A potentially transformative current is running just beneath the surface of evangelical Christian life in North America—one that may have troubling implications for Israel.
Pollsters who specialize in faith and religion report that white evangelicals under 50, millennials in particular, hold increasingly moderate views on theological, social and cultural issues compared to their more conservative elders. On questions such as gay marriage, evolution, immigration, climate change and—more marginally—party affiliation, they register more-centrist positions, reflecting the views of younger Americans as a whole.
Younger evangelicals are also less committed to the concept of biblical inerrancy, the belief that every word in the Bible is literally true. And this reliance on biblical authority, including divine support for Israel as the political manifestation of God’s Chosen People, forms the basis of the evangelical community’s long-standing support for a strong Israel. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus’ second coming is predicated on the ingathering of the Jews in Israel (though, problematically, once the Jews are gathered, they either convert or are cast into a fiery lake, as described in Revelation 21:8).
Pew’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study found that only 39 percent of evangelical Protestants under the age of 30 believe holy scripture is the word of God and should be taken literally, compared with 64 percent of those evangelical Protestants who are 65 or older. Other polls suggest that Israel does not rank as a top concern of younger evangelicals, as it did for older ones.
Until now, evangelicals have been a rock-solid base of support for Israel, both politically and through tourism. On college campuses, Jewish activists have looked to evangelicals for support in clashes with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and confrontations with groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine. So any erosion of that support would be cause for concern. And for Jewish leaders, these trends are a troubling counterpoint to other polls showing less connection to Israel by young American Jews.
Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, an evangelical research firm affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, says that younger evangelicals “are lagging a little behind on aspects of the authority and trust in the Bible.” Those among the cohort who most supported biblical inerrancy, he adds, were also the most supportive of Israel. McConnell notes that no one has yet polled this question directly: It may be simply that Israel is not that high in young evangelicals’ hierarchy of priorities.
“We know both trends are happening simultaneously, so there is definitely a correlation,” says Daniel Hummel, author of the forthcoming A Covenant of the Mind: Evangelicals, Israel, and the Construction of a Special Relationship. The declining belief in inerrancy is a factor, he says, but it is just one part of a more complex change in younger evangelical’s attitudes.
That wider change has not escaped the attention of activists. David Brog, founding executive director of Christians United for Israel, says the issue “has been front and center in my mind for the last five years.” He says millennial evangelicals may be motivated less by biblical inerrancy than by the example of Jesus’ life, “especially when it comes to standing with the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden.” For the more naïve among younger evangelicals, “that admirable impulse opens the door for people to come and separate evangelicals from Israel in a way they could not do with the prior generation,” to “exploit their Christian values to turn them into anti-Israel activists.”
Some see the connection differently, including Christian Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. “I find it hard to imagine that young evangelicals have a serious commitment to even quasi-Zionism based on the Bible,” Smith says. “I think their views on all this would be just more broadly driven by general cultural and political shifts.”
Smith does think, though, that there is reason to be concerned about the long-term prospects of American evangelical support for American and Israeli Jews and Israel. “Younger evangelicals are less staunchly committed to the U.S. being an unfailing ally of Israel,” he says. “And probably—if they knew anything—they would support pressuring Israel to come to a long-term peace settlement, even if it meant compromising some key things.”
Hummel suggests other reasons for concern. Evangelicals under 50 have grown up in “a different Middle East context,” one that has Israel secure and occupying the West Bank. While baby boomers remember the underdog Israel and the events of 1967 and 1973, younger evangelicals know only a militarily dominant Israel, and “it’s harder to identify with a regional power than with a vulnerable state.” This allows an opening for competing concerns to emerge, such as support for Arab Christians in the West Bank and Gaza and for movements such as Christ at the Checkpoint.
Younger evangelicals, Hummel says, “associate Christian Zionism with the Christian right,” seeing support for Israel as “part of the problematic culture wars that younger evangelicals are trying to get past.” Younger evangelicals, like others before them, have their own basket of issues, including sex trafficking, poverty and environmentalism, Hummel says. If Israel is being displaced, it’s “simply as part of a natural generational cycle.” But if young evangelicals shift the political map on Israel—“natural” or not—Israel and its supporters will have to deal with that changed reality on the ground.
Mark I. Pinsky is author of A Jew among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed.