Those who follow American policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often speak of the influence of evangelical Christians and their impact on U.S. policy. It is important, however, to understand the basis for these positions and the concerns they address, especially as we witness a shift in attitudes toward Palestinians in a number of communities that have long been assumed to be pro-Israel by default.
To begin with, evangelicals are not a homogeneous group with a clear hierarchy and transparent structure that guide and direct their actions in the realm of politics, or any other arena for that matter. In fact, it is one of the defining features of evangelicals that they reject such structures and insist that the only authority over their lives is the Bible itself, and that each believer is competent to read, understand and interpret Scripture. In this respect, it is misleading to even talk of an “evangelical” position toward the conflict in the Holy Land, as a wide variety of views exists, and there is ample room for discussion, analysis, and change within the evangelical community. In fact, there is currently an open debate, under the title “Reclaiming Jesus,” by many prominent evangelical leaders who are uncomfortable with the branding of evangelicals as right-wing, conservative, and generally illiberal in their political positions on a number of issues ranging from abortion and homosexuality, to climate change and racism.
However, where the Middle East is concerned, it is true that many evangelicals have passively accepted and allowed themselves to be identified with a particular minority whose theological view is “Christian Zionism.” This movement started in the 18th century and was popularized by the Scofield annotated Bible, which divided history into seven “dispensations” and granted the Jewish people a specific role to play in the “End Times.” In broad terms, according to Christian Zionism, Jews will be gathered from all the countries of the world and return to the Promised Land before the End of Time, where they would establish a state, which will then be attacked by the nations of the world during the Armageddon Battle, until Christ returns again, lifts up the believers into Heaven, and interferes in that Battle, defeating the Anti-Christ and the invading nations, as well as converting a remnant of 144,000 Jews who will believe in him. Then, Christ will inaugurate a millennial rule of a thousand years of peace and justice.
While few Christian, and no Jewish, theologians gave much credence to Christian Zionism and its fantastical prophecies and predictions regarding the End Times, Christian Zionists have latched onto certain events in Middle East history as proof that the biblical prophecies are true, specifically, the creation of the state of Israel and its spectacular military victory in 1967. Hence, an unholy alliance sprang between Zionism and ordinary bible-believing evangelicals who had little knowledge of the current political situation, but who grew up listening to Sunday school stories from the Bible that they blithely associated with the modern state of Israel.
Popular fiction, like the “Left Behind” series, as well as televangelists weaponized this affinity by turning it into a potent political force hinging on the idea that it is the duty of good Christians to support God’s actions in history and speed up the Second Coming of Christ by blindly supporting the policies of the Israeli government, and demanded that any “God fearing, Bible believing” politician must support such policies.
Much of the strength of the pro-Israeli lobby drew from their ability to mobilize this constituency, and later to claim that they speak on behalf of such evangelicals, who number over 70 million. The automatic support these groups gave for Israel was thought to be fundamental and not subject to political considerations or the compromises associated with American politics. This view reinforced the supposed “moral commitment” to Israel and it was buttressed by guilt over the Holocaust. This view also formed the basis for the claim that God “blesses those who bless thee and curses those who curse thee,” which has been cited to argue that God will bless America as long as it supports Israel militarily and diplomatically.
In light of this “faith-based” view, issues of international law, national interest, and geopolitical realities are irrelevant, and anyone who challenges such beliefs would be utterly repudiated and vilified. In this way, the sophisticated and well-heeled organized pro-Israel lobby could also count on massive grassroots support that no politician dared to challenge without direct and devastating consequences.
The lack of any faith-based challenge to the teachings of Christian Zionism has entrenched its hold on numerous Americans, particularly those who do not give serious thought or analysis to the moral conundrums it raises regarding Israel and Palestine. To object to settlements or even to argue for a two-state solution receive no traction among those who think God Himself had given the land to the Jews, and that their claims are therefore historically and morally superior to anyone else’s.
The good news is that Christian Zionism is not an essential doctrine of Evangelical Christianity, and that significant portions of that community, particularly the young, are shifting their position, and are no longer willing to automatically accept Israel’s reprehensible actions under the pretext of divine authority. Young evangelicals, in particular, hold differing views from their parents on a variety of subjects. They are more likely to be sensitive to social issues, like poverty and racism, less willing to associate with right-wing politics, more tolerant towards LGBTQ communities, and are less comfortable with blind uncritical support for the state of Israel. Such evangelicals are more open to a nuanced approach, one that takes into consideration the requirements of justice, peace, human rights, as well as the interests of Palestinians.
These changes did not emerge in a vacuum. A number of activists, including Palestinian Christians, have steadfastly fought what appeared to be an uphill battle. All too often, supporters of Palestinians make the mistake of assuming that evangelicals automatically support Israel, and that they are impervious to rational argument on that score, or that their End Time fantasies only warrant dismissal as ridiculous. Yet, this constituency is extremely significant and could become even more significant if Vice President Pence ever becomes President of the United States. Zionists recognize this as they invest heavily in maintaining a financially and politically advantageous alliance with thought leaders in large swaths of the evangelical community. It is unfortunate that many of those standing in solidarity with Palestine often fail to see this connection.
Increased awareness of the realities on the ground as well as of the existence of Palestinian Christians and their views has already contributed to a significant shift among evangelical Christians. But for this success to grow, it is necessary to make the arguments in theological terms that evangelicals can hear and understand. Despite the blatant rhetoric of many Christian Zionists, to simply dismiss their views as ridiculous is neither wise nor helpful.