By MARK TOOLEY, WEEKLY STANDARD—
Senator Ted Cruz’s vigorous defense of Israel at a recent conference for persecuted Middle Eastern Christians in Washington, D.C., provoked jeers from a loud minority in the audience, made up largely of Catholics and Orthodox, many of them from the region or of Middle Eastern background. In June, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to divest from three firms doing business with Israel to protest Israeli policies towards Palestinians. More politically significant than those events, however, is a shift underway among some evangelicals, who traditionally have been Israel’s strongest Christian boosters in America.
The late Rev. Jerry Falwell, a founder of modern conservative religious activism, often boasted that America’s Bible Belt was Israel’s safety belt. But Falwell’s zeal for conservative red meat causes has become passé for much of the current generation of evangelical elites, who eschew the confrontational politics of the old religious right.
Polls show that evangelicals remain strongly pro-Israel and are America’s strongest pro-Israel demographic by far, with the possible exception of Jews. But there are few if any pro-Israel evangelical leaders today as outspoken and prominent as Falwell. And an increasing number of evangelicals in parachurch groups and evangelical schools are endorsing pro-Palestinian activism or at least a more neutral stance between Israel and its foes. Often the new evangelical perspective is premised on concern for Palestinian Christians, who number about 50,000, or just over 1 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Palestinian population.
One relatively new voice for evangelicals is the Telos Group, based in Washington, D.C., and winsomely advocating a “pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, pro-American, pro-peace movement.” Its founder is a U.S.-born Palestinian Christian attorney, and its executive director is Todd Deatherage, who was chief of staff to Senator Tim Hutchinson, the Republican senator from Arkansas, and later worked in the State Department under George W. Bush. Two evangelical bishops, one of whom is Hispanic, serve on the Telos board.
Deatherage belongs to a large orthodox Anglican church outside Washington attended by many prominent conservatives. Part of Telos’s mission is to send “influential Americans from across the political and theological spectra on high-touch, multi-narrative pilgrimages to the Holy Land,” where they are exposed to sympathetic Palestinians.
“The work of Telos is to contribute to the creation of a new paradigm, one in which Americans get to know real Israelis and Palestinians, respect them as individuals, and take in their stories,” Deatherage explained earlier this year. “There are some who believe our pro-Israel, pro-Palestine approach is nothing more than slick marketing, covering a more sinister (and one-sided) agenda,” he admitted. “Not only has our methodology been questioned, but so has our funding,” he added, obviously referring to grants to Telos by George Soros’s Open Society Institute. “And we make no apologies for welcoming financial support from any who will affirm freedom, security, and dignity for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”
During the recent Gaza conflict, Deatherage benignly blogged that a “ceasefire is needed immediately.” Neither “acts of terrorism nor aggressive military campaigns” can displace the need for “addressing the fundamental issues underlying the years of violence,” he noted, as “each side needs friends who will challenge them to do what is best for their own people, and, at the same time, who will encourage visionary leadership which realizes that the future of the two people is interconnected, that neither is going away, that the pain of grieving mothers is always the same, and that freedom and security for one people cannot be found at the expense of the other.”
Such agreeable appeals for peace and security for both Palestinians and Israelis from the new-style melodious evangelical activism are different from the denunciations of Israel by harder-line critics on the old religious left, especially the curia of Mainline Protestant agencies, whose constituencies are limited and lack political influence.
“Christ at the Checkpoint” is a conference in Bethlehem on the West Bank hosted by U.S. and Palestinian evangelicals every other year since 2010. It once featured anti-Israel rhetoric from Palestinian and U.S. church activists. Now the tone is softer, and hundreds of evangelicals from the United States attend. Speakers at this year’s conference, in March, featured a Dallas-area Southern Baptist pastor, the president of Oral Roberts University (who defended Israel), and the head of the World Evangelical Alliance. Also present was Palestinian Christian activist Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, a popular and effective speaker at U.S. evangelical events, such as the annual “Q” forum for culture-minded young U.S. evangelicals. Awad largely avoids direct criticism of Israel while citing Palestinian hardships and benevolently urging reconciliation.
