Editor’s note: Christian support for the nation of Israel arises from biblical interpretations of God having made a covenant with the Hebrew people – a covenant that includes “the whole land of Canaan” as “an everlasting possession” (Genesis 17:8), and restoration to that land even after its loss (Jeremiah 32:37). The following originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of AFA Journal.
Over the past year, one volatile crisis after another in the Middle East has drawn worldwide attention. Nevertheless, many Americans, including Christians, have become more negative, or at least noncommittal – pro-peace, as they often label themselves – in how they regard Israel.
Who’s to blame?
Only 34% of evangelicals worldwide expressed support for Israel, according to a 2010 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey taken at the Third Lausanne Congress of World Evangelization in Cape Town, South Africa. Narrowing the focus to Americans, just 30% sympathized with Israel.
In a 2014 Pew Research survey, opinions differed between generations. When questioned if Israel or Hamas was to blame for conflict in Israel, 29% of those aged 18 to 29 blamed Israel, while no more than 15% of those aged 50 and older blamed Israel.
In both surveys, a fair portion of respondents had equally sympathetic views of Palestine and Israel. But, overall, statistics represent a radical departure from the consensus in earlier decades, when to be an evangelical Christian was nearly synonymous with being pro-Israel.
As Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy told AFA Journal, the generational shift indicated in the 2014 survey is partly due to disenchantment with the religious right.
“Reacting against an earlier generation of religious conservatives portrayed as reflexively pro-Israel, a new generation does not want to be aligned with the old religious right, or conservative advocacy issues per se,” he said.
However, older, formerly pro-Israel evangelical leaders are also reconsidering their stance, as Jan Markell of Olive Tree Ministries has witnessed.
“I was present when Bethel University hosted the pro-Palestine Hope for the Holy Land conference three years ago,” she said. “Jay Barnes, the university’s president, said he had been raised in a church with the Israeli flag up front, because everybody was taught we had to support Israel. He then expressed regret that he hadn’t had input showing him the importance of the Palestinian people and that they have a right to that land."
He is not alone. Other groups exist solely to propagate opposition to Israel, including Telos Group, Christ at the Checkpoint, and Impact Holy Land. Both Markell and Tooley mentioned many familiar names of those who question Israel, including Gary Burge of Wheaton College, Matt Green of Oral Roberts University, Cameron Strang of Relevant magazine, Lynne Hybels of Willow Creek Church, and Mae Canon and Steve Haas of World Vision.
For example, in “Is Peace Possible?” (a February 2014 Relevant article), Strang wrote, “Many Israelis and Palestinians agree that the military occupation of the Palestinian territories is unsustainable and is a violation of human rights that ultimately hurts everyone involved."
As one whose own father, Stephen Strang, is a staunch pro-Israel conservative, Strang reflects a younger generation many of whom are breaking away from the views of their evangelical forebears.
Blindsiding the church
Clearly, more is afoot than youthful rebellion or naiveté to effect so complete a transformation. As Tooley pointed out, the issue has even taken theology captive.
“The mainline Protestant world turned against Israel 40 years ago under liberation theology, which reinterprets the gospel into a political narrative where the church is called to work against unjust structures and align with the victims,” he explained. “Israel is portrayed as a colonial power and Palestinians as oppressed third world victims. Liberation theology is not as directly influential in evangelical circles, but is there under the rubric of social justice.”
Markell agreed that modern evangelicals define their religion along the lines of social justice.
“Younger people are very tuned in to social justice,” Markell noted. “A lot of them are all about social justice and nothing else. And so if those speaking against Israel are also peddling social justice, they believe they must be telling the truth.”
Thus, for evangelicals, the most persuasive arguments against Israel are not necessarily political or cultural, but from the church itself.
“Especially in the parachurch and missions world, interaction with Palestinians and particularly Palestinian Christians has led American Christians to hear their story and hearken to it, without looking at the wider story,” Tooley said. “They believe that Palestinians are oppressed by Israel and that Christians must stand in solidarity with them.”
The cause for social justice becomes doubly dear when coupled with concern for Palestinian Christians.
“Standing in support of Christians in the West Bank is often a pretext for advocacy against Israel,” Tooley said. “Of course, Christians comprise only 1-2% of the population in Palestine."
On the other hand, Christian populations under Israeli governance have flourished. According to statistics cited by British journalist Melanie Phillips, the 34,000 Christians in Israel at the time of its creation in 1948 had risen to 180,000 by 1998. Conversely, an 80% Christian population in the city of Bethlehem declined drastically during Jordanian occupation from 1949 to 1967, and is now estimated between 20 and 40%.
“The one place in the Middle East where Christians are safe and thriving is Israel,” Phillips writes. “Everywhere else Christian populations are in decline, in many cases precipitously.”
Markell agreed that suffering of Palestinian Christians is real, but Israel is not the instigator.
“I work closely with Pastor Steven Khoury of Holy Land Missions,” she said. “He will tell you Israel is the best friend of Christians in the region. But the Palestinian Authority does not respect other faiths; in fact, the Palestinian Authority constantly tries to shut down Pastor Khoury’s church. His church was even burned to the ground. The Islamic influence is trying to wipe out Christians.”
As IRD described in one article, the plight of Palestinian Christians is being manipulated to serve a nationalistic agenda.
“It is no longer possible to ignore the struggles that many Palestinian Christians endure, nor that Palestinian Christians are being exploited by Palestinian nationalists and Islamic radicals to soften evangelical concerns about the nature of a future Palestinian state,” said IRD writer Luke Moon.
Tooley added that American Christians should redirect their well-meant sympathies to take into account the truth about the oppression that looms over the Middle East.
“People buying into the anti-Israel perspective need to be informed about the lethal danger of Islam and its impact on all religious minorities in the Middle East, especially Christians,” he said. “If they want to help Palestinians, they should cease perpetuating their nationalistic narrative, and instead encourage them to accept collaboration with Israel and a future that includes democracy and equal rights for all, including religious liberty, and not the kind of future advocated by Hamas, which won the last three Palestinian elections.”
Instead, many American Christians have become embroiled in a nationalist struggle based on an ideology opposed to Christianity and with no place for social justice or basic freedoms. In the end, the cause they have embraced is only usurping their own religion.
As Markell said, “Just as at one point, you might have seen an Israeli flag and an American flag placed in churches, I fear one day we will see a Palestinian flag there.”
How you can support Israel:
1) Travel to the Holy Land
2) Purchase Israeli goods
3) Join pro-Israel groups
4) Share pro-Israel educational resources
5) Address Islam’s threat to religious freedom
6) Clarify Israel’s strategic political importance
7) Vote for political candidates who support Israel
Heard on American Family Radio, Sat, 1 p.m. CT; Sun, noon, CT
DVD series Why Israel?