes of evangelicals as ignorant backwoodsmen, loud-mouthed bigots, maniacal Jesus-zombies bent on taking over the world, one-dimensional drones who, when they are not worshiping the criminal state of Israel, live to demonstrate outside abortion clinics and block the rights of gay people. The reality, needless to say, is far more complex—so complex, that it defies easy explanation.

Scholars who study the evangelical community quickly discover just how atomized and amorphous it is, dispersed around the globe under the authority of no single denomination, without a single statement of faith shared by all or a pope or patriarch to whom all look for guidance. Many labeled as evangelicals don’t even refer to themselves by that term, at least not in defining their primary religious identity.

Historically, evangelicalism grew out of the Protestant Reformation, which shook the Christian world in the 16th and 17th centuries as groups of European Christians separated themselves from the Roman Catholic Church. Basing themselves on their reading of the biblical text, then newly available in vernacular languages, these Christians denounced Catholicism as a bastardized and corrupt version of the apostolic church portrayed in the New Testament.

Originally, the term “evangelical” (from the Greek word signifying the bringer of good news) served as a label for these non- or anti-Catholic Christians, who set about to create new and “purified” churches. Later, it came to be applied to the movement of religious awakening that swept across Britain and America in the 18th century, a movement that owed its energy to a combination of Puritanism, pietism, and revivalism.

Today, the global evangelical population numbers somewhere around 300 million people scattered across every continent. While most live in developing countries, the United States remains the movement’s traditional center. Yet even here, defining it proves difficult. The Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College in Illinois offers three distinct contemporary uses of the term. The first denotes the large swath of Christians who subscribe to four key doctrinal points; the second refers to an organic network of movements and religious traditions; the third signifies a coalition of churches and institutions. For its part, the Barna Group, an evangelical polling firm, has identified no fewer than nine criteria to capture the profile of Christians who adhere to the evangelical way of life more than just nominally. Others have their own criteria.

Given the elasticity of the term, it’s no wonder that estimates of the number of evangelicals in the United States vary greatly. In its latest survey, the Gallup organization concludes that those identifying themselves as “born again” or evangelical comprise fully 41 percent of the national population, or roughly 128 million Americans. The Wheaton College estimate is lower—90 to 100 million—while the Barna Group, which excludes mere “cultural evangelicals,” claims that only 20 million or fewer Americans meet the strict nine-point test.

Moving away from this muddle, I would propose a simpler and more normative description that starts from the word “evangelical” itself, with its announcement of “good news”: a concept translated into Old English as godspel and into the English of the King James Version of the Bible as gospel. This one word contains the central thrust of all evangelical belief: namely, the good news of Jesus Christ’s salvific death and resurrection by means of which believers can obtain forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and citizenship in the kingdom of God. Evangelicals are those Christians who believe in the truth of this message as the only hope for the human soul, and who deny that heaven can be reached in any other way.

By this criterion, no one can be born a Christian in evangelical belief: everyone must come to Jesus individually of his own volition, making a profession of faith based on a genuine conviction of the truth of Jesus’ messiahship. This also explains why, more so than the members of almost any other branch of Christianity, evangelicals share a profound attachment to the textual world of the Bible. For the evangelical, the Bible is more than just a “good book”; it is the literal and inspired word of God, written by prophets who were moved by the holy spirit and preserved through the ages by the hand of divine providence. To evangelicals, the Bible is the blueprint of the cosmos, the framework of history, and the answer to all of life’s mysteries. Only the Bible—not a priesthood or a church hierarchy—can assert authority over the Christian.

Evangelicals likewise share a commitment to spreading the good news that they have been blessed to hear. Not content to practice their faith for an hour on Sunday mornings, they not only strive to infuse every aspect of their lives with the aura of the good news but take literally Jesus’ words to “go into all the world and preach the gospel.” This does not emanate from some prideful impulse to impose their religion on others but from a sincere concern for human souls and a deep love for the “lost”: those who, for whatever reason, have never heard the word. But—to repeat—evangelicals emphatically do not believe that faith can be coerced, or that baptism can somehow confer the power of salvation; Jesus must be chosen voluntarily and out of genuine faith.

A subtler but no less central tenet of evangelical belief is that history itself is pre-written and God-directed. A story neither of endlessly recurring cycles nor of linear and infinite progress, history is instead the acting-out of a cosmic epic in which God reveals Himself to man and works to reconcile the gap between heaven and earth. This, for evangelicals, is the essence of Christianity: the story of a God who loves His creatures so much that He sent a redeemer to atone for their sins and restore them to the divine communion that was lost at Eden.

This story has discrete players. It has a plot. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Most importantly, from the Jewish perspective, it has a nation, a chosen nation, upon whom the rest of the story turns. And here we come to how it is that, by and large, evangelicals support the state of Israel.

 

3. Christian Zionism

The Zionist bent in Protestantism has been evident for centuries, and goes back (as we shall see) to the very earliest days of the Reformation. Today’s evangelicals are the direct heirs of that tradition. Thanks to their literal reading of Scripture, they see Israel as a nation chosen by God to play a unique role in history.

But is this really all there is to it? Many find that hard to credit; utterly baffled by the phenomenon of Christian Zionism, they search instead for other, darker explanations. Of these, the most common is that, desperately craving the end of the world as a prelude to their own final salvation, evangelicals need the state of Israel in place for the predicted bloodbath in the battle of Armageddon. For this reason, the story goes, evangelicals will do everything in their power to ensure that Israel retains its foothold in the Middle East, no matter what. Yet once the appointed end does come, believing Christians (in this scenario) will be miraculously evacuated to heaven while Jews will be slaughtered in a horrific holocaust. The few survivors will then be converted to Christianity en masse.

Not surprisingly, this rendition of evangelical eschatology raises Jewish hackles. “What would Theodor Herzl have said,” thunders one critic, “about Jews supporting Christian homophobes who think Jews must ultimately either convert or burn in hellfire and Armageddon?”

There is no denying an eschatological element in the approach of many evangelicals to Israel—and a minority, emphasizing apocalyptic themes, does try to calculate the exact date and time of the second coming of Jesus. But the reality bears no resemblance to the portrait of cardboard-cutout Jesus freaks itching for the annihilation of the Jews and using them as pawns in their apocalyptic game.

The first and perhaps the most important thing to note here is the significance of Israel within evangelical thought as a whole and not just in, as it were, the final chapter. Evangelicals believe that God chose the biblical people of Israel as His vehicle for world redemption, an earthly agent through whom He would accomplish his grand plan for history. Why did God choose Israel? Not because of any innate virtue or genius they may have possessed, but because He had made a covenant with their patriarch, Abraham, based on the latter’s demonstrated faith and devotion.

Although, in the evangelical account, there were and are many aspects to Israel’s divine mission, preeminent among them was the task of birthing the messiah: the same person, Jesus, whose messiahship was then repudiated by most Jews. Those who did accept him became known as Christians, and their good news eventually spread to the non-Jewish nations as well. Meanwhile, those who did not accept him were subsequently conquered by the Romans and scattered to all corners of the earth in accordance with the prediction of Moses long before. With the destruction of the Temple and the end of the sacrificial system, ancient Jewish religion morphed into rabbinic Judaism and survives until the present day.

Over the centuries, Christians in general have debated whether Jews still have a role in history after their rejection of Jesus. Some have denied it, affirming instead that the Christian church constitutes the “true Israel,” superseding and replacing the Jews in God’s favor. These “supersessionist” Christians are not Zionists; far from it. By contrast, many of the early Reformers and most modern evangelicals believe that the nation of Israel and the Jewish people still retain their position as the apple of God’s eye. Despite Jewish unbelief in Jesus, the Jewish people are covenanted to God and will never be completely cast away. Christians who believe this tend to be Zionists.

Part of God’s covenant with the Jewish people involved bringing them back from exile and setting them once again in their own land. Since the 16th century, and despite the sheer improbability of the idea, Protestant writers spoke of a Jewish ingathering and sometimes actively promoted it. When the Zionist movement proper began in the late 19th century, and especially after the Jewish state was founded in 1948, this unlikely prophecy seemed to many to be coming true before their very eyes. Although not all Christians embraced the new state, the vast majority of evangelicals became immediate supporters; one of them was President Harry Truman, a Baptist.

Most evangelicals also believe that the ingathering of the Jews is the first stage in the second coming: the moment when Jesus will return to earth not as a humble servant but as a conquering king to establish his righteous rule in Jerusalem and restore the nation of Israel to its favored place for a millennium. Evangelicals differ over the sequence of events that will precede this occurrence. Many believe that true Christians will be “raptured,” or taken out of the earth, before the onset of a seven-year period of chaos that culminates in the second coming and its thousand-year aftermath. This approach, known by the cumbersome term of “premillennial dispensationalism,” holds broad appeal but is hardly unchallenged.

What of the much-hyped mass conversion of the Jews? Many evangelicals do believe that, just prior to the second coming, thousands of Jews will accept Jesus as the messiah they have been waiting for. But these Jews will be making a voluntary choice—they will not be “converted” by anyone, let alone against their will—and will not be “converting” at all in the classic sense. That is, they will not become Christians; they will be Jews who believe in Jesus as their messiah. At this point in history, the old forms of organized religion—churches, baptisms, Sunday schools, even synagogues—will, along with pretty much everything else, be completely transformed, as befits the commencement of a supernatural kingdom on earth.

Clearly, the problem with explaining all of Christian Zionism on the basis of eschatology is that not all evangelicals agree on the details or even believe it to be true. Furthermore, while eschatology itself generates much study and sermonizing, it is hardly the overriding or even the preponderant focus of evangelical belief. In 2011, a groundbreaking Pew survey of over 2,000 world evangelical leaders found 48 percent agreeing that the state of Israel was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy relating to the second coming of Jesus and 42 percent disagreeing. Among U.S. evangelical leaders, the split was roughly the same. As for rank-and-file American evangelicals, an earlier Pew survey found three-fifths believing that Israel was prophetically significant—but to this day, no clear consensus has been reached on what is entailed in that belief.

The upshot? In citing eschatology as a motivation for Christian Zionism, one can prudently say only that most evangelicals believe that the ingathering of the Jewish people to their historic homeland is connected in some way to biblical prophecy.

