Mosaic Magazine

Response to: "Evangelicals and Israel"October 2013

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?

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


  • Yair

    Again, very Interesting.
    It seems to me that what is more important is to create a direct relationship between Israelis and Evangelicals. Why use the American Jews as middlemen? From the looks of it, in the Pew stats and all, many young American Jews will probably stop supporting Israel soon, because their Jewish identity is fading into something that lacks any tribal element. Making a direct relationship with us Israelis seems more important on the long run.
    I can imagine that debates between pro-Israel evangelicals and anti-Israel progressive American Jews are on the way if not already happening. So why do evangelicals need this mess? We Israelis should try and keep our relationship with American Jews for as long as possible. But evangelicals should be a part of a separate relationship, that would be able to remain unaffected by the decline of American Jewish support.

  • Danny

    Thank you Robert Nicholson, for your sincere friendship with the Jewish people, and your intelligent writing on Jewish-related topics. I would like to second those appreciative emails that you received in saying that your good will and that of many of your fellow Christians (and evangelicals especially) has not gone unnoticed.

  • Jonathan Freund

    Thank you for this fine analysis, Robert. While the film “With God on Our Side” was not treated in the article itself, its use in the headline leads me to share resources that I helped develop for responding to the film, from both a Jewish and Evangelical perspective. Our hope was for this type of respectful but forceful (and factual) response to serve as a model for engaging in the broader debate, beyond this particular film. Please feel free to use and distribute:

  • Beatrix17

    In 1964, Arafat, an Egyptian of Palestinian descent took over leadership of the Palestinians and because it was the 1960s, he used the rhetoric of the time: racist,apartheid, ethnic cleansing. Today, 50 years later, the Palestinians are still using these terms, which are still attracting leftists.

    These words never applied to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which consisted of two people fighting over a piece of land the size of New Jersey, but with these words, people born too late to participate in fighting for racial equality, and opposing South Africa, can still feel a part of something more important than supporting a Palestinian people who went to war, lost their land, and now won’t accept it back from the victors without numerous pre-conditions.

    The advantage of being religious is that you can tell the difference between G-d’s word and Arafat’s word.

    • Rosalie Dann

      From all I read there never was a ‘Palestinian People’. They are Arabs, the same as any other nation surrounding Israel. it seems that is the equivalent of calling someone a New Yorkian or speaking of the New Yorkian culture. My understanding is that there is no Palestinian culture or language as such – it is an Arab culture and their language is an Arabic one as well I guess.

    • Beatrix17

      After the Bar Kokhba rebellion in 132 AD, Rome, which had taken over Israel changed Israel’s name to Palestine. There was an Arab military incursion in the 600s, and eventually Arabs moved to Palestine (Israel) too. Palestine was a territory ruled by the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the English Empire. In 1948, the UN divided Palestine between the Palestinian Jews, which became Israel, and the Palestinian Arabs. The Arabs went to war, lost to Israel, Jordan and Egypt. In 1967, the Israelis beat Jordan and Egypt in war, and took the West Bank and Gaza Strip from them and is now offering it back to the Palestinians for a homeland. If they agree, this will be the first time there has
      ever been a Palestinian nation.

  • Lucy S.

    Tune in to TBN, the big Evangelical TV channel. Years ago it was very pro-Israel. Now it is full of Palestinian Christians maligning Israel, with the American network staff nodding their heads in agreement. Things certainly are changing and it’s scary.

    • Kavod And Kaved

      It’s called a reality check. They aren’t fun, but they’re better than “Rock Bottom”, which is what Israel is going to hit if it persists in ignoring them.

  • Daniel

    I have been thinking about the need for deeper appreciation of, and friendship with, the evangelical community for years. Toward Tradition had written about it, so a few years back I sponsored some ads in Jewish newspapers running the essay. I also try to mock the ADL’s reflexive anti-evangelism at any print opportunity. Any other practical ideas of what ordinary Jewish folk like us can do are welcome.

  • NCTroy

    If you’d like to know why so many American Jews find Christian evangelicals so distasteful, its’ because we’ve had bad experiences with them and have learned to distrust their interest and concern in Israel. What you are essentially advocating is trusting them because you feel we need them. Having had a number of experiences with evangelicals, I can truthfully say they do not have the interests of Jews or Israel at their heart. The changes you see happening are an offshoot of the idea that Jews are to be used for our alleged role in their end times, and concern about the Mid-East situation. In both views is the idea that Jews are somehow either less desirable, or are there to be used by Christians. Why do I feel this way? Because I have had evangelicals come up and tell me I will burn in hell if I don’t accept Jesus. Evangelism is all about converting people to Christianity—everything they do plays into that goal.

    Secondly, I am a liberal. My family has supported the state of Israel since it’s inception. But turning a blind eye to the volatile situation, and thinking only the Palestinians are to blame for the problem is naive or more like, politically blind. I know plenty of liberal Jews who do support Israel but that does not mean we think Israel does everything right. The truth is, it takes to to tango—and the sooner we admit that, the better off all of us will be. Israel is the U.S.’s greatest ally in the Middle East. And if you are truly concerned with losing the support of American Jews, the Christian evangelical community is the last place you should turn; instead, find a better way to reach out to the American Jewish community. Here’s a hint—if someone offers a criticism of Israel, don’t go off and tell them they are anti-Semitic, self-hating Jews. Every Jew has a vested interest in keeping Israel safe. That doesn’t mean we should keep our eyes or our mouths closed when she does something wrong. And admit it—she has. Many times.

    The distrust I feel for the evangelical and fundamentalist communities stems from what I see them doing here in the States. There is a concerted effort to move into government and impose their religious beliefs on the country. Just look at the response to gay rights, and the over 600 pieces of restrictive legislation aimed at women. Legislating prayer in schools, and putting “in G-d We Trust” in auditoriums, trying to oust people wearing shorts from riding bikes through their neighborhoods (yes, we have Jewish fundamentalists). So what would make you actually believe that evangelicals, for all their vaunted love of Israel, actually have our best interests at heart? They don’t. They want to use us. That said, I by no means think most Christians are the same way. What I dislike is extremism.

    Overall, I was taken aback by the very complicated argument you try to make regarding this issue. At times you seem to bend over backwards. I get the feeling you speak as an academic, not as someone who deals with this in everyday life. I wont regale you with all my tales, but let me know when and if you ever get a real dose of evangelical anti-Semitism. It isn’t pretty. It’s stomach turning and frightening. Your whole argument is underlined (even undermined) by your religious bent. You seem to think secular or less religious Jews don’t care. Wrong. We do. But what are we to think when you write a mess of an article like this reaching out to evangelicals and basically blowing us off. The support of evangelical Christians? It’s a trojan horse.

    • Jack Harper

      NCTroy, thanks for your thoughtful response to the author. As a Christian I’m beginning to realize both extremes of the issue and as I might point out some of their flaws, the personal attacks are very heated. I guess each of us has to take a stand in what we know to be true in spite of the negative consequences. My personal bent is to see Jews and Palestinians come to faith in Jesus: without having to support one side over the other. That said it’s hard not to see the human violations:predominately on the Israeli side . There is a small contingency of Israeli and Palestinians that are trying to work together, but at this point not very effective. Blessings to you and thanks for sharing your personal insight…Jack


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