A new survey has found declining levels of support for Israel among younger evangelicals. Fifty-eight percent of those ages 18 to 34 have a positive view of Israel, compared with around 70% of those over 50. The trend is similar to the challenge Israel faces in reaching out to millennials in general, say Israelis who work with evangelical supporters.
“If you extrapolate that, in 10 years you have a crisis, but now we have a challenge,” said Joel C. Rosenberg, The New York Times best-selling author who co-sponsored the survey with Chosen People Ministries. The survey was conducted by LifeWay Research among 2,002 respondents in September 2017.
“It began because dozens of scholars I kept speaking to said millennials are turning against Israel,” recalled Rosenberg. He said that the respondents had to go beyond just self-identifying as evangelicals but answer strongly in favor of four statements that define evangelicals, according to the National Association of Evangelicals statement of faith. This provides added weight in the accuracy of the survey.
“The good news is that millennials have not turned against Israel but they have high numbers of undecideds,” added Rosenberg.
Although overall, 67% have a positive view of Israel, fully 30% of those 18 to 34 are “not sure” about whether their perceptions are positive.
Among other indicators of support, 69% think the Jewish people has a “right to the land of Israel.” However, that is tempered by the fact that 41% think the land should be shared and 19% who think Palestinians have a historic right to the land.
Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai, a member of the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus, said that evangelicals are one of the most supportive communities in the US, and include some 30 million members. “They express their support for Israel in many ways, both encouraging the government to take pro-Israel positions and by raising money for Israel and by visiting the country.”
He said another recent survey the Foreign Ministry presented to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee “showed that support for Israel is growing and that it reached 70% among all Americans.” However, he added that Israel should spend more energy and effort to work with the younger generation. Specifically regarding young evangelicals, “it is a challenge we cannot afford to lose such a significant power in the US.”
A reduction in support would have far-reaching consequences. One impact might be in Congress, where Israel has enjoyed rare bipartisan consensus. A January 2017 vote condemning the 2016 UN anti-settlement resolution passed 342 to 80. Fifty-five percent of the US Congress defines itself as Protestant and 31% as Catholic, according to a Pew Survey of the 115th Congress.
Since the 1960s, evangelical Christians have emerged as a pro-Israel bedrock in the US and elsewhere.
“Evangelical and Christian support for Israel across all demographics is higher than ever before. This is evident in the unprecedented support we are receiving from Christian countries around the world,” said Knesset Christian Allies Caucus director Josh Reinstein. “The reason we are losing support from the younger generations is because they are a lot less religious than their parents and in some cases completely secular.”
Brian Schrauger, editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Journal and its online Chaim Report, said he has seen this phenomenon in his years of work with evangelicals.
A graduate of the Dallas Theological Seminary, Schrauger recalled the “huge fervor” among evangelicals after the 1967 Six Day War. That generation saw theology portents in the developments, including talk of the Second Coming and end-times prophecy, he said.
“Nowadays people support Israel because the Bible says the land belongs to the Jews and they are not quite so motivated by the end-times teaching.”
Younger people are less familiar with the Bible and increasingly moved by social justice concepts. That means they are easy targets for pro-Palestinian narratives. “Because that is appealing to their essential sensibility and that is winning over a lot of evangelical millennials.” He also said that because many young evangelical millennials still generally believe what the Bible teaches, Pro-Palestinian Christians at places like Bethlehem Bible College or the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference, have sought to provide them scripture that negates the Jewish right to the land.
Schrauger said that while the overall number of evangelicals is not declining, the movement is maturing and becoming closer to mainstream Protestant churches, which tend to be more critical of Israel.
David Ha’Ivri, an independent strategist who has worked closely with Christian Zionists for years, said the movement is challenged with being interesting and exciting for the younger generation.
“Another factor is that within the movement there are all kinds of evangelicals who are pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian,” he said.
He noted that many families struggle to pass on their values to the next generation, using techniques like home schooling. “They bring them to Israel and are connected to remembering the Holocaust and the historical injustice done by Christians to Jews.”
Ha’Ivri wonders whether the findings of the current survey would have been similar 20 years ago, simply because younger people tend to change as they mature.
“The good news is that millennials have not turned against Israel,” said Rosenberg. “In 10 years you have a crisis if you extrapolate [the data] but now we have a challenge.”
He argued that it’s important to acknowledge this “backbone” of support in the US at a time when more liberal Democrats are turning away. “If a young generation of Christians grow up into full voting mode and they are not with us, that is a huge problem.”
He sees some of caring for Palestinians and belief in sharing the land as a positive sign. “Seventy-three percent think Christians can do a better job protecting Palestinians, and that gives them a sense of identification with brothers and sisters,” he said. “This means they could find a way to be peacemakers.”