 

But if eschatology isn’t the real basis for most Christian Zionism, what is? Put simply, it’s the belief in the truth of God’s eternal covenant with the nation of Israel. When asked in the 2011 Pew survey if God’s covenant with the Jewish people continues today, 73 percent of world evangelical leaders, including 67 percent of the Americans, answered positively. Most rank-and-file evangelicals agree. After all, the main theme throughout the Bible is God’s abiding love for and faithfulness to His people no matter how often they disappoint Him. Again and again in Scripture, evangelicals see Israel falter only to be raised up by the loving hand of God who still intends to keep His promises with them and to guide them toward an expected end.

In brief, evangelicals love Israel because God loves Israel. But there is also another way of putting it. For evangelicals, Israel’s mistakes are representative of their own mistakes as imperfect individuals in need of God’s grace. They are comforted by the fact that God remains faithful to Israel; it means that God remains faithful to them.

And this relates to another point. Though it may surprise most Jews, evangelicals feel not only a strong sense of protectiveness toward the state of Israel but a deep cultural affinity with the Jewish people. It is not just that they are well versed in the Hebrew Scripture and its values. More importantly, as convinced Protestants, evangelicals tend to bypass the period of church history between the apostles and the Reformation—more than a thousand years of Christian corruption and paganism, as they see it—and look for inspiration not to Origen or Aquinas but to the heady days when all Christians were, in fact, Jews. In returning to the roots of their faith, they often feel closer to Jewish culture than to other branches of Christianity. Some go the extra mile to don a kippah, observe Passover, or celebrate a bar mitzvah.

Nor is that all. Evangelicals are eager to show Jews that they are not like other Christians by whom the Jewish people were mercilessly persecuted in history. To the contrary, they feel a religious obligation to protect Jews and minister to their material needs. American evangelicals in particular hope to use their influence to ensure that violence against Jews doesn’t happen on their watch.

Lest this make evangelical impulses sound wholly altruistic, I should also note the element of self-interest at work. Believing that God will “bless those who bless” the children of Abraham and “curse those who curse” them, many evangelicals refrain from criticizing Jews or the state of Israel for fear of getting on the wrong side of God. Looking back at the Jewish people’s historic enemies, they note that all, to a one, have met their doom. Indeed, many evangelicals see American prosperity as bound up directly with America’s benign treatment of Jews and strong support of Israel. A common refrain in evangelical churches goes something like: “America will be fine so long as we don’t go against the Jews.”

Of course there are other, not necessarily “Christian,” reasons why evangelicals (like other Americans) support Israel. Shared ethical and moral foundations; the feeling of kinship between two settler democracies with a sense of their own exceptionalism; the impulse to partner against enemies of the democratic West and especially, these days, against radical Islam; the urge to protect against a second Holocaust—one doesn’t need to be evangelical to have these feelings. But evangelicals have them intensely.

Despite what some may think, then, Christian Zionism is far more than an outgrowth of prophetic eschatology. It is an amalgamation of several strongly-held beliefs and principles that, taken together, cause millions of evangelicals wholeheartedly to endorse the continued sovereignty of a Jewish state in the Middle East.

And yet, unfortunately, that is not the whole story.

 

4. Evangelical Anti-Zionism

While many if not most evangelicals embrace the main tenets of Christian Zionism, a growing movement advocates, at a minimum, neutrality on Israel and, at a maximum, overturning the hegemony of Christian Zionism once and for all.

Evidence is apparent in the 2011 Pew survey. Asked whether they side more with Israelis or with Palestinians, about 34 percent of evangelical leaders sided with Israel and 13 percent with the Palestinians; but a full 39 percent claimed equal sympathy for both sides. Among U.S. evangelical leaders, almost half, 49 percent, expressed equal sympathy for both sides, leaving 30 percent siding with Israel and (again) 13 percent with the Palestinians. In sum, a large number of evangelical leaders are, if not antagonistic, less than stalwart in their feelings for the Jewish state.

One factor at work here is the growing influence of Middle Eastern voices within evangelical Christianity. When the Middle Eastern subset of leaders was surveyed in 2011, only 14 percent sympathized with Israel, with 26 percent, almost twice as many, favoring the Palestinians and 43 percent claiming to favor both sides equally.

Visibly epitomizing this new Middle Eastern force is, of all places, the little town of Bethlehem. Here, in the historic birthplace of Jesus, a group of Palestinian Christians associated with the Bethlehem Bible College has been hosting high-profile “Christ at the Checkpoint” conferences that bring evangelical leaders from around the world to “reclaim the prophetic role in bringing peace, justice, and reconciliation in Palestine and Israel.” Underneath the lofty language, what this means in practice is unceasing criticism of perceived Israeli injustice, racism, and occupation, peppered with special disdain for evangelical Zionists who allegedly exacerbate the conflict by cheerleading Jewish oppression of Palestinians.

“Christ at the Checkpoint” conferences in 2010 and 2012 were hailed as resounding successes. The next conference, scheduled for March 2014, will feature Geoff Tunnicliffe, secretary-general of the World Evangelical Alliance; Billy Wilson, president of Oral Roberts University; and Peter Kuzmic, a professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a well-known evangelical leader in Eastern Europe. Past speakers have included a variety of figures located on the evangelical Left, none of them a friend of Israel. Despite the abundance of trouble spots on God’s green earth, and the truly heinous activities of innumerable governments, this group of evangelicals has taken as its special mission the task of harshly chastising the democratic state of Israel.

The sheer strength of this new anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian movement came as something of a shock to me. Although I had heard of it in 2010, I didn’t sense its full scope until Hank Hanegraaff, a popular evangelical radio host, began heavily promoting a film entitled With God on Our Side: a scathing condemnation both of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians and of Christian Zionism. In addition to slickly edited close-ups of Israeli army checkpoints and interviews with Jewish Israel-bashers like Norman Finkelstein and Ilan Pappé, the movie features the voices of a number of respected evangelicals who speak against Christian Zionism in the name of Jesus. It has received positive endorsements from various luminaries, including the celebrity evangelical pastor Tony Campolo and the author Frank Schaeffer, the latter of whom hoped the movie would help signal “the beginning of the end of the largely unchallenged influence of Christian Zionism.”  

I came away from the film stunned by its systematic attack on the legitimacy of the state of Israel and, even more directly, its vicious hostility to Christian Zionists. In a trip to Israel earlier this year, I was able both to savor the good work done by Christian Zionism and to confront the arguments of its antagonists first hand.  

 

5. In Jerusalem and Bethlehem

Any Christian Zionist worth his salt has heard of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ). This institution had its origins in 1980 when Israel’s legislature formally acknowledged the results of the June 1967 war by declaring the now “complete and united” city of Jerusalem as the nation’s capital. Immediately, the UN Security Council passed a resolution terming the law “null and void,” and those countries that had not already done so moved their embassies to Tel Aviv. But one group of evangelical Christians took precisely the opposite action. In establishing a new kind of embassy right in the heart of Jerusalem, they intended to show both their solidarity with Israel at a time of great diplomatic need and, more importantly, a face of Christianity that Israelis had never before seen.

Today ICEJ is the unchallenged spokesman of Christian Zionists in the land of Israel. Invoking the prophet Isaiah—“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God”—the staff understands its mission as ministering to the Jewish people and state by performing concrete acts of assistance and educating Christians on the biblical and political realities of the Holy Land. Over the years, ICEJ’s annual Sukkot festival has attracted many thousands of Christian tourists, Israeli citizens, and Israeli government leaders at a joyful celebration infused by the spirit of good will.

In some ways, ICEJ is more notable for what it is not. For one thing, it forswears any attempts at converting Jews. For another, unlike some other Christian entities in the city, it takes no direct interest in protecting sectarian holy sites or institutions. Instead, behaving like true diplomats, its officers and staff seek to identify common interests and forge avenues of partnership between Christian Zionists and the Jewish state.

ICEJ’s executive director, Jürgen Bühler, is a story in himself. His father, drafted as a young man into the Nazi Wehrmacht, was captured by Soviet forces and imprisoned in a work camp where for more than four years he labored on a farm, brought low by illness and crippling hunger. It was only by the grace of God and two Jewish benefactors—the one a doctor in the camp who saved him from near-fatal pneumonia, the other a nearby farmer who let him take potatoes—that he emerged alive. “When we were kids,” the younger Bühler related in a 2010 interview, “my father always told that story and said we should always remember this and be thankful to Jewish people.”

A research scientist by trade, Bühler first came to Israel in 1994 to work on a project at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. At the end of the project, enamored of his new home, he joined the staff of ICEJ full-time and has lived in Israel ever since.

Meeting with Bühler for over an hour, I interrogated him on the mission of ICEJ, the value of Christian Zionism, and the anti-Israel sentiments coming out of Bethlehem. At the end, I came away satisfied with and grateful for his expression of genuine and unconditional love for the Jewish people and their state; his emphatic denial that eschatology, or “end-times” thinking, was the driving force of evangelical support; his thoughtful warnings against some of the more militant brands of Christian Zionism; and his sympathy for the plight of ordinary Palestinians. When we touched on the views expressed by “Christ at the Checkpoint” and With God on Our Side, he maintained a diplomatic demeanor, saying little more than that this was an approach to Scripture “unfortunately colored by a strong sense of Palestinian nationalism.”

 

By this time, I had already been given a first-hand sampling of these anti-Zionist views in a visit with Alex Awad, the affable pastor of the East Jerusalem Baptist Church, a professor at the Bethlehem Bible College, and a prime organizer of “Christ at the Checkpoint.” A Palestinian and an American citizen (he married a woman from Kentucky), Awad believes strongly in expelling Christian Zionism from evangelical culture. Here are a few highlights of our interview, which took place in the college’s empty cafeteria in Bethlehem:

What is the problem with American evangelicals?

They are more interested in endorsing the state of Israel as God’s prophetic instrument than in calling out the injustices that are being done to the Palestinian people. The message of Christianity is a universal one that is not interested in ethnicity or territory. The new covenant ushered in by the coming of messiah made the old covenant obsolete.

Do you believe with most American evangelicals that the founding of the state of Israel was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy?

No one has a monopoly on the mind of God, so I can’t say that this interpretation of Scripture is wrong. However, all eschatology must match up with the moral and spiritual message of Christ. God would not say one thing here and do something else there. What happened in 1948 and 1967 was not moral, and I personally don’t believe it had any divine significance. Anyway, there doesn’t necessarily need to be a “state” of Israel for the re-gathering of the Jews to be fulfilled.

Do you believe, then, that Israel is an illegitimate state?

I believe that the way it was founded was illegitimate, yes. And immoral. I believe the same thing about the United States: just look at what happened to the Indians. But don’t misinterpret me. I don’t call for the destruction of Israel. Everyone should be able to live here in peace.

So what is your preferred solution?

One state would be ideal. It is the best choice for harmonious, ethical coexistence and one that accords with my own Christian values. However, if this dream is impossible, then I think two states is fine. In that case, I believe that Israel should be allowed to keep 78 percent of the land. The Israelis don’t think that’s enough and refuse to accept it.

I’ve recently read about Muslim persecution of Arab Christians in the Palestinian Authority, causing some Arab Christians to apply to Israel because it’s safer.

Israel doesn’t want them! Israel won’t let them in. But anyone here who feels that way is driven only by economic reasons. There is no persecution here. I live in peace with all my neighbors.

How are your own relations with the Palestinian Authority?

When Yasir Arafat was alive, I met with him four times. I haven’t yet met with [PA president] Mahmoud Abbas, but I did meet with [former prime minister] Salam Fayyad. I am impressed by both of them and their refusal to advocate violence.

Are you afraid that Hamas will take over the West Bank?

I am afraid of all radicals, whether Christians, Jews, or Muslims. Of course I don’t want Hamas here. But I am far more afraid of Christian fundamentalists than I am of Hamas.

Why is that?

Christian fundamentalists, by blindly supporting Israel, are destroying the church by tolerating and endorsing injustice. They are inhibiting the Christian mission in the Middle East. They are ensuring the continuance of Israeli oppression. The enemy within is usually much worse than the enemy without.

If I left Jürgen Bühler feeling satisfied and grateful, I left Alex Awad with a sense of foreboding—and precisely because his deep-grained bias against both Israel and Christian Zionism is so well cloaked in the beguilingly simple language of a longing for justice and peace. Articulated by a sincere Christian, amplified by guided tours of Israel’s separation barrier and army checkpoints, Awad’s calm, logical presentation would resonate, I felt, not only with the influential attendees of his conferences but far beyond. Its appeal would be especially strong among those American evangelicals who, knowing little about the actual history of the conflict, would be incapable of discerning either his distortions of evangelical teachings or his systematic falsifications of Israeli policy and conduct.

And so it has proved to be.  

 

6. The Ideological Landscape

To understand the rise of pro-Palestinian sentiment among some segments of American evangelicalism, it is necessary to take on board the success of the aggressive advocacy campaign launched by the Palestinian evangelical community itself—a success all the more remarkable given the recent arrival of that community on the evangelical scene.

Historically, the Arab Christian community in the Levant was made up of old liturgical sects like Latin and Greek Catholics and various Orthodox denominations along with a few Lutherans and Anglicans. The sudden appearance of evangelical Christianity in the second half of the 20th century, with Bethlehem Bible College as its intellectual and spiritual capital, took many by surprise and marked a decisive change.

This young community is to be admired in some ways. For one thing, Palestinian evangelicals are genuine in their faith. For another, being committed to non-violence, they have yet to produce any terrorists—thereby differentiating themselves from some other Arab Christian sects. Yet the soft-spoken manner of Alex Awad, the community’s “human face,” should not be allowed to disguise the fact that, as a whole, Palestinian evangelicals remain strident opponents of the Israeli presence and feel no compunction about shouting their discontent from the housetops. With some exceptions—Pastors Naim Khoury and his son Steven are the best known—the movement is hardly distinguishable from any other run-of-the-mill anti-Israel outfit, faithfully singing the refrains of racism, imperialism, and apartheid.

Among the themes embraced by Palestinian evangelicals, perhaps the most inventive has involved the recasting of Jesus as a Palestinian dissident unjustly crucified by the Jews under Roman “occupation.” This trope, often credited to Yasir Arafat, deliberately strips Jesus of his Jewishness (and, presumably, Israeli-ness) in order to turn him into a martyr/hero of the Palestinian cause. In the words of a Fatah adviser who writes a column under the name Adel Abd al-Rahman, “Jesus, may he rest in peace, is a Canaanite Palestinian. His resurrection, three days after being crucified and killed by the Jews . . . reflects the Palestinian narrative, which struggles against the descendants of modern Zionist Judaism, in its new colonialist form, that conspires with the Western capitalists who claim to belong to Christianity” (translation by Palestinian Media Watch). This fraudulent and grotesque construal, widely accepted among Palestinian evangelicals, has begun to penetrate Western evangelical circles as well.

The Bethlehem movement is also marked by a strong undercurrent of liberation theology: the doctrine originating among Latin American Catholics that reinterprets the words of Jesus as a rallying cry for contemporary revolutionary action. Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Anglican minister and head of the infamous Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, has rendered the entire conflict between Israel and the Palestinians as a reenactment of Roman Judea under the Emperor Tiberius, here in the person of the state of Israel. “During this Christmas season,” Ateek declared in December 2007,

as we reflect on the message of the angels, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, ” we can only understand it against the “peace” that Caesar gives . . . . Caesar’s peace enslaves and humiliates; God’s peace liberates and restores dignity to the oppressed. Caesar builds walls to separate people; God tears down the walls of separation to join, unify, and reconcile them one with the other. Caesar’s peace is exclusive for a chosen few; God’s peace is inclusive for all regardless of their race or ethnicity.

Similarly inflammatory is a screed by Sami Awad, executive director of the Holy Land Trust and son of former BBC president Bishara Awad. Writing in the mid-2000s at the height of the second intifada, and conspicuously declining to mention the devastating string of Palestinian suicide bombings then racking the streets of Israel and claiming the lives of countless citizens, Awad compared Israeli counterterrorism forces “invading” the West Bank with the soldiers sent by Herod to kill every boy under the age of two:

Herod had lied to the Wise Men . . .; [Ariel] Sharon lies to the world when he says that he wants to enter Bethlehem [and other Palestinian cities] in order to bring peace to the Palestinians and Israelis by rooting out “terrorist” cells and destroying them. The aim for both was to destroy hope, destroy peace, and destroy the future by creating more anger, more frustration, more hatred, and more violence.

Finally, in addition to liberation theology, the Palestinian evangelical movement draws deeply from the well of replacement theology or supersessionism. While common among Catholics and many mainline Protestants, this doctrine was largely a stranger to evangelicalism—until recently. Now, Palestinian evangelicals like Alex Awad, with his casually dismissive reference to the supposedly obsolete “old covenant” with the Jewish people, are doing their best to persuade the rest of the evangelical world of its verity, and they have been succeeding. Growing numbers now view Israeli sovereignty in the Middle East as illegitimate because unsupported by, and even contrary to, Scripture.

In our interview, Awad answered revealingly when I pointed to the historical consequences of supersessionist belief: namely, the millennia-old Christian contempt and hatred, mixed with scorn, for the allegedly banished Jewish people. He quickly rejoined: “I am not anti-Semitic whatsoever. God saved me from that long ago. The Jews are still special to God.” Then he added: “But so are all people. Sometimes I think replacement theology has a bad name and is misunderstood.”

 

If “Christ at the Checkpoint” and the other Palestinian initiatives form one major factor in the rise of anti-Israel sentiments among Western and especially American evangelicals, a second factor, no less influential, must also be brought into the picture. That factor is the growing liberalization of the American evangelical community itself—and especially of many of its young.

Whether and to what extent evangelical religion has been taking a left turn in recent years has been much debated in Christian media. Many of the movement’s leaders, alarmed by developments in their local communities, have warned against doctrinal drift among the young. Others have denied it, citing survey data to maintain that young evangelicals are actually more conservative than ever. Without entering into this by-now hoary debate, I submit that sizable parts of the evangelical community have indeed departed from a traditional understanding of their faith.

This exodus is no secret. Participants in the trend are hardly shy about their beliefs and ultimate goals, and sympathetic outsiders have been quick to notice and applaud them. Indeed, the “New Evangelicalism” has been heralded by progressive figures within the larger Christian community not as a turning away but as a restoration of the true essence of Christianity. Driving this move, one hears, is the desire to exemplify Jesus’ love for the world by breaking free of old stereotypes and knocking down the barriers between evangelicals and “mainstream” American culture.

Illustrative of the new trend has been the so-called emerging-church movement, whose followers are attracted by promises of a decentralized and de-institutionalized Christianity and the transformation of Christian life into an intensely individual, unstructured, and unsupervised experience. Among the first bedrock principles to be set aside is the inerrancy of Scripture. “The Bible,” writes Martyn Percy portentously in The Salt of the Earth: Religious Resilience in a Secular Age, “is no longer a principal source of morality, functioning as a rulebook. The gradualism of postmodernity has transformed the text into a guide, a source of spirituality, in which the power of the story as a moral reference point has superseded the didactic.”

On this account, the New Evangelicals, tired of the message of heaven, hell, and salvation preached by their parents, want nothing so much as to bring religion down to earth. But, predictably, the agenda turns out to be much more defined than that. As in all such tendencies, cultural and political attitudes intermix freely with religious and spiritual ones.

Thus, in a wildly popular book, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons sift a mountain of polling data to conclude that young evangelicals, just like their peers, find conservative Christianity to be “too anti-homosexual,” “too judgmental,” and “too political” for their taste. Waxing even more specific, the well-known evangelical figure Jim Wallis declares:

While most evangelicals are still “pro-life,” abortion is not their only concern. Not all are convinced that Republicans have the best answers to all the life issues. While most evangelicals are strongly committed to strengthening family life, not all think equal rights for gay and lesbian people are a threat to the family. Poverty reduction, immigration reform, a consistent life ethic, the care of environmental protection, a less militaristic foreign policy, and a deep commitment to racial and economic justice are all issues of concern.

Of course, many New Evangelicals would deny that they advocate an identifiably liberal or leftist approach to Scripture and traditional doctrine; in A New Evangelical Manifesto: A Kingdom Vision for the Common Good, Brian McLaren piously avers that it is “impossible to determine” what form “the current emergence of Christian faith will take.” But the evidence is plain. One telling example lies in the recent trend known as “Red-Letter Christianity,” promulgated largely by the evangelical superstar Tony Campolo. Seeking ostensibly to move beyond partisan politics by focusing on Jesus’ quoted words (commonly printed in red in Christian Bibles), this cherry-picking method inevitably ends up elevating verses like “turn the other cheek” over the more hard-nosed sections of Christian Scripture.

Love, tolerance, inclusiveness: these values are indeed anchored deep in the Christian tradition. But they tell only half the story. The Christian God is a God of love, but also a God of justice. In the New Evangelicals’ approach to social questions, the scale is permanently tilted to one side, elevating peace, non-violence, and a thinly-disguised utopianism as the core tenets of Christianity to the exclusion of everything else. By abandoning the belief in inerrant Scripture and embracing certain passages over others, the New Evangelicals become less attached to the biblical view of history, more abstract in their religious sensibilities, and more concerned with bettering the material world in accordance with principles of selection rooted transparently in contemporary secular politics.

