Evangelical Christians flock to Republicans over support for Israel

Chris McGreal

The Guardian  /  Mach 6, 2023

Powerful voting bloc looking to back pro-Israel politicians in hopes of dictating policy that fits their theological views.

When Israel’s former ambassador to the US said his country should worry less about what American Jews think and concentrate on Christian evangelicals as the “backbone” of support for the Jewish state, he had in mind the Texas megachurch pastor John Hagee.

Hagee founded Christians United for Israel (CUFI), a group that claims 11 million members, who have had a significant influence on Republican party politics and in hardening Washington’s already strong support for Israel.

President Donald Trump made no secret of his desire to keep Hagee and Christian Zionist voters happy as a key part of his base by abandoning even the pretense that the US was a neutral player in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Former South Carolina governor and current White House hopeful Nikki Haley recognized Hagee’s power within the most important religious bloc of Republican voters and their influence over political priorities, from anti-abortion laws to Israel policy, when she invited him to give the invocation at her presidential campaign launch last month.

“Pastor Hagee, I still say I want to be you when I grow up,” she enthused.

Left largely unmentioned by Haley and Hagee’s Israeli allies were his antisemitic views, including calling Hitler a “half-breed Jew” who was sent by God to drive the Jewish people to Israel. He has also suggested that Jews brought centuries of persecution on themselves by disobeying God.

None of that discouraged Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, from addressing a CUFI summit in Washington in 2019.

“Pastor Hagee, I want to thank you for your enduring, tremendous support. For decades you’ve been leading the effort to strengthen support for Israel from within the Christian community,” he said.

Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, was not alone in his view about the significance of Christian evangelical support as American Jews have grown increasingly critical of Israel’s drift ever further to the right.

Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, said that evangelical Christians “support Israel with much greater fervour and devotion than many in the Jewish community”. Christian Zionists also overwhelmingly vote Republican whereas polls show that most American Jews do not.

The result of that support, and its impact on Republican primary elections in particular, can be seen in major policy shifts including Trump’s decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a political statement Christian Zionists spent years agitating for. Hagee gave a benediction at the opening in 2018.

But it also plays out in local politics, including the proliferation of state laws to punish support for the Palestinian movement to boycott Israel and in obliging Republican primary candidates to pledge their unwavering support for the Jewish state.

The number of white evangelical Christians is in decline, falling from about a quarter of Americans in 2006 to 14% today. But even as their numbers fall, they remain the most politically influential of religious blocs.

Debra Shushan, policy director of J Street, a group founded to promote “pro-Israel, pro-peace” policies that opinion polls show are backed by a majority of American Jews, said that influence has distorted US policy toward Israel.

“Christian Zionism, particularly of the variety that has become predominant among American evangelical Christians in recent decades, which sees Jewish control and settlement in the entire land of Israel as a requirement for fulfilling their end-times prophecies, has been extremely detrimental to US politics, and US policy toward Israel,” she said.

“If you compare evangelical Christians in terms of their numbers to Jewish Americans, you can see why evangelical Christians and Christian Zionists as a group are able to have an enormous impact, especially when their support is disproportionately in favour of one political party. An organization like CUFI now claims over 11 million members. Just to put that in perspective, CUFI has more members than there are Jews in America.”

Daniel Hummel, the author of Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, and US-Israeli relations, said evangelical support for Israel is principally grounded in two differing theological arguments.

The better known is rooted in apocalyptic interpretations of the bible and the role of Israel in the second coming of Jesus and the “end times”. Hummel said a key part of that is a uniquely American theological tradition known as dispensationalism.

“At its centre is a teaching that God still has a lot of prophecy to fulfil through the Jewish people and through the state of Israel,” he said.

“That’s one particular strand that will often be shown by evangelicals talking about happenings in the Middle East in an apocalyptic way and being excited. Some of them even think they can help shape events on the ground that will lead to certain prophecies being fulfilled.”

But Hummel said that a second strand of Christian Zionism has moved to the fore in recent years, in which evangelicals draw on a verse from the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis.

“They take very literally where God says to Abraham, ‘I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse’. They see Abraham as a stand-in for the Jewish people, and so their reading of that passage is that the way to accrue blessings from God is to bless the Jewish people. They interpret that to mean support for the state of Israel,” he said.

“You see pastors talking about individual people being blessed if they support Israel, whether that’s voting for politicians that say they support Israel, or actually giving money to Israel or touring Israel, which is contributing to the economy. I also see this on a national level. You see a lot of rhetoric around the decline of American society or declining American power abroad being tied to insufficient support for Israel or consideration of Israel’s interests.”

Hummel noted that the ‘blessings’ strand of belief is particularly popular among Pentecostals, and they dominate the leadership of CUFI and other Christian Zionist groups that lobby in Washington.

“That’s a change. If you go back to people like Jerry Falwell in the 1980s and 90s, he was a very big supporter of Israel. He was not Pentecostal. He was a fundamentalist Baptist who was very skeptical about that particular reading – the ‘blessing’ [of] Israel,” he said.

“Hagee is a Pentecostal preacher who has made the ‘apocalyptic’ argument for supporting Israel, but more commonly relies on the ’blessing’ interpretation in framing problems in American society around the need for a foreign policy that opposes Israel’s enemies, such as Iran.”

About 80% of evangelicals twice voted for Trump for president even though he previously had not shown any great interest in the Jewish state, and has made antisemitic statements stereotyping Jewish power and money. But Trump understood the politics, and so did evangelicals among his leading officials.

Former vice-president Mike Pence is an evangelical who once suggested that God sent Trump to save Israel. Trump’s top diplomat, Mike Pompeo, overturned longstanding legal advice that declared Israel’s settlements in the West Bank unlawful and then became the first US secretary of state to visit one of them.

Last month, Pompeo defended Israel’s decades-long control of the Palestinian territories by claiming it has a biblical claim to the land.

“[Israel] is not an occupying nation. As an evangelical Christian, I am convinced by my reading of the Bible that 3,000 years on, now, in spite of the denial of so many, [this land] is the rightful homeland of the Jewish people,” he said.

Even with Trump gone, the consequences linger. President Biden has not reversed the embassy move nor revived the position that Israeli settlements are illegal.

Still, Hummel said change may be on the horizon, albeit a distant one.

“There is a difference generationally. The younger, under-40 evangelical community is far less supportive of Israel and far more interested in social justice ways of thinking about the Middle East, which would side more with the Palestinians than the Israelis. And that may cause a massive change in the way we talk about evangelicals and Israel in 10 or 15 years,” he said.

“It’s an ageing leadership. Hagee is in 80s. As the leadership turns over, there might actually be a big shift on this. But as we’re sitting here today, in 2023, the majority of the evangelical world is very pro-Israel.”

Chris McGreal writes for Guardian US and is a former Guardian correspondent in Washington, Johannesburg and Jerusalem