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Evangelical Anti-Zionism as an Adaptive Response to Shifts in American Cultural Attitudes
Dexter Van Zile writes:
Since the founding of the Jewish state in 1948, Evangelical Protestants in the United States have been regarded—with good reason—as Israel’s most reliable supporters. In 2008, Jody C. Baumgartner and a number of other researchers reported that Evangelicals are “more likely than other Americans to have sympathy for Israel in its dispute with the Palestinians and to agree that the United States should take Israel’s side more often in the Middle East.”1 More recently, a poll conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust indicated that Evangelicals are more likely than other American Jews to believe that God gave the land to the Jewish people.2
In addition to the belief that God’s promises endure forever, much Evangelical support for Israel is motivated by an understanding of the religious component of Arab hostility toward Israel. Evangelicals, Baumgartner and her colleagues reported, are “significantly more likely than other Americans to agree that Islam is a more violent religion than Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism.”3 Other factors related to Evangelical support for Israel include an adherence to premillenial dispensationalism (an eschatology that posits that the return of the Jews to their homeland is a precursor to the return of Jesus Christ),4 gratitude to the Jewish people for their scriptures, and remorse over the Holocaust.5
From the Zionist perspective, Evangelical support for Israel is a good thing. It is not, however, an unalloyed good, because a growing number of Americans regard Evangelicals with suspicion and contempt. Anti-Israel activists take advantage of this contempt in their effort to portray support for Israel as a regressive and retrograde cause.
Nevertheless, this community represents a significant segment of the American population and the American voting public.6 Its members devote time, energy, and money to pro-Israel activism, as witnessed by the growth of such organizations as Christians United for Israel,7 the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, the Jerusalem Connection, and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews—all of which rely on Evangelical support.
Robert O. Smith, author of a recent book on Christian Zionism More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford University Press, 2013), may be overstating the point only mildly when he writes, “The most conspicuous contribution evangelical politics have made to American life is the promotion of unwavering U.S. support for the state of Israel.”8
Despite this support for Israel, there are unmistakable signs that anti-Israel activism is gaining traction within evangelical Protestantism in the United States, particularly in its megachurch segment. A coalition of supersessionist theologians, liberal activists, and Palestinian Christians is reaching out—with increasing effectiveness—to young adults who have become disaffected from the Evangelical community into which they are born. As a result, the institutions of American Evangelicalism, like mainline Protestantism before it, are becoming persistent and vocal sources of anti-Israel messaging on the American scene.
An unmistakable increase in anti-Zionist activism is taking place against the backdrop of demographic and ideological shifts in American Evangelicalism. Older Evangelicals who were alive during the Holocaust or who were witness to Israel’s creation in 1948 and Arab efforts to destroy the Jewish state in 1967 and 1973 are dying off and being replaced by a younger generation of churchgoers who lack first-hand knowledge of this history and who, as a result, are willing to give a sympathetic hearing to anti-Israel narratives, no matter how distorted. Concomitant with these demographic changes is the embarrassment over Evangelicalism’s reputation for its affiliation with the American Right. As a result, the U.S. evangelical community is shifting to the center from its traditional place on the political and theological right.
David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel, offered this warning to Jim Fletcher, a journalist who has documented the growth of anti-Zionism in the evangelical community: “Anti-Israel activists are making surprising inroads into the evangelical community, especially among the Millennial generation. They are telling lies about Israel. But their lies are hitting the right moral notes and they are making progress. We ignore them at our peril.”9
In sum, American Evangelicalism is no longer the bulwark of support for Israel it once was.
The question presented to observers is how this turn of events came about. For decades, the underlying circumstances of the Arab-Israeli conflict have not changed substantively. Arab and Muslim hostility toward Israel and Jews—one of the primary drivers of the conflict—has not diminished, but rather increased in recent years. Violence against Christians has also gotten worse in Muslim-majority countries throughout the world, indicating what would happen to Jews should they lose their state.
Moreover, Israel remains a beacon for human rights in the Middle East, treating its enemies, dissidents, minorities and its own citizens—women especially—with greater respect than every other country or political regime in the region. Israel has proven itself to be an astounding success, while its adversaries have proven unable to adapt to the modern world. And despite all this, we are confronted with a growing movement within American Evangelism that assails Israel while apologizing for its enemies. What is going on here?
It is fruitless to seek an explanation for this turn of events in the Middle East itself. Only a close look at recent events in American society will help us understand this anti-Zionist drift in the Evangelical community. As it turns out, anti-Zionism is an adaptive response to changes in American society that threaten to isolate Evangelicals in the United States from their compatriots—and the movement’s leaders from its young people. Young Evangelicals—and leaders who seek their support—embrace anti-Zionism as a way of signaling that they are not the Bible-thumping fundamentalists of yore.
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