Israel & Evangelical Ambivalence

on April 23, 2019

American Evangelicals are arguably Israel’s best and most important friends, key to America’s strategic alliance. Recently, Politico featured a group called Telos that’s devoted to shifting Evangelicals into neutrality.

What’s wrong with neutrality? Telos advertises itself as “pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, pro-peace.” Impartiality and avoiding polemical stances are now de rigeur in much of nouveau Evangelicalism, so the Telos appeal has resonance. Aren’t Christians supposed to be on everybody’s side?

According to Politico, Evangelicals have an “historically one-dimensional view of the conflict,” i.e. pro-Israel, which’s now challenged by a new generation. It cited a 2017 poll showing 76% of over age 65 evangelicals are positive towards Israel, while 58% of Evangelicals between ages of 18 to 34 have similar views. Telos hopes to capitalize on this trend. The Politico headline was: “Meet the Group Trying to Change Evangelical Minds About Israel.”

Politico quoted former Trump evangelical advisor Johnnie Moore noting: “Young evangelicals don’t want to pick sides on anything — Republican or Democrat, whatever the social policy is, they kind of want it all. When it comes to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, I don’t think that they are against Israel, I just think they don’t want to have to pick.”

Amplifying this trend, former Obama advisor Michael Wear observed to Politico: “Even predominately pro-Israel younger evangelicals will talk about it through a pro-justice lens — not a God’s-chosen-people lens that was popular for a certain time.” Old style Dispensationalism, with its sometime focus on Israel’s role in the End Times, is losing influence in U.S. American Evangelicalism, which also fuels the trend toward ambivalence.

Todd Deatherage, co-founder and executive director of Telos, recalled to Politico his Baptist Dispensationalist background in Arkansas with heavy stress on Israel and the End Times. He worked for a Republican U.S. Senator and then the U.S. State Department during the Bush II Administration, traveling to Israel and developing more impartiality he believes better conducive to peace.

Telos takes Evangelical elites to the Mideast hoping they will experience a similar conversion. Deatharage told Politico that Telos’ goal of shifting Evangelicals towards neutrality is a longterm project, with political impact perhaps not until the 2024 or 2028 election.

What would the political impact be of more Evangelical ambivalence towards Israel? In the Telos narrative, unflinching U.S. Evangelical support emboldens Israel to avoid peacemaking.  If America is less pro-Israel, Israel is forced to negotiate.  This theory assumes that Israel is the chief obstacle to peace.

But what if it’s Palestinian and wider Arab intransigence that’s actually the chief obstacle? Wouldn’t increased American ambivalence towards Israel only embolden Israel’s enemies to push harder rather than negotiate?   Won’t those enemies, like Hamas and Hezbollah, plus Iran, only be encouraged in their dreams of Israel’s demise?  Doesn’t persuading Israel’s chief enemies to abandon their hopes for Israel’s destruction require steadfast if not greater American resolve for Israel?  Won’t only the reality of a permanent and strong Israel persuade such enemies to relent?

The U.S. Bible Belt has been Israel’s security belt, it has often been said, thanks to millions of American Evangelicals who believe in a divine purpose for a Jewish homeland. Won’t the diminishment of such a security belt not only encourage Israel’s unpeaceful enemies but also potentially motivate Israel towards more assertiveness, no longer so sure of U.S. support as a backup? And won’t the chief victims of this prolonged conflict be the Palestinians for whom Telos professes such concern?

(Interestingly and disturbingly, Telos told Politico it has no stance on the international Boycott and Divestment Movement that aims to delegitimize Israel. If Telos is truly “pro-Israel” shouldn’t it denounce this delegitimization campaign?)

As to the trend among younger Evangelicals towards feel-good justice advocacy that ostensibly avoids taking sides, would reduced U.S. support or Israel actually be conducive to greater justice? Or would it instead facilitate greater conflict?  And are Evangelicals called to chronic political neutrality?  Serious statecraft domestically and globally requires decisive choices.  It also often entails taking sides and entering conflict.

It’s hard to imagine a people or a nation more in need of friendship and support against often insurmountable odds than the Jews and Israel. Is there any people or nation more targeted for animus?  Why would justice-minded Evangelicals aspire to neutrality between a small nation and hateful forces who seek its destruction?  That those same forces also typically hate Christians and America should be additionally instructive.

Evangelicals who may have implied that End Times scenarios are their primary reason for supporting Israel have fueled stereotypes about Christian Zionists. Some children of Christian Zionism, like Telos’ co-founder, have rebelled against their perceived parochial upbringing.  Affirming Christian friendship for a Jewish Israel can be a spiritual imperative for reasons unrelated to the End Times or esoteric theology.  And U.S. foreign policy, from a Christian perspective, should advance U.S. interests and justice, both of which entail security for a democratic and pro-American Israel.