 

To mainstream evangelicals, needless to say, the new progressivism is a looming disaster—and one with historical precedent. They point to the inroads made into Protestantism at the turn of the 20th century by the liberal-leaning theology that arose concomitantly with the so-called higher biblical criticism. The latter, denying the literal and inspired character of Scripture, transformed the Bible from a volume of revealed, objective truth into an anthology of subjective myth and allegory. In short order, old ideas about creation, salvation, and revelation went out the window, along with much else besides.

Armed with the new wisdom of the higher criticism, and inspired equally by the ideals of secular American progressivism, early-20th-century proponents of the “social gospel” movement discarded the timeworn Christian anticipation of a divine kingdom of righteousness and set out to construct that kingdom in the here and now. The aftershocks of this movement would enjoy a long life in American politics and religion, even as, in the fullness of time, the fatal infection of religion by secular politics would end by emptying the pews of congregants in many an established Protestant church—a lesson hardly lost on today’s evangelical leaders.

Crucially for our purposes, the teachings of the higher criticism also required a change in Protestant thinking about the Jews. In the eyes of the higher critics, it was not God but the ancient Israelites themselves who had written their own “deed” to the land of Canaan, “prophesied” their own chosenness, and set out to actualize their self-serving prophecies to the detriment of everyone else. It was with this in mind that the great Jewish scholar Solomon Schechter (1847-1915) was led to characterize the higher criticism as “the higher anti-Semitism.” Yet, hand in hand with the social-gospel or “social-justice” perspective, the anti-Jewish perspective of the higher criticism would go on to enjoy a long life in the established Protestant churches, enabling many liberal Christians to view the emergence of the state of Israel in 1948 as an act of selfishness committed by a demonstrably selfish people. Today, Protestants who read the Bible through the lens of the higher criticism frequently number among Israel’s most vocal opponents.

From the viewpoint of mainstream evangelicals, it is no coincidence that today’s New Evangelicals work enthusiastically to build partnerships with the less biblically-minded branches of Christianity; the two parties share an essential like-mindedness on this front as on others. Nor is it a coincidence that Christians who disbelieve in biblical inerrancy, hedge its meaning, or ignore its relevance in practice also tend to reject the starting premise of Christian Zionism: namely, the eternity of God’s promise to the Jews.

True, most evangelicals in the U.S. still adhere to the mainstream worldview, basing their support for Israel firmly on the Bible as the embodiment of God’s everlasting covenant with the people Israel. For them, the Bible predicts the destined journey of that people from catastrophic exile to miraculous return. These are not abstract concepts open to interpretation; they are living facts that entail spiritual, social, and political obligations in real time. But the majority enjoyed by this view is not nearly as strong as it once was. In fact, it may have peaked.

If that turns out to be the case, an animating factor will have been a conjunction no less fateful than the conjunction of early-20th-century political progressivism with the fruits of higher biblical criticism. Today’s version of that earlier amalgam is the merging of the Palestinian evangelical activists with the New Evangelicals in the United States. Given the currents of our age, it was probably inevitable that these two movements would find each other. Both, after all, want to raise the standard of “social justice,” upend old “hegemonies,” and recast evangelicalism in a new mold. And both factions have a common adversary in the form of Christian Zionism.

Indeed, in the United States, the same people leading the New Evangelical movement also promote the pro-Palestinian narrative; a representative example is the pastor Tony Campolo, a champion (as we have seen) both of “Red-Letter Christianity” and of the anti-Israel film With God on Our Side. Each year yields more books and op-eds by evangelicals blaming Christian Zionism for wreaking unspeakable havoc, and increasingly their voices are amplified by well-known academic institutions and media outlets. Meanwhile, the annual conferences of “Christ at the Checkpoint” continue to draw high-profile pastors, professors, and evangelical leaders from around the world to endorse and spread the anti-Israel message.

The bottom line is simply this: more and more American evangelicals are being educated to accept the pro-Palestinian narrative—on the basis of their Christian faith. Although Christian Zionists have mounted a heroic counteroffensive, it is not altogether clear that they have, or have yet developed, the proper tools to persuade young evangelicals of their position.

 

7. A Jewish Question

How does an obscure theological debate within Christianity relate to American Jews who are concerned for Israel and are at least open to evangelical support? And even if a sea change is actually taking place within evangelicalism, surely I can’t be suggesting that Jews should intervene?

To the latter question, my answer is no—and yes.

It goes without saying that Jews cannot weigh in theologically on the validity of one or another interpretation of Christianity. I have no expectation that a Jewish author will publish a book entitled Why Christian Zionism is a Correct Interpretation of the New Testament. I believe, however, that Jews should view this intra-Christian debate as relevant to them and react appropriately—that is, if they believe that the Jewish state is a precious thing that must be preserved at all costs. For such Jews, the strengthening of evangelical support should be a high priority. Retaining the support of this 300-million-strong global community is an imperative. If there is a way to help evangelicals help Israel, it should be found and followed.

 

The first step is, so to speak, mental. As I noted early on, for most Jews—conservative or liberal, religious or secular—the idea of partnering with evangelicals on any endeavor is by definition off-putting. Even where Israel is concerned, Jews have been more or less content to let evangelicals voice their support on their own, without significant interaction. But whatever the source of this mental block—religious, cultural, social, or more likely a combination of all three—Jews who are serious about strengthening Christian support for Israel must first open themselves to the idea that evangelicals may not be all that bad. Getting to know one is the best place to start.

Even more important than getting to know evangelicals is learning to respect their beliefs. Contrary to the popular image of mindless zealots or modern-day Crusaders, evangelicals are for the most part rather mild-mannered members of society. They have beliefs on which they will not bend, but those beliefs are drawn from a book that is arguably the source of all that is good in Western civilization. They enjoy speaking about their faith, but do not deem it possible or right to convert someone against his will. They prefer that their society embody traditional moral values, but have no desire to establish a theocracy. They possess a rich literary and cultural heritage, and have produced some of our nation’s greatest thinkers and leaders. In brief, evangelicals have a great deal to offer society and should be valued for their principled devotion to their convictions.

The second step is to extend a hand to those evangelical institutions and individuals who over the years have demonstrated a firm commitment to the state of Israel and the Jewish people. While evangelical support for Israel is hardly contingent on reciprocation, reciprocation would enable it to flourish still more vigorously. In its 2011 study, Pew found that although 82 percent of American evangelical leaders viewed Jews favorably, a whopping 42 percent felt that Jews were unfriendly to evangelicals, while most of the rest thought them indifferent at best.

Statistics, to be sure, go only so far, and the history of Jewish-Christian relations, among other things, has played a definite role in creating and sustaining the wary Jewish mindset. But the persistent disparity in the feelings of the two sides inhibits cooperation in areas of overlapping concern.

Extending a hand can mean any number of things, from strategic funding of pro-Israel evangelical organizations to simply contacting one’s local evangelical pastor and thanking him for the work he is doing. One would be surprised to see how far such seemingly small efforts can go. On the institutional level, one admirable initiative is the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation founded by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin in Efrat, Israel, which brings together rabbis and Jewish educators with Christian leaders, especially evangelicals, for the study of the Hebrew Bible.

A more programmatic approach would involve targeted educational programs on the fundamentals of Israeli history and society. Notwithstanding their devout attachment to the Zionist cause, most evangelicals are ignorant of even the most basic aspects of modern Israel. An instance close to home: just before their recent trip to Jerusalem, members of my church asked me where Israel was located on the map, what language Israelis spoke (a common guess was Arabic), and what religion they practiced (Islam?). Ask ten evangelicals about the significance of Theodor Herzl in the founding of modern Israel, and my guess is that no more than two could answer intelligently.

Not all evangelicals are so uninformed, but one should err on the side of the lowest common denominator. Even the most ardent Christian Zionist, raised to support Israel on the basis of biblical passages, is generally unequipped to respond to critics invoking the Balfour Declaration, UN Resolution 242, or Sabra and Shatila. Many young evangelicals have been induced to depart from Christian Zionism by a film like With God on Our Side or a college course on the Middle East where, in the face of a professor’s blatant certainties, their utter lack of knowledge frustrates any ability to defend their convictions or brings them to adopt the Palestinian narrative as the “truth” their parents never told them.

This is a Christian problem, one that must first and foremost be addressed by evangelical leaders themselves. But that doesn’t mean interested Jewish partners cannot propose ways of accomplishing the task more effectively. The best education on Israel comes from visiting the land, meeting its people, and witnessing its day-to-day life, in all its complexity, firsthand. While over a million evangelicals visit Israel every year, many tend to be older and already convinced. Other Christian pilgrims do little more than follow in Jesus’ footsteps in Galilee, tour the Old City of Jerusalem, and pay a visit to (where else?) Bethlehem.

To my knowledge, no serious, large-scale effort exists to bring evangelicals—particularly young evangelicals—to Israel to learn about the realities of life on the ground. In September, Israel’s Minister of Tourism Uzi Landau announced tentative plans to establish a Birthright-type program that would help shore up evangelical support for Israel in the rising generation. As with most endeavors of this kind, securing the necessary long-term funding promises to be difficult. But whether initiated by Christians or by Jews, programs like this one are a must. A successful effort, though it may never rise to Birthright’s impressive scope in terms of numbers, would exercise a powerful impact on attitudes in the Christian world, one that would reverberate for decades to come.

 

8. Concluding Thoughts

For any Jewish supporter of Israel who still finds the idea of outreach to evangelicals too abstract or too uncomfortable to command his attention, let me say a few words about the current moment.

We live in historic times. What Jew (or Christian, for that matter) would have ever predicted that Christians, many of whom have never met a Jew in their lives, would be standing up strongly, in their millions, in defense of a Jewish state? On a variety of levels, this moment was simply unimaginable.

As a Christian who takes his faith seriously, I believe that the current link between evangelicals and the Jews is not just a serendipitous coincidence. Rather than just another religious or national grouping, I see the Jews as a community appointed to play a special role in the cosmic order. Yet even those who cannot themselves assent to such a statement of faith must surely recognize its power as a motivating factor in the hearts and minds of others. So long as evangelicals and Jews share an interest in protecting Israel, they should, despite their perfectly appropriate differences, do everything they can to build a strategic alliance based on the mutual imperative of defending the world’s only Jewish state against those who would seek to destroy it and those all too ready to lend a helping or acquiescent hand.

