The Battle for Young Evangelicals’ Views on Israel Could Determine the Future of U.S. Policy

The Battle for Young Evangelicals’ Views on Israel Could Determine the Future of U.S. Policy

by Amir Tibon

Millennial Evangelicals are not as automatically supportive of Israel as their parents’ generation was. Evangelical groups are taking action – some trying to secure young Evangelicals’ love of the Jewish state, others to get them to learn about Palestinians

WASHINGTON – Evangelical support for Israel has never been more influential in the United States than it is today, under President Donald Trump. But some Evangelical leaders are worried, and they think Israel should be as well. A battle is being waged in Christian Evangelical communities over the future of their support for the Jewish state. Polls show that young Evangelicals don’t support Israel with their parents’ level of enthusiasm, and Christian Zionists are putting up a fight. Other Evangelical groups increasingly see Israeli policies clashing with their faith, and they too are taking action.

When it comes to Israel, Christian Evangelicals are the most influential religious group in American politics today. Trump’s Evangelical supporters have successfully promoted policies aligned with the positions of the Israeli government, most notably the transfer of the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Evangelical Zionists, however, are worried that Israel is at risk of losing its future support among their communities. A survey from December 2017 found that American Evangelicals under 35 are less likely than their elders to offer strong support for Israel, and are more likely to have a critical view of the country and its policies.

Amidst these concerns, Christian Zionist groups are expanding their efforts to connect the next generation of Evangelicals to Israel. At the same time, new groups in the Evangelical scene are trying to encourage younger Evangelicals to learn about the Palestinian narrative. Haaretz spoke with pastors and young Evangelicals in various communities to learn about the battle being waged for Evangelical hearts and minds – one that could determine the future of American support for Israel.

Bishop Robert Stearns, a leading Christian Zionist pastor from New York who heads the Eagles’ Wings Ministry, an international pro-Israeli group, believes that millennial Evangelicals – those born after 1980 – are not “turning against Israel.” His main concern isn’t that Millennials are adopting critical views of Israel, but rather, that many of them don’t have any views about it at all.

“They don’t have the automatic support for Israel that their parents had,” he explains. “This is a generation that is suspicious of anything that is presented without explanation. They don’t want to be political pawns. They don’t adopt automatic views and positions. In order to connect them to Israel, we need to make a case for why they should support it.”

Rev. Mae Elise Cannon is executive director of “Churches for Middle East Peace”, a group of Christians from different denominations who support a two-state solution and oppose Israeli settlements in the West Bank. An Evangelical millennial herself, she told Haaretz that she believes her generation is ready for a change when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

“Millennials in our community care very much about global issues,” she says. “They care about justice, poverty, human rights. We’re seeing millennials across the Christian spectrum demanding their leaders practice what they preach. And that also means not calling for a one-sided approach on Israel-Palestine. This mentality of supporting one side or the other is wrong. We need to look for ways to support both and promote peace between them.”

The December 2017 poll showed that young Evangelicals are receptive to this kind of message. While 58 percent of respondents said they support Israel, 66 percent said that the Evangelical church should “do more to love and care for the Palestinians.”

Stearns, a long-time advocate for Israel with ties to senior Israeli officials as well as to Vice President Mike Pence, told Haaretz that his main concern today isn’t that Evangelicals care more about Palestinians – it’s about Evangelicals who choose not to care about the issue at all. That’s why he is focusing on an effort to bring dozens of young Evangelical pastors on organized trips to Israel. Over the past two years, his group has brought 90 pastors to Israel, and 40 of those pastors have already returned to the country leading church groups of their own.

Stearns’ concern about Israel’s standing among young Evangelicals started a few years ago, when he noticed that “at pro-Israeli Christian gatherings in America, there were usually very few young people. It was increasingly an older and older crowd attending these gatherings, despite the fact that there is a lot of young Christian activism in our country.”

“They want to know – Why Should We Support Israel”

“A generation ago, support for Israel was automatic among most Evangelicals in America,” Stearns explained. “You pretty much couldn’t be an Evangelical without supporting Israel. Millennials don’t accept that. They’re suspicious of the demand to be automatically supportive of the country. They don’t want this pushed down their throat. Instead, they are asking questions. They want to know – why should we support Israel?”

The role of the Zionist Christian leadership, Stearns believes, is to provide meaningful answers to that question – and not to assume that support should be obvious in light of Israel’s biblical significance. “I think this generation has a more sophisticated and nuanced view of the realities in Israel,” he says.

Overall, Evangelicals are one of the most right-wing groups in American society. Evangelicals voted in record numbers for President Donald Trump in the 2016 election, and the Republican Party’s hopes for keeping control of Congress this November rest to a great extent on mobilizing Evangelical voters.

Stearns says, however, that while these characteristics are all true with regards to older Evangelicals, millennial Evangelicals are a different story. “They don’t necessarily have a right-wing political view on everything. Many of them are passionate about issues of social justice, inequality and human rights,” he says.

A poll published in August by Morning Consult underscores Stearns’ point. It showed that younger Evangelicals are more likely than their elders to vote for political candidates who support equality for the LGBTQ community and who oppose restrictions on immigration to the United States. The poll didn’t include questions on Israel.

“Many young Evangelicals, unlike their parents, don’t want their first interaction with Israel to be based on either politics or eschatology,” Stearns says, referring to the theological concern with the end of times. The reason for that, he explained, is that they prioritize other issues, such as social justice, human rights and community building. The problem, however, is that “many aren’t aware of other kinds of engagements with the country.” Evangelical engagement with Israel over the past decades, Stearns said, focused heavily on the biblical aspects of the country – for obvious reasons – and “tended to leave out many fascinating aspects of modern Israel,” such as Israel’s democratic political system, its innovation-based economy and the diversity of its population. Stearns believes that in order to attract young Evangelicals to Israel, “that’s something we have to change.”


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