Evangelicals' Israel obsession is falling apart

Evangelicals' culture wars against LGBTQ people and abortion access are still full throttle. But another obsession, supporting Israel to the hilt, is fading because younger evangelicals just don't care about Israel—or they actively oppose it.

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Evangelical Christians in America love their culture wars. Most of us know about their major culture-war topics: their ongoing wars against LGBTQ people and abortion access. However, they also have a number of other, minor culture-war topics. One of their minor-league culture wars focuses on Israel. For many decades now, evangelicals have supported Israel to the hilt. But lately and increasingly, younger evangelicals don’t care about Israel. Some even actively oppose the idea of supporting Israel. Today, let me show you why evangelicals support Israel—and how they’re reacting to their younger members’ rejection of this super-important culture war ideal.

(Related posts: An introduction to the Israel obsession; Supersessionism. Also, we’re mostly talking about white evangelicals when we talk about evangelical support for Israel. Not all of the surveys discussed herein specify race, but the ones that do find that white evangelicals are the runaway core support demographic for this culture war.)

The Israel obsession: a brief summary

When I was Pentecostal in the 1980s and 1990s, I knew very well that my tribe supported Israel as a nation. And I knew why, too. So when a small group of us caught a news story on a friend’s family TV about a dust-up in Israel, we all thought it was simply the run-up to the end of the world. It thrilled us.

We lived in the Endtimes! Truly, we were the last generation!

And Israel proved it.

See, Israel — as a country — was of tantamount importance in our Endtimes fantasies. The Endtimes is supposedly the literal end of the world. We thought we knew when the Endtimes would start, too, thanks to our mangling of the Book of Daniel in the Bible. We even had a diagram that helped us conceptualize these totes-for-realsies prophecies:

This is one variant of the explanatory diagram we consulted. If you’re wondering, right now most Endtimes conspiracy theorists think we’re at the very tail end of the “gap” part of the timeline. And they’ve thought so for about the past forty years.

Israel became an integral part of the whole suite of Endtimes conspiracy theories. Since it became a nation in 1948, Endtimes conspiracy theorists thought they could use that known date to pinpoint the dates of other important Endtimes events. Thus, without Israel being a nation, a lot of other prophecies fell apart.

(Here’s one of those conspiracy theorists discussing how Israel figures into the Endtimes.)

As Washington Post reported in 2018, half of the evangelical respondents to an evangelical-run poll explicitly mentioned Endtimes prophecy as a reason for supporting the existence of Israel. And the older the evangelicals, the more likely they were to believe that.

But things change.

Support for Israel waning among young evangelicals

For years now, I’ve heard various evangelical leaders fretting about waning support for Israel. Mostly, they blame their younger members for this shift. And they’re right.

Poll after poll has shown that younger evangelicals don’t really support their elders’ cherished culture-war cause. It’s been a startlingly sharp downward shift, especially over the past few years.

And now, Religion News has featured a column discussing this waning support. The writer of the column, Mark Silk, quotes from a post written by Peter Wehner, an evangelical he describes as a “recovering neocon.”

It’s an interesting post. In it, Wehner covers a lot of ground. He cites the main reasons why evangelicals represent Israel’s core of support in America:

  • Primarily: Evangelicals believe that their god promised this land to his Jewish people
  • Very close runner-up: That whole Endtimes thing
  • Less so: Affinity due to shared religious texts
  • Far less so: Maybe some guilt over centuries of Christian anti-Semitism

Interestingly, Silk himself focuses more on how American Jews feel about the matter. He cites some interesting studies that indicate that American Jews’ support for Israel is far more nuanced than that of American evangelicals.

Both writers end by asking Israel’s leaders to show themselves worthy of support. But evangelical leaders are taking a different tack.

Evangelical leaders react: Young evangelicals are just bein’ all ignorant and “silly”

In their December 2021 issue, Christianity Today evaluated the decline of support for Israel. They also rounded up a bunch of evangelical leaders to discuss young evangelicals’ increasing decline of support.

Here’s how they shook out:

Robert Nicholson, president of Philos Project, weighs in first. For context, Philos Project sells various packages and investment opportunities to evangelicals that are supposed to educate them about the Near East. He refers to younger evangelicals as having been deceived somehow:

They don’t realize that a Jewish-majority country makes the Near East more pluralistic, not less. Worst of all, they’ve bought into the silly idea that support for a Jewish state means opposition to Palestinians, Arabs, or Muslims—which of course isn’t true.

Robert Nicholson

Nicholson’s solution to The Big Problem Here, of course, is “immersive education and personal encounter.” And he just so happens to offer exactly these services — for a price. (Self-interest for the win!)

