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 is 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. Deatherage told Politico that Telos’ goal of shifting Evangelicals towards neutrality is a long-term 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 a diminished 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 de-legitimize Israel. If Telos is truly “pro-Israel” shouldn’t it denounce this de-legitimization 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 naiveté. 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.