But I would insist on the element of time. In an insightful essay on the growing rifts within the evangelical world, Lee Smith predicts that “if the ‘Christ at the Checkpoint’ camp wins out, the pro-Israel Jewish community that once looked warily upon evangelical support may come to regard that movement with nostalgia.”

Nostalgia, and bitter regret. If Jews and evangelicals are to cooperate, they must do so sooner and not later. I’m proud to stand surety for my own community’s readiness to act. 

Responses

  1. Two Words by Elliott Abrams
    It’s time for American Jews to say thank-you to evangelicals—and to act accordingly.
  2. My Dinner with Irving by Wilfred M. McClay
    On evangelicals, the evangelical Left, and the Jews.
  3. Before Pastor Hagee, There Was Lord Shaftesbury by Gertrude Himmelfarb
    The Victorian roots of evangelical Zionism.
  4. A Nation with the Soul of a Church by James Nuechterlein
    Why Americans love Israel.
  5. Fervent Friends, or Fickle Ones? by Robert W. Nicholson
    Despite what some of my respondents say, something fundamental is changing inside the evangelical movement, and it bodes ill for Israel.

More about: Anti-Zionism, Christian Zionism, Evangelical Christianity, Israel, Jewish State, Robert W. Nicholson

 

Two Words

It's time for American Jews to say thank-you to evangelicals—and to act accordingly.

Two Words
Thousands of evangelicals from around the world celebrate at the annual Sukkot parade in Jerusalem, September 24, 2013. © Eddie Gerald/Demotix/Corbis.
 
Elliott Abrams
Response
Oct. 13 2013
About the author

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he maintains a blog, Pressure Points. He is the author of Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America and, most recently, Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.


Robert Nicholson’s Evangelicals and Israel should worry any Jewish supporter of Israel, for three major reasons.

The first is that ingratitude is a great sin—though one with deep roots in Jewish history. The story of the Jews in the Bible is replete with incidents of their ingratitude to God for His gifts to them: incidents that just as repeatedly merit and receive punishment. Here we go again: today’s American Jews are spectacularly ungrateful toward a huge community of evangelicals whose enthusiasm for Israel may become critical to its very survival and certainly to America’s continuing support of the Jewish state. The American Jewish population is dwindling, from a height of nearly 4 percent of the U.S. population to under 2 percent now. As Nicholson explains, Christian support, already enormously important, will become only more so.

The second reason for worry is the anti-Israel trend in the evangelical world: as Nicholson puts it, evangelical support for Israel may already have peaked. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: powerful currents in American culture, including the control of most university faculties (even in some evangelical colleges) and of the mass media by the voices of the liberal Left, are pushing young evangelicals away from the beliefs of their parents. Yet few American Jews know much about the evangelical community, let alone about the swings Nicholson lists and analyzes. Most will never have heard of the Palestinian Christian groups whose anti-Israel activities he describes, and are unaware of their growing influence among American evangelicals. For this reason alone, his article, providing new and valuable information, is an important wake-up call.

And then there is the third reason: namely, the American Jewish mainstream’s continuing resistance to close collaboration with evangelicals. I differ with Nicholson’s attribution of this resistance to the legacy of Christian anti-Semitism; I think it is the product of politics. We see this in the voting patterns of American Jews, who in most elections overwhelmingly cast their ballots for liberal candidates regardless of those candidates’ position on Israel. That the rabbi of a leading Conservative synagogue in the Washington, DC suburbs has just resigned his pulpit to head the National Jewish Democratic Council is but one instance of the interpenetration of religion and liberal politics in so much of the non-Orthodox Jewish world.

By contrast, when it comes to the evangelicals, liberal Jewish leaders rank their disagreements with this community on issues like “gay marriage” or “abortion rights” as of greater weight than the need to seek and cement alliances in support of Israel. Indeed, they remain far more comfortable consorting with liberal “mainline” Protestant groups, with whom they share a common political outlook, despite the latter’s pervasive and deep hostility to the Jewish state. Which leads one to wonder: if evangelicals themselves become more liberal—as Nicholson and mainstream evangelical leaders fear—will liberal Jews find them more to their taste? That would certainly be an ironic outcome. But what if the evangelicals, in becoming politically and culturally more liberal, also adopt the Protestant establishment’s anti-Israel prejudice? Then the irony will turn dark indeed. Jews will find that their newfound cooperation with this formerly scorned community has been bought at the price of support for Israel.

 

For Jewish supporters of Israel, in short, there are more than enough reasons to worry. The question is, how should the Jewish community react? In particular, what can be done to help reinforce and to sustain the still powerful pro-Israel activism of millions of evangelical Christians?

Nicholson’s basic advice is very sound: provide information, and provide opportunities. Information: for example, films that can be shown in churches and that are as well made as the anti-Israel With God on Our Side, whose pernicious propaganda needs to be counteracted. Opportunities: preeminently, visits to Israel.

Many of the vast numbers of evangelicals who tour Israel every year are already fully committed supporters; but, as Nicholson notes, they tend to be older and they are likely to visit only biblical sites—ignoring modern Israel, and never gaining the insights or the experiences that would allow them to understand the errors, distortions, and lies coming from anti-Israel Palestinian Christian groups. The government of Israel should make an effort to provide each such group with something more: a chance to get beyond Bethlehem and Nazareth and see how Israel confronts the security and political challenges that it faces. Christian tourism must be understood as far more than a business opportunity.

Both of these efforts should concentrate even more intensively on evangelical youth. Where Israel is concerned, a Birthright-like program is, as Nicholson suggests, part of the answer; I would start by targeting student-body presidents from evangelical colleges and others whose activities suggest they have the makings of future leaders. Young pastors are another obvious target group. Organizations like Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, led by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, should be partners in this effort and can help identify candidates.

I am not sanguine about the willingness of most American Jews to understand and express gratitude for evangelical support, or to seek more and closer cooperation with evangelicals in Israel’s cause. Nor am I sanguine about the willingness of most Jews to reach out to individual evangelicals or to their churches (another path suggested by Nicholson). But that doesn’t mean the effort is doomed. It may fail at one level but succeed on a much larger scale if a few key Jewish organizations—with adequate funding—step up to the plate.

 ___________________

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he maintains a blog, Pressure Points. He is the author of Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America and, most recently, Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

More about: Anti-Semitism, Evangelical Christianity, Israel, Robert W. Nicholson

 

My Dinner with Irving

On evangelicals, the evangelical Left, and the Jews.

My Dinner with Irving
Wheaton College, "arguably the best school in the nation with a Christ-based worldview." Courtesy Steven Sheets, Flickr.
 
Response
Wilfred M. McClay
Oct. 16 2013

Several years ago, I gave a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on the subject of religion and secularism. Afterward, the discussion continued at a relaxed and intimate dinner for selected guests—an occasion greatly enlivened by the presence of the late Irving Kristol, then an AEI senior fellow, and his wife Gertrude Himmelfarb, the distinguished historian. As usual, Irving had plenty to say. In particular, when the subject turned to the distinctive character of evangelical Christianity, he pronounced himself in a manner that I (and others in the room) remember vividly to this day. “Well, after all,” he remarked, with casual assurance, “religion is what you’re born with.”

But no, I insisted in response, that was precisely what evangelicals don’t believe. There are no grandchildren in the kingdom of heaven, they like to say, which is their way of asserting that religious truth is something each person must come to individually through a process of personal conversion, a process that does not require a church or a priest but is thought to be a direct and unmediated act of “coming to Jesus.” Hence there are no legacy admissions, for this faith cannot be inherited or otherwise passed along; it must be re-appropriated freshly by each generation. This is why evangelicals say, following Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, that one must be “born again.” The first birth is not the one that counts.

Irving was completely unmoved by my impromptu catechesis. “Religion is what you’re born with,” he repeated, unraveling an amused smile and seemingly all the more pleased with a formulation that had kicked up some dust in the room. Even his wife sitting next to him, who knows a very great deal about Anglo-American evangelicalism, clearly thought him off-base. “Irving, you don’t understand. . . ,” she started, but then gently shook her head in an exasperation no doubt earned through years of experience.

As for me, with my deep respect for Irving, I couldn’t help beginning to wonder whether he may have understood something important that I was missing.

 

This little episode came to mind as I read Robert W. Nicholson’s thoughtful open letter to American Jews about evangelical-Jewish relations. It came to mind partly because Kristol was one of the first prominent American Jewish intellectuals to proclaim that Jews ought to be less dismissive of their evangelical admirers, but indeed should learn to cherish evangelicals as loyal and reliable allies, preferable in most ways to secular liberals. This declaration brought down on him a level of wrath and ridicule and repudiation that was stunning in its vehemence. Irving fully expected that reaction, and never showed any sign of being upset by it. He realized that the religion that his Jewish detractors were born with—militantly secular liberalism, welded to a sense of ethnic identity—would impel them to deal harshly, even savagely, with his apostasy.

One thing that Nicholson perhaps underestimates, given his typically evangelical generosity to the ideal of the free and uncoerced conscience, is just how difficult, how very nearly unthinkable, it is for most American Jews to imagine taking seriously the beliefs of most evangelicals. It is hard to judge—and as a non-Jew, I perhaps have no business even trying—whether the greater force in producing this near-unanimity is cultural consensus or cultural fear. Both probably play a role, and the fears involved are powerful ones, manifested not only publicly but on the most intimate levels.

I think of a Jewish friend, a man of impressive intellect and great moral courage, who converted to Christianity after two decades of waiting . . . for his mother to die. If this sounds like the material for a great Jewish joke, it is also powerful testimony to Irving’s contention that religion is what you are born with. For if this man had really fully believed that his eternal salvation depended on his acceptance of Jesus as his savior, would he have waited all those years? Would he have waited ten minutes?

That may be putting it ungenerously. Loyalty to what you were born with carries a weight of moral obligation all its own, not only for Jews but perhaps for Jews especially. Strangely, it seems that this logic of loyalty persists even when the specifically religious elements in Jewish identity have been all but banished in favor of full-bore secular liberalism. That would certainly help explain the vehement reaction to Irving’s daring to say a good word about an evangelical-Jewish alliance.

 

All this goes to underscore the importance of Nicholson’s message. It is a message that today needs to be heard more than ever as Israel faces mortal peril in a world where it is increasingly alone and abandoned, with anti-Semitism, having acquired a new lease on life, on the rampage. Under the circumstances, American Jews need especially to overcome their hardwired prejudices and see the clear truth that 300 million evangelicals have been, and still are, arguably Israel’s most stalwart non-Jewish allies in the Western world. 