Meanwhile, Gary Burge (who has written books about American Christians’ relationship with the Near East as a whole) rightly questions the results of evangelical-led polls and surveys. Around here, of course, we’ve always had the exact same concerns.

A couple of guys who pastor in Israel weigh in to say that they feel American evangelicals lack nuance in their opinions.

And then we get Michael Brown, a self-described “Messianic Jew” who runs a radio show called The Line of Fire. He thinks that more indoctrination will solve this problem.

(That radio show’s name is not in the least dramatic, nope! Also, yes, he’s that Michael Brown, a hilariously old-school culture warrior who hasn’t let go of a single moral panic his leaders have ever concocted. His inclusion here instantly lowers the discourse’s credibility to subterranean levels. Jeez, why not ask Ray Comfort to the party?)

The roundup of opinions goes on and on like this. Ministers actually working in Israel note greater nuance in opinions. Old-school culture warriors fret and think indoctrination will turn the support ship around. Evangelicals who are less connected to those old-school culture wars welcome the decline in support for various reasons.

Giving away the game

At the end of the roundup in Christianity Today, their writers give space to Mitch Glaser. His organization, Chosen People Ministries, sponsored the survey discussed in their post. Interestingly, he specifically cites Endtimes prophecies and the “Abrahamic Covenant” as a reason to support Israel:

Unfortunately, when we have a negative view of others, whether Palestinians or Jewish Israelis, often instead of love and mission there is enmity and a lack of passion for winning these Abrahamic cousins to Jesus.

I believe prophecy was fulfilled in the formation of the modern state of Israel in 1948, but Israel is not yet what Israel will become. One day my beloved Jewish people will turn to Yeshua the Messiah, as promised by the prophet Zechariah, and “they will look to Me whom they have pierced.”

Until then, I pray my fellow evangelicals will have a positive view of the Jewish people, and even come to the conclusion that by virtue of the Abrahamic Covenant, the land does belong to them.

Mitch Glaser

Ooh, did you notice that little sly bit at the beginning of that quote? I absolutely loved that. So subtle! Much wise!

He makes it sound like evangelicals’ Israel obsession is ultimately all about recruitment. I shouldn’t be surprised, either. As one of his critics noted, Chosen People Ministries exists to recruit Jews to Christianity. This goal stands front and center on their very own website. As one might expect of people not bound by reality’s rules in designing surveys, their bias permeates their end product.

My private suspicion regarding younger evangelicals’ dwindling support for Israel is, simply, that the Endtimes is going out of style. When I was Pentecostal, literally everyone in my tribe fully believed in the Endtimes. We all believed we were the last generation to live on the Earth. Everything happening in the world only confirmed ancient prophecies, we thought. What an exciting time to be alive!

But one after another, all of the Endtimes predictions my leaders made failed. They all failed miserably. Any Christians daring to put an actual date onto any prediction found themselves the target of increasing mockery.

As a result, Endtimes conspiracy theorizing fell out of style. I really don’t see many younger evangelicals indulging in this pastime. This is an older evangelical’s game. Indeed, Christianity Today said in their roundup post that about a third of self-identified evangelicals call themselves amillennial, meaning they don’t buy into that standard suite of beliefs. (And yes, evangelical leaders seem mighty upset about amillennialists.)

The fact that Israel became its own state in 1948 really puts a damper on all those 40-years people, at any rate. In 1988, you can bet the tribe got all kinds of excited. (It became part of the “88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988” Rapture scare that particular year.) But I saw way less fervor from culture warriors at the 50-, 60-, and 70-year anniversary.

Maybe 2028 will be their year. After all, that’s 40×2!

Authoritarians denied power

In the reaction of old-school culture warriors, I see another reason why young evangelicals’ rejection of their pet cause might be troubling to them.

Authoritarians treasure power above all. When they tell someone they view as an inferior to do something or believe something, they danged well expect that inferior to follow orders. It’s how they clawed their way up the ranks, and now they expect the same behavior in turn from the younger generation of rank-climbers.

And that’s not happening here. Not this time.

Younger evangelicals are questioning their elders’ demands in ways that those elders find intolerable — even inconceivable. Some of those elders who actually made the Israel obsession part of their entire identity, like Michael Brown, doubtless feel even more troubled than the average.

In rejecting the Israel obsession, younger evangelicals are rejecting the entire package of beliefs that feeds into it. Support for Israel has become a sort of litmus for the culture wars themselves, acceptance of the 70 Weeks Prophecy, adherence to literalism, a rejection of diversity and pluralism, and more.

In a lot of ways, therefore, older evangelicals are quite right to fear this sudden sharp downward shift in support. Younger evangelicals have declared, through this shift, that they will not follow their elders’ command in all things.

At least those frustrated elders can still count on younger evangelicals’ support for their anti-abortion culture war.

For now.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...