Evangelicals, the millennial generation and Israel

In the past week, several articles in multiple publications have made the claim that Evangelical Christian support for Israel is waning among members of the “millennial” generation.

A man stands next to a cross in South Bend, Indiana. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man stands next to a cross in South Bend, Indiana.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the past week, several articles in multiple publications have made the claim that Evangelical Christian support for Israel is waning among members of the “millennial” generation. Haaretz published an article by Nathan Guttman entitled “Israel is losing its grip on evangelical Christians?”; and The Middle East Quarterly published an article by David Brog, executive director of Christians United For Israel, entitled “The End of Evangelical Support For Israel?” There is some valuable information in these articles concerning some organizations that are seeking to sway the American public, specifically Evangelical Christians, against the strong relationship of friendship and alliance that exists between the US and Israel.
In the end, most of the publications articulate a fear that the millennial generation of Evangelical Christians is “turning away” from staunch support for Israel toward a more “balanced,” in effect, pro-Palestinian position. The writers’ justified sense of alarm is derived in part from the highly visible work that a few evangelical and other Christian detractors of Israel are doing in the US and on college campuses.
There can be no doubt that Israel’s adversaries in Christian denominations are pouring money and organizational assets into the task of influencing the millennial generation so that the future of evangelicals’ relations with Israel (for perhaps their present relations are already good) may be changed in favor of the Palestinian cause. Polling data shows that American support for Israel is substantial, but not among Americans of college age (18-30 year-olds, namely, millennials). Perhaps Israel’s detractors in the evangelical community believe that by waiting and investing in that generation of very young adults they will eventually be able to effect tectonic shifts in favor of the pro-Palestinian cause in America.
As a strong supporter of the US-Israel relationship, I concur with various observers that the future of that relationship is in some danger. However, I can say that recent depictions and discussions of young evangelicals’ attitude toward Israel are categorically wrong, for they are based on a misunderstanding of that group. I am a millennial Evangelical Christian who counts, with more than five years of experience (as a student and professionally) working directly with students, faculty and staff at various college and university campuses in the United States. As Western Region Campus Organizer for Christians United For Israel from 2010-2013, I worked with hundreds of students, and organized and hosted hundreds of campus-based, pro-Israel (not anti-Palestinian) events. Hence, my objection to the alarming claim that evangelical millennials are turning away from a traditional support for Israel is very simple: The fact is, there is very little such “turning away.”
Evangelical millennials are, by and large, not being convinced that their former views of Israel are wrong, and that a closer look at Palestinian pleas, or at a carefully crafted pro-Palestinian narrative, will reveal the “real” path to Christian righteousness in the Middle East. Indeed, millennials hardly discuss Israel at all, let alone engage in theological quarrels that might impose on this or that Christian interpretation of Israel. Most millennials simply do not know their Scriptures well enough to argue about international politics on the basis of theology. The writers’ concerns regarding the ethical and political mindset of Christian millennials are well placed, but incorrectly focused and oblivious to a deeper problem of spiritual and ethical formation among millennials as a group.
The enemy in this case is not Israel’s detractors but ignorance among millennials. The problem is that parents and guardians too often impart no explicit values to their children at all. A typical millennial has been raised by an overstretched single parent or in a home where both parents work. This does not imply a moral handicap, but the fact remains that the social consciousness of these young men and women has been significantly informed by the narcissistic and exhibitionist values of the Kardashians, American Idol, and Lady Gaga. The upshot is that there is a major, perhaps unprecedented disjuncture between youth culture and the values of previous generations.
For instance, February 2014 Gallop Poll data shows that while about 70 percent of Americans support a strong US-Israel relationship, only about 30% of American students do so. A Pew Research forum on “Religion Among Millennials” from February 2010 shows that millennials from Christian families are far less likely than their predecessors to be associated with any Christian denomination, let alone the one in which their parents or guardians raised them. A full 25% of all students have no religious affiliation, period. Millennials are far more accepting of other Evangelical “no-nos” like homosexuality, drug use and sexual promiscuity than their elders. At the same time, few millennials attend religious services, read the Bible, pray and/or meditate.
Another poll just released by PEW also shows that 61% of College Republicans (the political party with which the Evangelical Right largely identifies) support gay marriage.
Clearly, then, there is a gap between the values of the millennial generation and those of its predecessors. On the political plane, one of the most glaring gaps concerns Americans’ deep-rooted support for Israel.
The values gap is not evident only among Evangelical Christians. It is endemic to American society. Too often, children are left to raise themselves with no authoritative guidance from their parents. It is safe to say that an ethical culture worthy of the noblest aspects of our country and its history has not been consciously and systematically passed down to many members of my generation, Christian or not. A rabbi lamented to me recently that young Jewish adults in the United States are neither attending synagogues, nor learning Hebrew, nor studying Jewish history, and consequently lack the most basic appreciation of their Jewish heritage – to the point that they may lose that heritage altogether. Two Jewish acquaintances of mine, the Israel Fellow (a young Israeli sent to the US to help dispense Israel education) at a particular university, and the executive director of the university’s Hillel house, have independently seconded that grim assessment.
I do not pretend to speak for the Jewish community at all, but it seems to me that American Christians and American Jews are facing similar generational conundra. Increasingly, entertainment outlets and social media are commanding the attention of millennials, and not the values that their elders, for whatever reasons, failed to instill.
Suffice it to say that most college and university students are going to school with no real attachment to or antipathy toward Israel. My experience tells me they have no preconceived notions whatsoever. Students are not “turning away” from Evangelical values regarding Israel or any other subject. Most students do not know or harbor these values to begin with. When I worked for CUFI, my colleagues and I would base our efforts on the assumption that, to quote our operational refrain, “students are a blank slate, and whoever reaches them first wins the prize.” The battle for Israel on US colleges and universities is about who gets there first.
The campus division of Christians United For Israel proves this point. The very small staff of activists who form part of this division have catalyzed and experienced the tremendous growth of CUFI chapters in college and university campuses within a very short period of time.
New recruits have come from the ranks of the young population here discussed. Yes, the future may be shaky in the sense that the future growth of Christian support for Israel in the United States is by no means guaranteed, but all is not lost, not by a long shot.
CUFI took upon itself to fill the “values gap” among Evangelical Christians as concerns the State of Israel. Support for Israel is a core ethical-political value in America, one that the supporters have too often failed to instill in younger generations. Grassroots education is thus CUFI’s main agenda. I know from personal experience that CUFI is changing young minds. CUFI is not reminding many young Christians of the story of Israel as much as it is telling them the story of Israel for the first time. In that sense, CUFI is preserving a relationship between two societies that is based on moral and political traditions that run very deep.
The author is the former western region campus organizer for Christians United For Israel. He studied Near Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona.Special Thanks to Dr. David Graizbord.