What’s Next for Christian Zionists?
The backbone of Israel’s support in the United States is a group of evangelical Christians, but their power is threatened by the changing of the political guard.
For Mike Evans, a Christian Zionist pastor in the United States, the fall of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was more than a political setback for a movement that had forged deep ties with the former Israeli leader. It was a bitter betrayal of biblical prophecy by Israeli voters and a new generation of political leaders. In a rancorous, profanity-filled missive, Evans excoriated Israel’s new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett for joining a coalition of Israeli centrists and Arab Israelis who he fears may support a Palestinian state.
“We gave you four years of miracles under Donald Trump and this is how you show your appreciation,” Evans wrote, vowing that he and his followers would join the outgoing prime minister in opposition to the government. His outburst reflected anxiety among American Christian leaders who fear the outsized influence they exercised in the era of former U.S. President Donald Trump and Netanyahu will be severely diminished, renewing prospects for a Palestinian state, which many see as antithetical to God’s plan for a Greater Israel.
The changing of the political guard in both countries comes at a time when evangelical Christians had reached the zenith of political power in Washington, shaping U.S. policy on human rights, abortion, reproductive health care, LGBT rights, and increasingly Israel, where they helped build political support for Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It also coincides with a growing generational split in the evangelical church, with an increasing proportion of younger evangelicals viewing Israel more critically than their elders.
In an exit interview with Israeli television, Netanyahu’s U.S. envoy Ron Dermer said that the evangelical Christian community had far eclipsed the American Jewish community as Israel’s most important political allies in the United States.
“People have to understand that the backbone of Israel’s support in the United States is the evangelical Christians,” Dermer said. “About 25 percent [of Americans] … are evangelical Christians. Less than 2 percent of Americans are Jews. So if you look just at numbers, you should be spending a lot more time doing outreach to evangelical Christians than you would do to Jews.”
A former senior U.S. official who worked intimately on U.S. policy in Israel said Dermer was simply saying publicly what Netanyahu had been preaching privately to his cabinet: “He has told many of his own ministers that Americans Jews were not so important, that they were not going to remain Jewish in another generation or two, and that there was more to be gained by cultivating a relationship with evangelicals,” the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.
“Israel has no better friend in America than you,” Netanyahu told a gathering of evangelical Christians in 2017 at an annual conference hosted by Christians United for Israel.
Observers note that some conservative American Jews, including Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; Jason Greenblatt, his special representative to Middle East peace talks; and David Friedman, his envoy to Israel, played a decisive role in shaping Trump’s policy toward Israel, including the decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. But conservative Christians, with their deep roots in the Republican Party, helped cement support of Israel as a core tenet of the Republican platform in the first place.
Today’s Israeli leaders have pushed back on the notion that Israel can look only to Republicans and should court evangelicals over American Jews. “The fact that we are supported by evangelical groups and others in the U.S. is important, but the Jews of the world are more than allies of Israel. They are family,” said Yair Lapid, Israel’s alternate prime minister, who currently serves as Israel’s foreign minister.
Evangelical Christians’ political muscle is sure to decline under new U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, but their relations with Trump Republican politicians remain strong as ever. They will also remain a powerful ally for any future government in Israel.
When Israel faced criticism of its offensive in Gaza earlier this year, including from such stalwart supporters of Israel as Sen. Robert Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, influential evangelical leaders came to Israel’s defense. John Hagee, the founder of Christians United For Israel, defended Israel’s military operations in Gaza earlier this year, accusing the international community of antisemitism for holding Israel to a “double standard” and failing to register sufficient concern over Palestinian rocket attacks against civilian targets in Israel.
Christian Zionism, which has roots stretching back over millennia, gained traction in the 19th century among British Zionists. It culminated with the 1917 Balfour Declaration, named for the former British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, which called for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. For many Christian Zionists, the establishment of the Jewish state after World War II marked the fulfillment of divine prophecy.
Many evangelical Christians believe the return of the Jews to their homeland heralds the beginning of the End Times, a biblical final chapter of life on Earth, when nonbelievers will be destroyed in an apocalypse while God whisks true believers to an eternal life before the second coming of Christ. But that evangelical interest in Israel as the harbinger of the End Times also contains a problem: For Jews to enter the kingdom of God, they must convert to Christianity. The question of conversion is deeply controversial in Israel, where a court recently shut down an evangelical Christian program, produced by God TV, because it was seen as proselytizing to Israel’s Jewish community.
“A lot of Israelis think the Christian support they get is out of affection and respect and love,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute. “They don’t realize or care about what these evangelical Christians imagine on the other end is an exclusively Christian utopian world where everyone not like them gets wiped away by the hand of God in a divine genocide.”
“On the evangelical side, it’s a total fantasy world,” he added. “They are reading the Bible like it’s the New York Times.”
Ari Morgenstern, the spokesman for Christians United for Israel, or CUFI, said the portrayals of the Christian Zionists as apocalyptic religious extremists intent on converting Jews to Christianity are unfair and untrue.
“Only fringe anti-Israel activists still peddle the falsehood that Christian Zionism is driven by eschatology,” Morgenstern said in a written statement. His organization’s founder, Hagee, maintains that Christian Zionism “is rooted in the promise of Genesis not the prophecies of Revelation.”
“We have developed relationships with every major pro-Israel and Jewish organization in the country,” he said. “CUFI stands with the democratically elected government of Israel. Christians have had a relationship with every Israeli prime minister since David Ben Gurion; that has not and will not change.”