Also at Christ at the Checkpoint this year was Porter Speakman Jr., producer of With God on Our Side, a film that criticizes Christian Zionism for giving “uncritical support to Israeli government policies, even those that privilege Jews at the expense of Palestinians, leading to great suffering among Muslim and Christian Palestinians alike and threatening Israel’s security as a whole.” The film has been popular at many evangelical churches and schools for several years.
Appearing in the film is Gary Burge, a New Testament professor at evangelicalism’s prestigious Wheaton College and the author of a popular 2013 book, Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told About Israel and the Palestinians. Burge took dozens of Wheaton students to the conference this year. Endorsers of With God on Our Side include evangelist Tony Campolo, Emergent church guru Brian McLaren, author and National Prayer Breakfast speaker Carl Medearis, and World Vision vice president Steven Haas, who attended Christ at the Checkpoint this year.
Support for Palestinian advocacy among evangelical missions groups like World Vision—which declares itself “pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-peace, pro-justice, and pro-Jesus”— is increasingly common. Evangelical missions personnel who work among Palestinians are sympathetic to their plight and often experience difficulties with Israeli authorities. Lynne Hybels, cofounder with her husband Bill Hybels of the nationally influential Chicago suburban megachurch Willow Creek, is a frequent spokesperson for World Relief, the relief arm of the National Association of Evangelicals and an advocate for thousands of rape victims in the Congo. Hybels recounts that five years ago Deatherage “introduced me to Israelis and Palestinians who said, ‘If you’re here to pick sides, go away. We don’t need you. But if you want to learn to be a common friend to us both, we welcome you.’ ”
Last fall, Hybels addressed Evangelicals for Social Action’s “Impact Holy Land” conference in Philadelphia, where she recounted having spoken at Christ at the Checkpoint and been derided there as a “threat to the state of Israel, a subtle (and therefore extremely dangerous) anti-Semite, a spokesperson for the PLO, and a Christian Palestinianist who traffics in anti-Israel propaganda and historical misinformation.” She also said she’d been chided for leading a “massive effort in the heart of the evangelical church to lure its members—especially its youth—away from the pro-Israel position God commands to an uncritical and unbiblical support for Palestinians.”
Speaking softly and thoughtfully, Hybels said she simply hopes for a time when Jews and Arabs are “living peacefully and equally as brothers and sisters,” which will be hard since “Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the continuing blockade of Gaza is a violation of human rights.” Palestinians must be “free from military occupation” and “have an equally valid right to live in the land and should have the same civil rights that are afforded to Israeli Jewish citizens, whether that’s in one state, two states, or however many states.” She rejected “any violence against civilians, whether carried out militarily or through guerrilla tactics.”
Statements like this from Hybels and most other evangelical critics of Israel usually sound nice and reasonable. They’re aimed mostly and often effectively at young, educated evangelicals looking to opt out of traditional culture war issues. Evangelical millennials esteem collaboration and reconciliation. Choosing sides in ancient conflicts can seem unappealing. Why not choose both sides equally, with a slant towards the less powerful?
Except that such professed neutrality is another form of choosing. Shifting America’s largest religious group away from its longtime partiality towards Israel could have important political and geostrategic implications. It also ignores history and today’s reality. The older evangelical generation recalled the Holocaust, Israel’s miraculous rebirth under U.N. auspices, and the equally miraculous Israeli victory in the 1967 war. They lived through the Cold War and thought of Israel as a key U.S. strategic partner.
Postmodern young evangelicals mostly see the two sides as competing, faraway peoples with equally valid narratives. That one side seeks coexistence while many on the other side seek eradication of their adversary is usually a part of the story not shared at “pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-peace events,” often featuring earnest Palestinian Christians and sometimes supportive Israeli peaceniks.
Countering the push to shift evangelicals away from Israel will require more than old-style “the Bible says” arguments. It will require intellectually substantive explanations as to why Israel merits survival and support in a fallen world often hostile both to Jews and to ordered liberty as lived out in democracies. It will require explaining that Palestinians don’t benefit from implausible dreams about returning to pre-1947. And it will require reminding even evangelicals that neither Providence nor the Bible is neutral between a people striving to survive and others striving to eliminate them.
Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and the author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century.