Just as important, what needs to be understood is that this stalwart support is not imperishable and that it cannot be taken for granted in the future. Nicholson supports with his own research and interviews the important work of Gerald McDermott in identifying the rise of an anti-Israel movement within American evangelicalism, potentially a very serious and consequential departure.

Nicholson is right about this, and the movement he describes is real. At the same time, however, I would urge caution lest one exaggerate the extent or the durability of anti-Israel evangelicalism—or, for that matter, the size and influence of the American evangelical Left altogether.

Anti-Israel sentiment among evangelical elites is strongest in the academic world and in international missions and relief groups. But the actual influence of such groups on the larger world of American evangelical churches is debatable. One can count on the fingers of two hands, with fingers left over, the number of voluble and publicity-savvy figures on the evangelical Left like Sojourner’s Jim Wallis. (Frank Schaeffer, whom Nicholson quotes as urging “an end to the largely unchallenged influence of Christian Zionism,” is a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy.) And Bethlehem Bible College, while a seedbed for the kind of pro-Palestinian revisionism that is enjoying a run of popularity with the American evangelical Left, is not itself an American college.

So I would be wary and vigilant, but not unduly panicked. The fact is that evangelicalism thrives on a flat and somewhat amorphous ecclesiastical structure, without popes or bishops or prelates. This renders it hard to be captured by ideological missionaries—particularly ones who openly reject the authority of the Bible as so many on the evangelical Left do.

Moreover, figures like Wallis have badly tarnished their credibility by their near-total identification with Democratic-party politics. They made a reputation for themselves post-9/11 by opposing the Bush administration’s anti-terror policies, but their abject and total silence as the Obama administration has continued those same policies, expanding them into areas like the use of unmanned drones to assassinate putative terrorists, has left them utterly discredited in the eyes of many of their idealistic young followers. For years, the evangelical Right has been accused of choosing Caesar over God by aligning itself with the Republican party and conservative politics. Now the charge applies in spades to the evangelical Left.

In any event, much more important, and more worthy of concern, are the “mainline” Protestant denominations, including the Presbyterian Church USA, the Episcopal Church, and others. Their antagonism to Israel is blatant and of long standing; of even longer standing is their fealty to the standard desiderata of theological and political liberalism. Indeed, the growing liberalization of American evangelicalism can itself be seen as a convergence with the beliefs and views of these churches, bleaching out the particularisms inherent in the Jewish and Christian faiths and reducing them to a bland universalism. This is a movement that speaks to the status anxieties of the rising generation of young evangelicals, affluent, suburban-bred, and socially mobile, who are intent that, whatever else their church will be, it will not be the church of their fathers. That is generally what they mean in proclaiming their ideal of a “countercultural” faith. 

I do not mean to sound dismissive of this generation. I often lecture in evangelical colleges, and I love the students I meet there. But I am struck by some of the very phenomena that Nicholson describes. They appear to be getting a very limited education, particularly in politics and economics. Instead, they are heavy on emotivism, a disposition that leaves them prepared to speculate endlessly about what they imagine “Jesus would do” but poorly equipped for engagement with challenging points of view.

 

How to overcome these limitations and what they might portend? I can think of few better ways than by bringing such students into a fuller awareness of the Jewish roots of their own faith. For how can one possibly grasp the Christian doctrine of vicarious atonement, or the meaning of the Eucharist, without understanding how those ideas are grounded in Jewish understandings of sin, guilt, and expiation? How to understand the source of human rights and inviolable dignity without recurring to the biblical belief that man is made in the image of God?

To be sure, the evangelical-Jewish alliance will always be at least partially a matter of strange bedfellows. That can’t be helped, and it shouldn’t be denied. The differences are profound. But at the same time, there is a deep commonality, going to the heart of both faiths and revealed by and through the course of two millennia of human history. It is, I think, most succinctly expressed in the idea that both traditions worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That phrase carries the weight of a distinct cosmology, anthropology, and moral universe.

This, in other words—and in ways that Jews perhaps understand better than evangelicals—is the religion that both groups have indeed been “born with,” as Irving was right to suggest. That bedrock fact points to at least the possibility of an alliance destined, in the fullness of time, to be of far more than mere political convenience. 

___________________

Wilfred M. McClay is the Blankenship Chair in the history of liberty at the University of Oklahoma and director of its Center for the History of Liberty. 

More about: Anti-Semitism, Evangelical Christianity, Irving Kristol, Israel, Robert W. Nicholson

 

Before Pastor Hagee, There Was Lord Shaftesbury

The Victorian roots of evangelical Zionism.

Before Pastor Hagee, There Was Lord Shaftesbury
Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, by John Collier.
 
Response
Gertrude Himmelfarb
Oct. 20 2013

The following comments are a historical footnote to Robert Nicholson’s splendid essay, “Evangelicals and Israel.” Addressing himself to American Jews, he rebukes them for being distrustful of the millions of evangelical Christians who have been staunch supporters of the Jewish state and the Jewish people. But he also rebukes the growing minority of evangelicals who have recently withdrawn that support and are now actively hostile to Israel and Jews.

Two years ago, I was provoked to write The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England from Cromwell to Churchill, in a similarly critical mode, reproaching the present-day English (not English Jews) for betraying their own evangelical tradition, which was so respectful of the Jewish religion and people and so enthusiastic in favor of a Jewish state, and for succumbing to an anti-Israel fervor very nearly indistinguishable from anti-Semitism.  

Evangelicalism was at its height in England in the early 19th century, with Lord Ashley (later the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury) its most prominent and vigorous champion. “An Evangelical of the Evangelicals,” he described himself. It was evangelicalism that prompted both his zeal as a social reformer (of factories, education, and child-labor practices) and as a “missionary,” as he saw it, to and from the Jews. “Who will be the Cyrus of Modern Times,” he inquired in his diary in 1826, “the second Chosen to restore the God’s people?” (Cyrus, king of ancient Persia, permitted the exiled Jews to return from Babylonia to the land of Israel.) 

Ashley was all of twenty-five and a newly elected member of Parliament when he took upon himself that role. A decade later, he helped organize the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews (the Jews’ Society, as it was known), one of whose aims, and soon its principal aim, was “encouraging the physical restoration of the Jewish people to Eretz Israel—the Land of Israel.” Two years later, he persuaded Lord Palmerston, then the foreign secretary, to appoint a British vice-consul to Jerusalem. “What a wonderful event it is!” he exulted. “The ancient city of the people of God is about to resume a place among the nations.”

Three years later, over the strong objections of William Gladstone and other Anglicans, Ashley prevailed upon Robert Peel, the new prime minister, to support a bill creating a bishopric in Jerusalem. The first bishop appointed to that post was Michael Solomon Alexander, a converted Jew, the son of a rabbi and himself a former rabbi. Ashley, who had been involved in the choice of Alexander, was delighted, he confided to his diary, “to see a native Hebrew appointed by the Church of England to carry back to the Holy City the truths and blessings which Gentiles had received from it.” For the rest of his life he wore the ring the bishop had given him before leaving for Jerusalem. It was inscribed with a quotation from the Psalms, “Oh, pray for the peace of Jerusalem; they shall prosper that love thee.”

In 1854, with the outbreak of the Crimean war, Ashley, now Lord Shaftesbury, urged Lord Clarendon, the foreign minister, to persuade Turkey to cede some land to the Jews. In his diary, again citing the decree of Cyrus, he argued that this was the time for another, “analogous” action: 

All the East is stirred; the Turkish empire is in rapid decay; every nation is restless; all hearts expect some great thing. . . . The territory must be assigned to someone or other; can it be given to any European potentate? to any American colony? to any Asiatic sovereign or tribe? . . . No, no, no! There is a country without a nation; and God now, in His wisdom and mercy, directs us to a nation without a country. His own once loved, nay, still loved people, the sons of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.

Those italicized phrases—“country without a nation” and “nation without a country”—have since become memorable, echoed in the famous Zionist slogan, “A land without a people for a people without a land.” It was later charged that this slogan willfully and wrongly implied that there were no “people” in Palestine. But Shaftesbury, like the later Zionists, clearly meant by “people” a recognizable people, a nation. A dozen years later he established the Palestine Exploration Fund to prepare the country for “the return of its ancient possessors.” This “great event,” he felt assured, was not far off. “A nation must have a country. The old land, the old people. This is not an artificial experiment; it is nature, it is history.”

 

“And yet,” Nicholson pauses midway in his essay as he introduces the disturbing subject of those American evangelicals who have begun propounding a new evangelical anti-Zionism. The historian of Victorian England must register a different “and yet.”

In 1847, Lionel Rothschild had been elected to Parliament but was not seated because he refused to take the required oath “upon the true faith of a Christian.” A Jewish Disability Bill, introduced the following year, was meant to remove this last “civil disability” suffered by English Jews: they could vote, but as Jews they could not serve in Parliament. After a memorable debate, in which some supported the bill on the grounds of liberty and justice, others for reasons of expediency and consistency (Catholics and Dissenters having already been admitted to Parliament), it passed the Commons with a comfortable majority but was defeated in the House of Lords.

Ashley (as he then still was), well-known as an admirer of Jews and Jewish causes, might have been expected to speak in favor of this so-called “Jew Bill.” Yet he was among its most vigorous opponents. Unmoved by Disraeli, who reminded his Christian colleagues that Jews should be admitted because they were “the authors of your religion,” and unpersuaded by the prime minister, Lord Russell, who argued that Christianity should “prevail in private life” but not in public, Ashley insisted that it was precisely in public that Christianity must prevail, else Christianity itself was “altogether needless.” To admit Jews would violate the essential, unalterable Christian character of the state.

It was a passionate speech, and it concluded on an equally passionate note—a tribute to the very Jews whom Ashley was disqualifying from Parliament. He hoped he had not given offense, he said, to

the Hebrew people . . . , the most remarkable nation that had ever yet appeared on the face of the earth . . . , a people of very powerful intellect, of cultivated minds . . . , their literature extended in an unbroken chain from the days of our Lord down to the present time . . . , embracing every subject of science and learning, of secular and religious knowledge . . .

and so on for a discourse on their honorable and distinguished history from antiquity to modernity. Ashley was prepared to make every effort to contribute to “their honor and comfort,” but he could not in good conscience eliminate the vital oath testifying to the Christian nature of the English state.

