Last month, tens of thousands gathered on the National Mall in Washington DC for the “March for Israel.” Most of the participants and speakers were Jews, but among them, was Pastor John Hagee, founder and chairman of Christian United for Israel, a lobby organization with ten million members, mostly Christian evangelicals. Haggy said in the rally: “those of us standing here and millions of other Christians were not here during the Holocaust, but we’re here now. And we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Jewish people. We stand until those 240 hostages are returned to their homes.”
For many evangelical Christians, Israel is indeed not merely a “regular” nation but rather a special entity that can only be truly understood in accordance with the manner that they read and interpret their sacred scriptures.
However, American evangelical Christianity is changing, and the realities of evangelical-Israeli relations are more complex and varied than what the speeches at the rally tried to convey. Among evangelicals and born-again Christians, there are generational differences, eschatological disagreements, and complex political opinions that often are ignored by commentators from academia and the media.
In our new book, Christian Zionism in the Twenty-First Century, we draw on three original surveys conducted in 2018, 2020, and 2021 to explore the religious beliefs and foreign policy attitudes of evangelical and born-again Christians in the United States. We analyze the views of ordinary churchgoers and evangelical pastors to understand the religious, social, and political factors that lead the members of this religious community to support the State of Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Through rigorous quantitative analyses and careful textual study of ordinary evangelicals’ written comments, we rectify many misconceptions. One significant finding of our research is that a generational divide is emerging within the evangelical community and that this divide impacts many attitudes concerning both domestic politics and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and US mediation efforts.
In 2018, we conducted our first survey among 1,000 ordinary evangelical churchgoers. In that survey, we observed strong support for Israel across practically all segments of the evangelical and born-again community. However, our study also discovered that young evangelicals (18-29) are less supportive of Israel and more likely to express support for the Palestinians than the older age cohorts. We also discovered that younger evangelical and born-again Christians are more likely to profess “middle of the road” or centrist ideological positions and hold much warmer feelings towards Muslims than the older respondents.
What is particularly important is that these age differences were present even after we statistically controlled for a vast variety of religious, sociological, and political explanations. Age was one of the three most robust predictors of support for Israel; under-30 evangelicals were almost 150% less likely to express strong support for Israel than evangelicals over 65. Our 2018 sample included only 148 young evangelical respondents and given the gravity of our findings, we wanted to delve deeper. To better understand the attitudes of this age group, we commissioned a new survey in late March 2021. This poll was conducted among 700 evangelical and born-again Christians under 30 years of age. This survey confirmed a dramatically different set of attitudes about domestic and foreign policy among under-30 evangelicals than are typically observed for the evangelical and born-again community as a whole.
The new study showed a sharp decline in support for Israel among this age group, even in comparison to the 2018 results. The chart below shows the responses to a repeated question in both surveys: “When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian Dispute, where do you place your support?”
|under 30 (2021)
|Number of respondents
|Very Strong Support for Palestine
|Lean Toward Support for Palestine
|Support Neither Israel nor Palestine
|Lean Toward Support for Israel
|Very Strong Support for Israel
In the 2021 survey, only a third of our under-30 evangelical and born-again respondents said they supported Israel, and approximately a quarter expressed their support for the Palestinians at any level. More than 4 out of 10 young evangelicals in our sample expressed either ambivalence or a deliberate decision not to endorse either side by selecting the “support neither” response option, and close to 1 in 4 under-30 respondents supported the Palestinians. The data proved that young evangelicals are much less likely to be Israel loyalists than their parents and grandparents.
To further understand how these young respondents justify their positions concerning the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, we asked the participants a follow-up question to explain in their own words why they chose the Palestinians, Israel, or neither. Utilizing content analysis, we analyzed these free-form responses and categorized them into three broad categories: stances based on religious and scriptural arguments, those based on political arguments and historical claims, and those that lacked clarity or encompassed the “I don’t know” responses.
Two major observations seem to emerge from these data. First, close to 3 in 5 young evangelicals who support Israel ground their preference in religious reasoning; thus, most of the pro-Israel responses were justified on the basis of Christian beliefs related to the Abrahamic Covenant (the covenant God promised to Abraham and his offspring that made them the “chosen people” who are entitled to a promised land). For example, one respondent wrote that they support Israel: “Because Israel is God’s country.”
On the other hand, most of those who supported the Palestinians used political/social justice arguments and assertions of the Palestinians as victims of Israeli aggression. Thus, one responded wrote: “It’s wrong what they’re [Israelis] doing to the Palestinians. #FreePalestine”
However, the largest share of respondents encompassed those who supported neither Israel nor the Palestinians. The most common argument in the free-form responses for the young evangelicals’ neutrality was their lack of knowledge and unwillingness to judge something that they don’t know or understand fully.
A sizable portion of both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian respondents predictably invoke Christian values to justify their positions. Thus, supporting Israel is narrated as a Christian value (through a reference to the Abrahamic covenant), while supporting the Palestinians is often justified by reference to another Christian value: standing with the downtrodden and oppressed. In a similar vein, some respondents justified their neutrality by referring to the Christian mandate to love all of humanity. However, religious arguments dominate only Israel’s supporters’ justifications, thus confirming that religious reasoning, especially rooted in the Abrahamic covenant, remains a powerful force in the evangelical attitudes toward Israel.
The narrative of victimhood is also used by both camps to explain their loyalties. The pro-Israel group argues that Israel is the victim of Palestinian aggression, while the pro-Palestinian group says the opposite, and the neutral group says that both parties to the dispute are equally bad (or equally good). Demonization of the opponent also plays a role. While Israel’s supporters label the Palestinians as terrorists, some of the pro-Palestinian evangelicals cite Israeli brutality and use anti-Semitic tropes to explain their position.
Another fascinating insight was the commanding power of “gut feelings” that simplify difficult choices for the young evangelicals who may know little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Research on public opinion showed that rather than holding fully formed and stable attitudes, survey respondents might construct their responses based on the limited considerations accessible to them when asked. Thus, when a person has a good “gut feeling” toward the Palestinians, that positive affect makes up for the lack of knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This, in turn, explains why and how respondents who just expressed strong support for the Palestinians in a closed-end question could moments later indicate in a written response that they do not know how to explain this choice.
It is noteworthy that only 21.2% of those who said they support Israel potentially relied on their knowledge from the “gut,” in contrast to 39.9% of the Palestinian supporters. Israel’s supporters were thus much better equipped to justify their support on the basis of concrete religious and political/historical claims than the evangelical respondents who favored the Palestinians. We take this to mean that pro-Israel forces in the evangelical community are significantly more successful than the pro-Palestinian evangelicals in articulating a clear and coherent set of arguments that are then widely internalized by their supporters.
What still remains unclear – and will remain so for quite a while – is whether the attitudes of these young Americans will become more favorable toward Israel as they age (and thus align closely with the views of previous generations), or whether their attitudes will remain critical of Israel even as this generation grows older, thus signaling a major shift in evangelical attitudes at the overall community level.
Motti Inbari is a professor of religion at UNC Pembroke. Kirill Bumin is an Associate Dean of the Metropolitan College and the Director of the Summer Term at Boston University.