There are a couple of knotty aspects of evangelical Christianity’s relationship with Israel. One is the legacy of antisemitism, which long permeated evangelical ranks. The late evangelical leader, Bailey Smith, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, once pronounced that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.” And the evangelist leader Jerry Falwell Sr. once said in a speech, “A few of you here today don’t like Jews. And I know why. He can make more money accidentally than you can on purpose.”
“There is evidence of fairly significant antisemitism among many Christian Zionists, especially hard-line Zionists who believe that for the rapture to occur, Jews need to return to Israel and then convert to Christianity,” said Catherine Loy, an associate lecturer at the University of Roehampton in London, who has written about Israel’s relations with evangelical Christians. Some high-profile Zionist organizations, including the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, “have sought to distance themselves from that because their existence in Israel would be problematic,” she said. “But the logic of Christian Zionism is dependent on the conversion of Jews to Christianity.”
“Anti-semitism under the banner of Christianity has a long and tragic history,” Morgenstern added. “But the rise of Christian support for Israel, and CUFI’s direct opposition to this bigotry, has turned that tide—especially within the church. Pastor Hagee has long preached that antisemitism is a sin.”
The other knotty element is the antipathy with which Christian Zionists respond to Israeli concessions on land and peace; many Christian Zionists vehemently oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon felt the wrath of the American evangelical pastor Pat Robertson when he ordered the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza in 2005, dismantling 21 Israeli settlements in the Palestinian enclave. Several months later, Sharon suffered a stroke, prompting Robertson to declare the illness divine retribution for “dividing God’s land.”
“God considers this land to be his,” the evangelical leader said. “You read the Bible and he says, ‘This is my land,’ and for any prime minister of Israel who decides he is going to carve it up and give it away, God says, ‘No, this is mine.’” Robertson would later issue an apology.
The late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the founder of the conservative Likud political party that Netanyahu now leads, was the first Israeli leader to actively seek the support of the evangelical Christian community, forging relationships with influential U.S. religious leaders, including Ed McAteer and Falwell, whose backing Begin sought for Israel’s 1981 attack on the Iraqi nuclear facility at Osirak.
Begin struck a pragmatic bargain with Robertson, the Southern Baptist leader, according to Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and former deputy foreign minister. “The agreement between them was as such: We are both waiting for the Messiah. When the Messiah comes, we will ask him. And according to his answer we will know who is right.”
Ayalon said that Evans, the Christian Zionist pastor—whom he knows personally—“is a likable person, and I very much appreciate his support for Israel and the U.S.-Israel alliance.” But Evans’s public attack on the new government dented his reputation and influence in Israel. “He may be a friend of Bibi Netanyahu, but it did not give him the right to do what he did,” Ayalon said.
Danny Danon, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, said there doesn’t need to be any contradiction between Israel’s partnership with American Jews and its partnership with American evangelicals, noting that Israel can use all the friends it can find.
“It is always good to have friends who can lobby for Israel, that can speak for Israel,” he said. Israelis and evangelicals, he said, can sort out their differences over the coming of the Messiah when the time comes, but for the time being “we need to deal with Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and our security. If we have friends willing to work with us, we should welcome them.”
But the evangelical community’s embrace of Trump and its willingness to overlook his personal and moral shortcomings in exchange for long-sought policies, including support for Israel, might backfire.
Shibley Telhami, a Palestinian American professor of politics and government at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the influence of evangelical Christians may be waning. A pair of polls conducted by Telhami and one commissioned by the University of North Carolina at Pembroke show dwindling support among younger evangelicals for Israel. The poll found that only 33 percent of young evangelicals said they supported Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, down from 69 percent in 2018. Telhami said his own polling in 2015 and 2018 showed a similar shift.
“There has been a clear drop in the support of Israel among younger evangelicals, and an increase in support for Palestinians,” Telhami said. “The question is, what explains this? One explanation, I think, is the Trump factor. Older evangelicals were able to rationalize Trump. He’s not perfect, but he is doing good work for God. Younger evangelicals had a rough time accepting that.”
“It’s possible this attitude towards Trump also transferred to their attitude towards Israel,” he added. “There is evidence that young evangelicals are moved by issues of social justice, and we see that on climate change, immigration, and certainly in relations to the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Telhami also said the evangelical movement is becoming increasingly diverse, with the share of white evangelicals in steady decline in the United States. And white evangelicals, he said, tend to support Israel more fervently than nonwhite evangelicals.
Not everyone is convinced that Israel is facing a reckoning in the American heartland or in Washington. While the Biden administration has reestablished diplomatic relations and restored financial aid to the Palestinians, it has largely backed key Trump initiatives, including support for the Abraham Accords, which resulted in the establishment of Israeli diplomatic relations with Arab governments including Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
Lara Friedman, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, said there is a big difference between the emergence of young evangelicals expressing greater sympathy for Palestinians and a real change in the evangelical community’s approach to Israel.
“I don’t yet see the shift in attitudes having any real dent in the effort of evangelicals to shape policy on the ground,” Friedman said. “I trust the polling, but translating these generational shifts into policy change is not a direct line. You still have to get people into office who will promote your issues.”
“The Christian right held a huge amount of influence socially as well as politically, and I don’t see that waning because of a change of an administration in Israel,” Loy, the University of Roehampton lecturer, said. “And Biden has shown no sign of trying to challenge the Christian right over Israel. He won’t move the U.S. Embassy back to Tel Aviv. I would say he is trying to leave well enough alone.”
Evans and other evangelical leaders mourning Netanyahu’s political immolation, meanwhile, will have to come to terms with the new government.
“I’m sure this came as a shock, and I guess they will get over it, especially if they see the interest of Israel being well served by democratically elected governments,” Ayalon, the former Israeli ambassador, said.
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch
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