A decade later, a similar bill was introduced and accepted by both Houses. Rothschild took his seat, wearing a hat and swearing the oath “So help me Jehovah” on a large Hebrew Bible. He served for fifteen years without making a single speech.

To compound this series of “and yets,” Shaftesbury voted for that second bill, explaining in his diary that he did so because he could no longer resist, “pertinaciously and hopelessly,” the will of the Commons. Ten years later, recalling this event, he urged Gladstone, then the prime minister, to show regard for “God’s ancient people” by giving a peerage to Sir Moses Montefiore, “a noble member of the House of Israel.” “It would be a glorious day for the House of Lords when that grand old Hebrew was enrolled on the lists of the hereditary legislators of England.” (Gladstone did not act on that suggestion; Montefiore remained the Sir he had been since his knighthood in 1837.) It is ironic that Shaftesbury should propose to seat Montefiore in the House of Lords, having once denied Rothschild a seat in Commons; but perhaps not altogether ironic—the lords being, at least rhetorically, more exalted, more lordly, than mere commoners.

It may also be ironic if this long-ago episode should confirm today’s Jews in their distrust of evangelicals, preferring instead to see their civil rights defended on the more prosaic, secular grounds of equity and tolerance. Suspecting the motives of evangelical Zionists for whom Israel is allegedly merely a prelude to the Second Coming and the conversion of the Jews, many Jews may also prefer to see Israel defended in terms of the American national interest rather than religious zeal.

Yet secularism itself has its perils, as I think Nicholson would agree, lending itself all too readily to anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. The dismissal or disparagement of religion as an inspiring force, on the part of Jews or Christians, also has the unfortunate and perhaps unintended effect of impoverishing, diminishing, even trivializing the very idea of Jews, Judaism, and the Jewish state.

 __________________________

Gertrude Himmelfarb, the eminent historian of Victorian thought and culture, is the author of, among other books, Victorian Minds, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, Marriage and Morals among the Victorians, and The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot. She is currently preparing a volume of essays on Jews and Judaism by her late husband, Irving Kristol.

More about: Anti-Semitism, Anti-Zionism, Evangelical Christianity, Israel, Lord Ashley

 

A Nation with the Soul of a Church

Why Americans support Israel.

A Nation with the Soul of a Church
Image courtesy Steve DePolo/Flickr.
 
Response
James Nuechterlein
Oct. 23 2013

As a non-evangelical Christian (I am a Lutheran of lower-case catholic sensibilities), I share the evangelical majority’s pro-Israel sympathies, though not, for the most part, their reasons for that sympathy. But that reservation does not diminish my bottom-line agreement with Robert W. Nicholson’s admirable essay. Evangelical Protestants are, all in all, good for the Jews, and Jews committed to Israel should have no problem recognizing the overriding reality that evangelicals, as undoubted friends of Israel, are friends of theirs.

As a Lutheran, I endorse the two-kingdoms understanding of Christian social responsibility. In that view, God rules over all of existence, but does so under different rubrics. The right-hand kingdom of the gospel and salvation is governed by love, while the left-hand kingdom of law and creation is governed by justice. Given the reality of a fallen world indelibly marked, short of the end times, by the stain of original sin, it is neither necessary nor possible, in Lutheran terms, to rule the realm of politics by the gospel. The norms of social justice—available not merely to Christians but to all people of good will—do not rest on theological grounds and do not require theological justification.

In the present instance, one need not depend on biblical prophecy or covenantal theology to find reasons to support the state of Israel. Israel has the only truly democratic political culture in the Middle East. It is a friend of the West in politics and political economy, and, more important, a consistent and unswerving ally of the United States. It is a regional bulwark against the radical Islamists who are its and America’s sworn enemies. The more I see of the populist Arab spring, the stronger is my commitment to Israel. I support Israel not because I am a Christian—though nothing in my Christian beliefs would preclude that support—but because that support coincides with the requirements of justice and the defense of the American national interest. 

All that said, I concede that mine is probably an unrepresentative perspective. (Lutherans are regrettably not the hegemonic force in American life I might wish them to be.) The empirical reality is that America’s is a pervasively religious (and predominantly Christian) culture, and large majorities of its people report that they derive their morality, including their political morality, from their religious beliefs. It is not for nothing that G. K. Chesterton described America as a nation with the soul of a church. For better and for worse, biblical narrative and providential expectations play an outsize role in Protestant—certainly conservative Protestant—understandings of the political order.

Nor, finally, am I myself immune to those influences. The substance of my support for the state of Israel may be free of theological taint, but I suspect that its instinctive and intense nature, its imperative psychological force, finds its roots in my pious childhood immersion in the tales of Abraham and his descendants, in the eternal mystery of God’s election of the Jewish people.

As for Nicholson’s concerns about growing anti-Zionist sentiment among evangelicals, especially young ones, I am guardedly optimistic that it will remain a minority phenomenon. Liberal evangelicalism is nothing new, of course: Jim Wallis and the Sojourner community have been around for a long time. Natural human contrariness aside, the sustaining source of liberal evangelicalism is the sentimentality, regardless of context, to which all liberalism, secular or religious, is inherently prone. (Sentimentality is the abiding temptation of the Left even as callousness is the abiding temptation of the Right.)

Nicholson notes various reasons for liberal evangelical antipathy to Israel, but, in my estimation, Israel’s unforgivable sin for those on the Left is that it is no longer the obvious geopolitical underdog it was at its founding. Since its defeat of mortal enemies in 1967 and 1973, Israel has gradually been transformed in the perception of many from David into Goliath. Liberals, even many pro-Israel liberals, can afford the luxury of indulging anti-Zionist tropes of racism and imperialism because they (quite shortsightedly) do not regard Israel as under existential threat. They prefer not to notice that Israel is surrounded by people who have not reconciled themselves—who will not reconcile themselves—to the existence of the Jewish state. The safer one imagines Israel to be, the easier it is to focus on the grievances of its enemies. (It is because of the Right’s relative immunity to sentimental illusions that Israel will, even in overwhelmingly pro-Israel America, find its most dependable support among conservatives, not liberals.)

The threat to Israel is real, but the threat of anti-Zionism among evangelicals, at least those located outside the Middle East, is marginal. Liberal evangelicalism is not oxymoronic, but it is, I think, self-limiting. Mainstream Protestantism drifted into liberalism and secularism when, without considering the consequences and without erecting effective safeguards, it made way for the corroding influence of modern biblical criticism and finally gave up its transcendent faith for a merely social gospel. But an orthodox biblical worldview anchored in salvation history is so intrinsic to evangelical identity, and so fundamentally antithetical to the higher criticism, that it is hard to see any plausible way in which it could disappear among those who would bother to claim the evangelical label. That orthodox biblical worldview will continue to insist, as Nicholson notes, that God blesses those who bless the children of Abraham.

That blessing ought to work both ways. Jewish Americans, whatever their discomfort with Christian theological perspectives, should learn to say a gracious yes to evangelical overtures of friendship and support. So what if evangelicals hope for their eventual, wholly voluntary conversion? Evangelicals propose not a common understanding of the Almighty’s eternal purposes but a strategic alliance for the defense of Israel. In terms of politics, the great majority of evangelicals ask only for a seat at the table, not for a Christian takeover of the social order. It may seem odd of God to choose such allies, but it seems to me self-evident that Jewish supporters of Israel should ungrudgingly take their friends where they find them.

 ______________________

James Nuechterlein is an editor-at-large at First Things and a senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life. He was formerly professor of American studies and political thought at Valparaiso University.

More about: Anti-Zionism, Evangelical Christianity, Israel, Lutheran

Fervent Friends, or Fickle Ones?

Despite what some of my respondents say, something fundamental is changing inside the evangelical movement, and it bodes ill for Israel.

Fervent Friends, or Fickle Ones?
Publicity poster for the anti-Israel film, With God on Our Side, dir. Porter Speakman Jr., 2009
 
Response
Robert W. Nicholson
Oct. 28 2013

In setting out to write an open letter calling for a strategic partnership between American Jews and evangelicals in support of Israel, I was aware that I was venturing into troubled waters. Though many Jews and Christians recognize the link that binds them, many more, and for many reasons, remain hostile to any prospect of cooperation. I braced myself for an inbox of emails decrying my naiveté or blasting my motives.

What I received instead was a cornucopia of letters from Jews and Christians who welcomed my message, posted thoughtful comments about it on Mosaic and elsewhere, and disseminated the essay widely in social media. I’m enormously grateful to every reader who took the time to participate in this discussion. Indeed, what I’ve seen makes me hopeful that Jewish-Christian relations in the U.S. may be turning a corner.

Most welcome of all were the responses from Elliott Abrams, Wilfred M. McClay, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and James Nuechterlein: four thinkers whom I deeply respect and who endorsed the main substance of my argument while simultaneously highlighting aspects that I either minimized or left out. Elliott Abrams calls for full-scale Jewish-Christian collaboration. Wilfred McClay, riffing on Irving Kristol, stresses our disparate loyalties to “what we were born with” while simultaneously calling on Jews and Christians to contemplate the possibility of a partnership beyond mere pragmatism. Gertrude Himmelfarb uses the fascinating story of the indefatigable 19th-century British Zionist Lord Shaftesbury to underscore the historical roots of American evangelical Zionism but also to raise the concern that maybe, just maybe, inflamed Gentile zeal for Zion is not always good for the Jews. James Nuechterlein points out that Bible-based support for Israel, however admirable, isn’t the only kind of support there is.

Though each response contains enough fodder to justify a longer discussion, here I’ll focus on what I see as the three most important questions raised by my respondents.

 

First: was I right to contend that the support of the pro-Israel evangelical community is not to be taken for granted and is in fact facing erosion from within?

“I would urge caution,” writes Wilfred McClay, “lest one exaggerate the extent or durability of anti-Israel evangelicalism—or, for that matter, the size and influence of the American evangelical Left altogether.” Sharing these doubts, James Nuechterlein sees the threat of evangelical anti-Zionism as “marginal,” and is “guardedly optimistic” that evangelicals will never abandon their biblically orthodox worldview.

In some sense, I agree: evangelical support for Israel is not on the brink of collapse. But I must respectfully, and regretfully, insist that something fundamental is changing inside the evangelical movement, and in a way that bodes ill for its pro-Israel bent.

