Support for Israel shifts among young US evangelical Christians

William Roberts

Al-Jazeera  /  June 4, 2021

Israel’s treatment of Palestinians – increasingly seen as unfair – turns younger churchgoers away from Christian Zionism.

After the latest round of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, American televangelist John Hagee lectured his congregation on consecutive Sundays at the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas.

“Supporting Israel is not a political issue. It is a Bible issue,” Hagee proclaimed in a May 23 sermon on what he called “the battle for Jerusalem”.

Hagee is the founder of Christians United for Israel, an umbrella Christian group of 10 million members whose support for Israel, former Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer said recently, is just as important, perhaps more so than American Jews.

“Whenever Jesus comes back, Israel is going to be the dominant nation in the world,” Hagee said, touching the belief among many evangelicals that Jesus will return soon to save his followers from this earthly world.

Jews are God’s chosen people and the rightful owners of all of Palestine through a “blood covenant”, Hagee declared and he warned, “America’s support of Israel is going soft; soft in the media and soft in Washington, DC.”

Indeed United States political support for Israel is increasingly divided. Newly elected, more progressive Democrats in the US Congress strongly condemned Israel’s 11-day bombing campaign that killed 254 Palestinians and left 200,000 in need of aid.

‘Substantially less supportive of Israel’

Now, even as Israel increasingly focuses on the US evangelical right for support, younger evangelicals who are more diverse and less wedded to Zionist theology, have been moving away from the Jewish state and towards Palestinians, pollsters and some church leaders said.

Pastor Brian Zahnd of the Word of Life Church in St Louis, Missouri, is among a new breed of mega-church ministers who are rejecting hardline Christian Zionism in favour of a more balanced view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Christian Zionism “is flawed theologically” and fails to heed the teachings of Jesus and Hebrew traditions. “One who takes the Bible seriously cannot use the Bible as a pretext for injustice towards other people,” Zahnd told Al-Jazeera.

What “pulls people away from the reflexive dualism that ‘Israelis are the good guys and Palestinians are the bad guys’ … is hearing stories from Palestinian people” about life under the Israeli occupation, Zahnd said.

Motti Inbari and Kirill Bumin, a pair of political science professors at the University of North Carolina, recently released a new survey of younger evangelicals that showed major changes afoot in how the evangelical community perceives Israel.

“Younger evangelicals, particularly those 18 to 29 were substantially less supportive of Israel than their elders,” Bumin told Al-Jazeera.

Younger evangelicals’ “conceptions of justice and fairness, as it relates to the conflict, vary from that of their elders”, Bumin said.

The survey found nearly 45 percent of younger evangelical Christians are supportive of the establishment of a Palestinian state and a plurality of 42 percent support neither side in the conflict.

Bumin and Inbari’s analysis found that younger evangelicals’ views are less influenced by biblical beliefs that a second coming of Christ and the end times are near. Instead, if a young evangelical respondent believes Israel treats Palestinians unfairly, they are significantly less likely to express support for Israel.

Moreover, the socialization of their elders’ views is not necessarily translating into support for Israel. For young evangelicals, the more exposed they are to discussions about the importance of Israel to the evangelical community, the least favourably they view Israel.

“Theological premises that have been so dominant among evangelicals in the past are now changing and transitioning into something new,” Inbari told Al-Jazeera.

The University of North Carolina survey was conducted among an online panel of 700 evangelical Christians aged 18 to 29 from March 22 to April 2. It had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.7 percentage points.

Importance of evangelicals to pro-Israel cause

US evangelicals are an important constituency for Israel, which relies on $3.8bn a year in US military support.

Evangelicals are the most “passionate” and “unequivocal” supporters of Israel, and they far outnumber American Jews who are “disproportionately” a source of the “fiercest criticism”, Dermer said at a recent conference.

“It’s very rare to see evangelical Christians leading criticism of Israel. We should do more outreach to them,” Dermer said.

The effort to combat the Boycott Divest Sanction (BDS) movement in the US, which has led to anti-BDS legislation in as many as 32 states, is being led by evangelical Christians, Dermer said.

BDS has focused on bottom-up pressure to end the occupation, and restore Palestinians’ fundamental rights in part by calling on consumers to boycott Israeli products, investments and businesses, especially those that exploit Palestinian people and lands.

Evangelicals fully supported former President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and by an overwhelming margin of 81 percent they voted for Trump in the 2020 election.

To be sure, the University of North Carolina findings show that 71 percent of younger evangelicals support Israel having all of Jerusalem as its capital and a 58 percent majority still believe the Israelis draw from God’s biblical covenant with the Jews.

But their findings of a shift in the margins towards the Palestinians is consistent with earlier research conducted by Shibley Telhami, a pollster and professor of politics at the University of Maryland.

From 2015 to 2018, “there was a significant, significant cut in the support for Israel among young evangelicals,” Telhami told Al-Jazeera.

While 40 percent of younger evangelicals in 2015 wanted the US to lean towards Israel in the conflict with Palestinians, only 21 percent polled by the University of Maryland in 2018 said the same.

Only 3 percent of younger evangelicals wanted the US to favour Palestinians in 2015, that number rose to 18 percent in 2018, Telhami said. The latest North Carolina survey found 28 percent said Palestinians should have East Jerusalem as their capital.

Among the reasons for the shift, younger evangelicals tend to view Israel and what is happening with Palestinians through a social justice prism rather than the biblical prophecies believed by older evangelicals, Telhami said.

At the same time, Trump’s presidency accelerated the generational gap, Telhami said.

“There’s evidence that young evangelicals, were very much appalled by their leaders’ support for Trump and … we discovered that evangelicals thought Trump was too supportive of Israel,” he said.

William Roberts is an independent journalist