Is Evangelical support for Israel really unequivocal? - opinion

Evangelical Christian Zionism and support for Israel is a multi-layered phenomenon that cannot be taken for granted.

 FORMER AMBASSADOR to Washington Ron Dermer suggested that Israel should prioritize the support of Evangelical Christians over that of American Jews (photo credit: REUTERS/MIKE SEGAR)
FORMER AMBASSADOR to Washington Ron Dermer suggested that Israel should prioritize the support of Evangelical Christians over that of American Jews
(photo credit: REUTERS/MIKE SEGAR)

A year ago, in a widely reported statement, Israel’s former ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer suggested that Israel should prioritize the support of Evangelical Christians over that of American Jews “who are disproportionately among [Israel’s] critics.” Dermer characterized Evangelical support as “passionate and unequivocal.” But the degree to which Evangelical support is in fact unequivocal and rock solid is increasingly open to question.

A new survey commissioned by the University of North Carolina found that support for Israel among young Evangelicals dropped from 75% in 2018 to 34% in 2021. This drop was part of an even longer-term trend that had started as early as 2015 according to an earlier University of Maryland study. Furthermore, certain positions of the World Evangelical Alliance, which comprises Evangelical churches from across the globe, would be considered by most Israelis to be anti-Israel.

I suggest that many observers, including politicians, do not fully understand the nature of the Christian relationship to Jews and Israel. Their view of this issue tends to be colored by stereotypes and prejudices commonly applied to religious groups. Such populations, especially those labelled fundamentalist, are commonly regarded by educated, secular people as irrational, rigid and dogmatic, who cannot be swayed either by empirical evidence or rational argument. Evangelical support for Israel is considered unequivocal, sustained precisely because it is thought to rest upon these dogmatic and irrational foundations.

The drop off in support among younger American Evangelicals, as well as in the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), shows that this understanding of Evangelical support for Israel is mistaken. If we wish to sustain Evangelical support, we need to offer a different, more adequate conceptualization of this support. Upon this basis, we can formulate more adequate policies.

SUPPORTERS OF Israel at a parade in New York City in 2005. Fourteen years later, how have things changed? (credit: REUTERS)SUPPORTERS OF Israel at a parade in New York City in 2005. Fourteen years later, how have things changed? (credit: REUTERS)

The basis of both Christian support and Christian anti-Israel attitudes is the essentially ambivalent relationship that Judaism and Christianity have with each other. This ambivalence permeates everyone and everybody: the antisemites, opponents of Israel, pro-Jewish and pro-Israel groups.

This ambivalence comes from the fact that Christianity is rooted in Judaism and without Judaism there would be no Christianity, and at the same time, Christianity supplants Judaism and fulfills it. It is fundamentally attached to Judaism and yet, it competes with Judaism. As a result of this ambivalence, any position taken by Christians vis-a-vis Jews and the state of Israel is inherently unstable.

BEYOND THIS inherently ambivalent and unstable foundation, Evangelical support for Israel is far from monolithic. It can be divided into at least two groups: those whose support rests primarily upon popular End of Days narratives, which are largely conveyed through Christian popular culture; and those whose support rests upon a fundamental re-thinking of the Christian relationship to Jews. The support of the former is soft, while support of the latter, the minority, seems more steadfast.

The soft position rests upon the narrative of premillennial dispensationalism, which assigns the Jews an important role in the Christian narratives of the End of Days and the Second Coming (of Jesus). As part of this eschatological drama, the Jews return to their ancient homeland but most convert to Christianity or are killed.

This narrative accepts the traditional Christian attitude toward the Jews that has characterized most of the Christian world for many centuries: the Jews rejected Christ and hence they lost God’s blessing which now belongs to Christ and his Church. Some Jews will regain it by accepting Christ at the End of Days. Though a 19th century invention, the premillennial dispensationalism narrative has wide currency in Evangelical popular culture, forming the basis of novels, movies and television shows.

Thus many Evangelicals support Israel and Zionism as part of the familiar End of Days narrative. This support is also congruent with other socially conservative values, such as nationalism. However, this support does not rest upon Christian fundamental beliefs. When confronted with compelling alternative narratives, such as the Palestinian one, it could be abandoned.

In such a situation, the anti-Israel Evangelicals will re-interpret the Christian position on Israel. Jews and Israel could easily slip back into a negative role given the traditionally negative view of Jews as having rejected Jesus. Such a shift in position seems to be occurring among younger Evangelicals, as well as in the WEA.

At the same time, there is a level of Evangelical support for Israel and the Jewish people that does involve a rethinking of Christian fundamental attitudes toward Jews. This level is represented by a number of Evangelical organizations dedicated to supporting Israel, such as the Eagles Wings Ministry and Christians United for Israel. These organizations and their members tend to negate what they call replacement theology, the tenet that the Jewish people have been replaced by the Church as Israel and the recipients of God’s blessing.

They hold that the Jews, “Israel in the flesh,” are still the chosen people and the recipients of God’s blessing, such that the promise that Abraham received “I will bless those that bless you” still refers to the Jewish people and Israel. Such organizations say that they are not concerned with the conversion of the Jews to Christianity. They argue that support for Israel is God’s will regardless of whether Jews convert to Christianity.

This represents a significant change in fundamental Christian theology. It is quite likely that the commitment of these organizations to support for Israel is deeper and more steadfast than the widespread soft Evangelical support for Israel. From a theological point of view, these groups probably represent a minority of Evangelicals.

Evangelical Christian Zionism and support for Israel is a multi-layered phenomenon. Separating out the various layers is crucial for effective policy. Evangelical support for Israel cannot be taken for granted, and must be cultivated and nurtured.

The writer is a sociologist and a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) in Jerusalem.