My concern is not that American evangelicals in their millions will become rabid anti-Israel advocates overnight. My concern is that their focus on biblical doctrine will be gradually displaced by a growing appetite for “social justice,” and that under this banner their once stalwart support for Israel will lapse into mealy-mouthed appeals to objectivity and blandly misleading inferences about “what Jesus would do.” The small cadre of evangelicals who shamelessly tout the Palestinian cause is worrisome; far more worrisome in my view is the growing number of good Christians who have been influenced by this cadre and who now claim to “sympathize equally with both sides.”

The changes in American evangelicalism are traceable to a fundamental crisis within the movement. Finding themselves on the losing side of the culture wars, hemorrhaging their young people at an alarming rate, forced to adjust to an ever more relativistic society, evangelicals are desperate to define their place in 21st-century America. No one has been more affected than those members of the millennial generation who seek to retain their faith while escaping the charge of backwardness and intolerance hurled at them by their peers and by the American cultural establishment. Many respond by reinventing their Christianity to incorporate the trends and motifs of mass culture and embrace the socially approved ideals of pacifism, inclusiveness, non-judgmentalism, and individual autonomy.

Like their non-religious peers, progressive young evangelicals pride themselves on being iconoclastic, opinionated, and skeptical of authority. Raised in the shadow of Afghanistan and Iraq, they are suspicious of power, wealth, and anything connected to “the establishment.” They break from their parents’ sexual traditionalism—a 2013 PRRI/Brookings survey finds young evangelicals more than twice as likely as older Christians to support gay marriage—and announce their dissatisfaction with organized religion. Many are leaving their churches to start new “organic” spiritual communities. They consume an endless stream of modish books by authors like David Platt and Shane Claiborne, hip Christian leaders who preach the abandonment of classical Christianity in favor of radical “missional” lifestyles.

When it comes to Israel, millennial evangelicals may not endorse a fully anti-Zionist worldview, but neither do they embrace a committed pro-Zionist stance. Instead, they more commonly gravitate to the allegedly moderate (and mushy) middle—“not pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli, but pro-peace,” as they often phrase it. In practice, their proclaimed neutrality tends to favor the Palestinian “underdog.” However pure their intentions, these young Christians, heavily influenced by the media and crippled by a profound ignorance of Israel’s situation, call for “Palestinian liberation” from the racist juggernaut of “Israeli imperialism.”

Polling data are less helpful here than simple observation of evangelical churches around the country. But the bottom line is clear: the millennial generation—together with the pastors and youth leaders who will do anything to keep their restless congregants in the pews—is dragging evangelicalism farther and farther to the liberal Left.

In this connection, James Nuechterlein makes a critical point that deserves repeating:

Since its defeat of mortal enemies in 1967 and 1973, Israel has gradually been transformed in the perception of many from David into Goliath. Liberals, even many pro-Israel liberals, can afford the luxury of indulging anti-Zionist tropes of racism and imperialism because they (quite shortsightedly) do not regard Israel as under existential threat.

Bear in mind that evangelical Christianity is uncomfortable with power to begin with. Jesus preached a message that favored the poor over the powerful, the meek over the mighty. Many young evangelicals have taken this inherent aversion to power and amalgamated it to their own anti-establishment worldview, making the very idea of supporting a strong state like Israel anathema to their conscience. Such a state can’t possibly be in the right—especially when it’s aligned with an imperialistic power like the U.S.

The problem is compounded by faulty assumptions and blatant misinformation. Young Christians simply don’t understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and don’t know the history. Israel, in their mind, is an open-air prison where the Palestinians are forced to eat only so many calories a day and where nonviolent activists are regularly crushed under tank treads while Israeli soldiers stand by and shrug. In the reasoning of progressive evangelicals, all the world’s problems are caused by unrest in the Middle East—which is caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—which is caused by Israeli oppression—which is caused by American foreign policy—which is driven (and here is the key contribution of the progressive evangelical worldview to the standard Left worldview) by the fanatical lobbying of conservative American Christians who support Israel based on a belief in God’s covenant with the Jewish people.

Do all young evangelicals see the world this way? Of course not. But  many do, and they are making converts. Will they call for an imminent destruction of Israel? No—but they may, and already do, call for a one-state solution, for cramming “peace” down Israel’s throat, and for weakening the historic tie that binds America and the Jewish state.

In brief: while I agree with McClay and Nuechterlein that the majority of evangelicals still support Israel, I contend that the future is not so certain. Until young (and old) evangelicals learn the reality of Israel’s situation and their leaders bring them back to the fundamental doctrines of their faith, the course of Christian Zionism is far from settled.

    

Second: is Christian Zionism a potential threat to the well-being of Jews in this country?

Clearly, many Jews think so. Are they right, and do I have it all backward? Has the rise of a more biblically-minded evangelical church in America spelled not good for the Jews but evil? Who’s to say that philo-Semitic evangelicals won’t eventually turn their Bibles on the Jews who live with them in non-Jewish America? This is the important concern raised, albeit indirectly, by Gertrude Himmelfarb’s recounting of the story of Lord Ashley, Earl of Shaftesbury.

Himmelfarb tells about Ashley’s tireless work on behalf of the world Jewish community and his seemingly impossible dream of creating a new Jewish homeland in the land of Israel. But she also cites an episode at home in which this committed philo-Semite opposed a bill that would have given English Jews the right to sit in Parliament—one of the most basic rights that any citizen in a modern state should enjoy. Himmelfarb makes her point discreetly but effectively: when does the holy zeal that fuels Christian Zionism turn ugly?

The Ashley episode should give every American evangelical pause. Many are so fervent in their faith, and in their desire to live in a moral society, that they forget their spiritual heritage is not the only one here. They forget that evangelicalism forbids imposing religious obligations or rituals on those outside the faith; that it was built on church-state separation; and that the intermingling of religion and politics is abhorrent to historic evangelical sensibilities. In doing so, they scare Jews half to death and give evangelical Christianity a bad name.

Having said that, I should add that I don’t know a single person in my community who would want America to become a theocracy. “In terms of politics,” James Nuechterlein writes, “the great majority of evangelicals ask only for a seat at the table, not for a Christian takeover of the social order.” And yet, having said that, I should add that it is incumbent on today’s evangelical Christians to articulate clearly what they mean, and especially what they don’t mean, when they say they want American laws to reflect traditional views of life, family, and marriage.

Which raises a deeper point. In my essay I stressed the fact that so many Jews are ignorant of evangelicals and evangelical culture. I also touched—but insufficiently—on the degree to which just as many evangelicals are at least as ignorant of Jews and Jewish culture. True, Jews constitute a mere 2 percent of the population and are concentrated in certain regions of the country; but this ignorance is a stark blemish on the evangelical cause. Claiming to be pro-Israel abroad without showing ourselves to be pro-Jewish at home is more than just unfeeling; it’s downright contradictory.   

 

Third: would it be better for evangelicals to downplay the biblical element in their support of Israel and focus instead on the more widely accepted criteria of American geopolitical interests and liberal democratic values?

Putting aside all talk about biblical literalism and prophecy and divine covenants, one may rightly ask—as Himmelfarb and Nuechterlein do—whether religion is really necessary to maintain a supportive view of modern Israel. “Jews may . . . prefer to see Israel defended in terms of the American national interest rather than religious zeal,” Himmelfarb suggests, while Nuechterlein, speaking for his “lower-case catholic” brand of Lutheranism, writes:

[O]ne need not depend on biblical prophecy or covenantal theology to find reasons to support the state of Israel. Israel has the only truly democratic political culture in the Middle East. It is a friend of the West in politics and political economy, and, more important, a consistent and unswerving ally of the United States. It is a regional bulwark against the radical Islamists who are its and America’s sworn enemies. . . . I support Israel not because I am a Christian—though nothing in my Christian beliefs would preclude that support—but because that support coincides with the requirements of justice and the defense of the American national interest. 

It’s a suggestion that should be taken seriously. Rather than scaring Jews, alienating non-believers, and encouraging all kinds of theological strife, should American evangelicals consider abandoning or at least toning down their religious rhetoric and shift their support for Israel to a more pragmatic basis?

Of course, Nuechterlein is right: one doesn’t need biblical prophecy in order to support the state of Israel. There are abundant political and cultural reasons for doing so, and many non-religious Americans support Israel for these very reasons. However, I would argue that these reasons are both less compelling and more mutable, and ultimately even reversible.

Pragmatic considerations are in the end about utility. They require constant proof that Israel really is good for America’s interests by marshaling a host of facts—all of which can be contested by those on the other side—and demonstrating objectively that such support will benefit America in the long run. It doesn’t take much imagination to conceive of a day when the American people—or, more pertinently, an American administration—will decide that the evidence is no longer convincing or that other, more pressing interests take precedence.

Pragmatic support is good and necessary, especially if it’s all you have. But is it sufficient? Like it or hate it, the strongest support for Israel will always come from those who take their position based on deep feelings of consanguinity. For a variety of reasons, the vast majority of Americans share these feelings. In the case of evangelicals, they are reinforced a thousandfold by belief in a transcendent God who preserves His covenanted people and works out a cosmic plan to reconcile them, and all the world, to His divine purpose. Evangelical Christians who support the Jewish state because they believe God has a divine plan for the Jewish people not only make their support a top priority but will be the last to give it up.

 

In many ways, it’s the ultimate irony. Some of the Jewish people’s most fervent friends in the world are those most committed to their Christian faith. At the same time, some of the Jewish people’s most fickle friends, not to put it more strongly, are those hostile to that faith or (as in the case of many young evangelicals) in the process of shedding or rewriting its core beliefs. Meanwhile, large numbers of Jews themselves remain loath to surrender their aversion to evangelicalism and evangelicals.

And yet, thanks to what I have discovered since writing my essay, I feel more sanguine than ever that many Jews—perhaps many more than I ever thought—are ready to reach across the aisle and join hands in the common cause of supporting and defending the world’s only Jewish state. In his own response, Elliott Abrams, while admittedly less sanguine than I on this point, nevertheless very constructively outlines a number of initiatives by means of which the Jewish community as a whole or particular Jewish organizations could “help reinforce and sustain the still powerful pro-Israel activism of millions of evangelical Christians.” As my Jewish friends like to say, from his mouth to God’s ear. 

__________________

Robert W. Nicholson, a researcher in the areas of law, religion, and Jewish-Christian relations, holds degrees in Hebrew studies and history as well as a JD from Syracuse University. A former U.S. Marine and a 2012-2013 Tikvah Fellow, he has published in, among other places, Jewish Ideas Daily, the Jerusalem Post, and the Times of Israel

More about: Christian Zionism, Evangelical Christianity, Israel, Lord Ashley, Palestine