Politico quotes critics admitting that Telos’ programs are sophisticated. But Telos perhaps substitutes for an old combative fundamentalism a new more therapeutic and naïve fundamentalism that asserts good will can replace hard power.  Israel for its survival needs reliable allies, weaponry, and strategic depth.  Evangelicals who seek the wisdom of their own faith tradition can’t ignore such hard realities.  Absent deterrence, there is often more conflict and tragedy.

Christians are called to peacemaking, but peace is rarely secured by naivety. Telos asserts that an Israel weakened by American Evangelical neutrality will facilitate peace.  But history and Christian teaching argue otherwise. And groups like Telos should admit that their push for Israel’s friends to go neutral is actually a decisive choice against Israel.

  1. Comment by David on April 24, 2019 at 9:13 am

    We should ask ourselves why Middle Eastern countries hate America. Without exception, it is due to our interference in that part of the world. We helped to overthrow a democratically elected government and installed the military dictator known as the Shah, and now the Iranians dislike us. We also inspired Iraq to have a war with Iran that ended with many Iranian deaths—a great way to win friends. We then invaded Iraq on the false pretense that they were developing weapons of mass destruction—a convenient proxy war for Israel. While there was no political freedom there and Saddam was an evil man, Iraq was the most progressive Arab state and women had free access to education and the professions. That is all gone today. The power vacuum we created gave rise to ISIS. In response to 9-11, the US invaded Afghanistan in search of Bin Laden who had long since left the country. The Taliban there were oppressive, but after all these years are still poised to take over the country once the US tires and leaves—yet another Vietnam. So the US has laid waste to Iraq, Afghanistan, and parts of Syria, and we wonder why people there do not love us. I cannot think of one US involvement in the Middle East that did not come back to haunt us.

    What business did the Western powers have in dividing Palestine in the first place giving the small Jewish population 80% of the land? There was already a native population there who was not keen on being invaded by hoards of European refugees who had the stated intent to establish their own country and language. The present debate on immigration in the US should come to mind.

    It is true that Israel is the only democracy (albeit a divine right democracy) in the area, but of course, that does not apply to Palestinians in the occupied areas. The present PM of Israel recently announced his intention to annex the remaining parts of Palestine. This recalls the “living space” polices of you know who. Some of the Palestinians are Christian, but Evangelicals in the US seem unconcerned about their plight. Then there is the matter of Jews in the US having more religious freedom in the US than in Israel . The religious authorities there do not consider Reform Judaism a valid form of religion. Most US Jews are of this group. This figures into marriage and divorce in Israel.

    I would encourage Americans not to be preoccupied with Israel on supposed religious grounds, but seek the betterment of their own country.

  2. Comment by Wayne on April 25, 2019 at 8:14 pm

    Genesis 12:3, and it goes on from there. We would not have a Bible but for the Jews. Yeshua is Jewish. As Believers we are grafted into the Jewish roots. God gave the land to the Jews forever. The Jewish people have UNCONDITIONAL ownership of the land God gave them. I will say that their occupation is conditional. My suggestion is do NOT be the country that tries to take their land away. It never bodes well for those countries.

  3. Comment by Steve on April 24, 2019 at 1:01 pm

    Good article. I thought ‘telos’ was an odd name for a ministry, looked it up, and realized it is associated with Aristotle, hegelianism and Marxism. George Soros funds it. There is something very strange about it. Reminds me of the emergent church.

  4. Comment by John on April 26, 2019 at 12:30 pm

    So many strawman arguments.

    Israel is the greatest military force in the Middle East, backed by the most powerful military force on earth in the form of America, and with the support of most of the West as well. Israel cannot be any stronger.

    And Israel’s “strength” is a non-sequitur to begin with. The obligations for a Palestinian state are not dependent upon a relative measure of Israel’s confidence or security. They are based in Israel’s own past stated commitments, as well as those of the US.

    Also, the divest movement is not about de-legitimizing Israel’s existence, but calling out its self-asserted obligations for the creation of a Palestinian state, as well as the doublespeak Israel employs in promising a Palestinian state while stealing the land of said promised state.

  5. Comment by Michael Bullock on April 29, 2019 at 5:28 pm

    Doing nothing is the same thing as supporting the Palestinians. Neville Chamberlain thought he could have peace with Hitler.

  6. Comment by Donald on May 7, 2019 at 10:09 am

    We are helping the Israelis oppress the Palestinians. We should stop doing that.

    I could write more, much more, but anyone who investigates tge tooic in good faith and without trying to force facts into a preconceived narrative will see atrocities committed by both sides. However, the Israelis have the upper hand and are running an oppressive system.

  7. Comment by Roger on May 21, 2019 at 11:16 pm

    You wrote: “It’s hard to imagine a people or a nation more in need of friendship and support against often insurmountable odds than the Jews and Israel”. Insurmountable odds? You’ve got to be joking! In there region, they have the best military, the strongest economy, the best technology, an iron clad alliance with the world’s sole superpower (USA), an a formidable nuclear weapons arsenal . No neighboring nation can come remotely close.

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