Support for Israel is weakening among evangelical Christians, prompting a new struggle for the hearts and minds of younger members of America’s largest pro-Israel demographic group.
While hard numbers are not available, evangelical leaders on both sides of the divide on Israel agree that members of the millennial generation do not share their parents’ passion for the Jewish state; many are seeking some form of evenhandedness when approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“What is happening is that the hard line of Christian Zionists was not successfully passed forward to the next generation, because it was based on theological themes that are now being questioned by younger evangelicals,” said David Gushee, professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University in Atlanta.
The grip of Christian Zionists over young evangelicals has been loosening for several years, according to observers within the community. But in recent weeks, the leading evangelical pro-Israel organization, Christians United for Israel, has set off alarm bells in articles and interviews decrying the inroads made by pro-Palestinian activists into the evangelical community. CUFI’s leaders are calling for a new strategy to block them.
“The only way of solving a problem is when people know about it,” said CUFI’s executive director, David Brog, who has been leading the effort to win back millennial evangelicals. “This is the best way to rally our troops.”
Brog penned a lengthy article, published in the spring edition of Middle East Quarterly, in which he detailed what he views as a growing phenomenon and the reasons behind it. Titled “The End of Evangelical Support for Israel?” the article laments that “questioning unqualified Christian support for the Jewish state is fast becoming a key way for millennials to demonstrate Christian compassion and bona fides.” Brog argues that younger evangelicals are now “in play” and their support for Israel can no longer be taken for granted.
This conclusion is based primarily on gut feelings and anecdotal data. In June 2011, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey among evangelical leaders convened in Cape Town, South Africa, for the third Lausanne Congress of World Evangelization. The findings indicated lower support for Israel than previously believed. A majority of American evangelical leaders (49%) expressed neutrality when asked if they sympathize more with Israelis or with Palestinians. Thirty percent expressed support for Israelis, 13% for the Palestinians.
The survey polled only leaders who participated in this international conference and did not offer insight into the views of rank-and-file evangelicals. But it highlighted the fact that only a minority within the evangelical leadership today hold strong pro-Israel views when it comes to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and attendant conflict with the Palestinians.
Still, Christian Zionism is by far the largest organized voice on Middle East issues among evangelicals. CUFI, led by the Rev. John Hagee, founder of Cornerstone Church, in San Antonio, has 1.6 million registered supporters and a staff of 25 full-time employees. With an operating budget of more than $7 million, CUFI organizes dozens of pro-Israel events throughout the country and an annual Washington conference that brings together evangelical activists and politicians.
CUFI’s leaders are now trying to mobilize funders and supporters to confront the shift among younger members of their community. The challenge they face is made up of individuals, campus activists and professors, small organizations and even documentary films that depict Israel as encroaching on Christian freedom of faith in the Holy Land.
On university campuses, pro-Palestinian Christians have seen some success in the face of CUFI’s more established 120-chapter campus operation. Activists in Illinois’s Wheaton College, a leading Christian school, protested a planned CUFI event on campus in 2009; in Tulsa, Okla., Oral Roberts University has appointed a harsh critic of Israel to its board of trustees, and at Bethel University, in Minnesota, President Jay Barnes visited Israel and the Palestinian territories on a trip that changed participants’ views on the conflict. Barnes’s wife, Barbara Barnes, published a poem after the trip, in which she wrote: “Apartheid has become a way of life. I believe God mourns.”
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The Forward and Nathan Guttman