WASHINGTON — Figures with deep roots in America's religious right have launched a quiet effort aimed at pushing evangelical Christians away from decades of growing loyalty to Israel and toward increased solidarity with the Palestinians.
The campaign by a coalition of religious leaders, international nonprofits, and activists has taken place in recent years largely behind the scenes and away from the prying eyes of the political press — and it's being driven by a generation of Evangelicals alienated by the way their faith was yoked to Republican foreign policy during the Bush years. Now, organizations like the Telos Group and the large Christian nonprofit World Vision have joined a small army of ministers and Christian opinion-makers working to reorient Evangelicals' stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — producing documentaries about the plight of Palestinian Christians, providing theological rationale for a more "balanced" view of the issue, and taking Evangelicals on trips to the Middle East.
The goal is to soften the bulletproof political alliance between American Evangelicals and Israel — forged over decades of successful courtship by Israeli governments and pro-Israel forces in the U.S. — and to make room on the religious right for Palestinian sympathies. If the movement is successful, it would represent a move toward mainline, politically liberal Christian denominations that have long been aligned with the Palestinian cause. The Presbyterian Church USA, for instance, briefly adopted a policy of divesting from some companies doing business in Israel.
The campaign has alarmed America's most committed Christian supporters of Israel, who acknowledge their rivals' message is gaining momentum within the church.
"This effort is being led by Palestinian Christians who, while not always Evangelicals, are quite adept at using evangelical language and imagery in their effort to blame Israel and Israel alone for Palestinian suffering," said David Brog, executive director of Christians United For Israel, a key group in rallying American Christians to the Jewish state. "The movement has gotten louder because they have more money to spend. So we're seeing more anti-Israel Christian films, speakers, and conferences. It's very much grasstops, not grassroots."
Brog said his rivals' fledgling success should push Zionists to engage more actively in the evangelical debate over Israel.
"We're also seeing some signs that this message is resonating with the rising generation of Evangelicals — the millennial Evangelicals," Brog added. "So we can't afford to wait. We must speak out and correct the record before more of our young people are led astray."
One of the evangelical leaders calling for a more "nuanced" view of the conflict is Todd Deatherage, who spent five years in the Bush State Department before co-founding the Telos Group to expose Evangelicals to the complexities of the issue. He said their purpose is not to persuade Christians to turn against Israel, but rather "to affirm and support the dignity of all the people of the Holy Land, to be truly pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian at the same time."
To achieve this, his group organizes about 15 trips to Israel every year, where American participants — mostly Evangelicals determined to be open-minded and influential in their respective communities — meet with peace activists, victims of violence on both sides of the conflict, and members of the Bethlehem Bible College, which trains Arab Christian pastors. The objective, Deatherage says, is to "change the conversation" among conservative Christians in the U.S.
"We want people to go on these trips and then go back and change others' minds by talking about their own experience, taking the things they've learned and using them to help others understand what it means to be global citizens," he said.
Lynne Hybels, an evangelical writer and minister heavily engaged in what she calls the "pro-peace" movement in Israel, was even more blunt about their intentions. She said they hope to "build a political constituency that supports peace and supports policymakers with the courage and commitment to work for peace." As Hybels sees it, that means occasionally standing up for Palestinians — and not allowing Christian critics to get away with accusing them of "abandoning God's chosen people."
There has always been a small vocal minority of American evangelical provocateurs who rail against modern-day Israel at progressive political rallies and in the pages of Sojourners magazine. But the current campaign is attracting attention in large part because its leaders boast the kind of conservative Christian credentials even Mike Huckabee could appreciate.
For example, a 2010 documentary questioning the wisdom of Evangelicals' unwavering commitment to Israel was endorsed by a top official at World Vision, one of the largest Christian humanitarian organizations in the world. The film has since been screened several times at World Vision events, and it received a favorable review in America's leading evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, which declared, "Christian Zionism is officially on notice."
Meanwhile, Gabe Lyons — a young evangelical organizer and graduate of Jerry Falwell's Liberty University — has put on series of Christian conferences aimed, in part, at promoting an "open, honest discussion" on the Middle East conflict. Like many of his peers, he believes the evangelical conversation on this topic has been hijacked by political activists — and he wants to reclaim it.
"The evangelical community has only heard one narrative on this issue. Part of the responsibility we have is to make sure they hear the rest of it," said Lyons, who believes he's witnessing a shift in opinion among "younger Evangelicals who are just getting full exposure to what's really happening in the region."
The foreign policy of the conservative Christian movement has long been defined by a fervent, often biblically inspired, devotion to Israel, with top Republican leaders frequently citing their faith as a driving force in their commitment to protecting the "Promised Land." This dynamic was most visible during the presidency of George W. Bush, a political icon of Christian conservatism who often framed his agenda for the Middle East — which included an unwavering alliance with Israel — in terms of divine destiny. In the 2012 Republican primaries, Texas Gov. Rick Perry declared, "As a Christian, I have a clear directive to support Israel."
The case for Israel in American politics is hardly based solely on faith. Evangelicals, like other Americans, hear arguments about Israel's place as a free-market democracy in a region that's broadly hostile to American interests. But for many believers, the widespread evangelical view that modern-day Israel represents the fulfillment of God's covenant with the Jewish people is rooted in the "dispensationalist" theories of 19th-century theologian John Nelson Darby. The idea was popularized among U.S. Christians over several decades, with books like the 1970 best-seller The Late Great Planet Earth — a sort of end-times catalog of world events that supposedly proved Armageddon was only a decade away — and the massively popular Left Behind series. For the vast majority of conservative Evangelicals, it has become an article of faith that Israel deserves the absolute support of America's diplomatic efforts and military might.
If Evangelicals' minds are beginning to change — as advocates on both sides of the church's Israel divide contend — the trend has yet to be borne out in public polling. A Pew survey last year found that a staggering 82% of white Evangelicals believe God gave Israel to the Jewish people — more than twice the proportion of American Jews, and up 10 points from a similar poll in 2005.
Still, Deatherage says Evangelicals don't need to abandon their theological beliefs about Israel in order to feel Christian sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinians. In fact, Deatherage said the most eye-opening experience for many of the people he takes on Telos trips is interacting with the Palestinian Christian community.
"The fact is that there is a church on the ground," Deatherage said. "We imagine this conflict to be between Jews and Muslims, and so when people see that there are Christians there, and even Palestinian Evangelicals, they didn't know that. I mean, there's a Bible college in Bethlehem, where people talk about their faith the very same way they do, they read the same books, many of them studied in the same universities in the U.S."
And as several advocates pointed out, even a minor retreat from the religious right's current hard-line position on Israel would give Republicans substantially more flexibility in their foreign policy. Already, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — whose frequent dustups with Israel hawks in his party have been well-documented — is emerging as a legitimate contender for the 2016 GOP nomination. What's more, Rex Elsass, a Paul adviser with close ties to the conservative Christian movement, said the senator has managed make inroads with conservative Christian voters despite his mixed record on Israel.
"I love Israel. It's a place I have a lot of passion for, and a lot of interest in personally," said Elsass, who is making his third trip to the Holy Land, with Huckabee, later this year. "But obviously, Palestinian Christians need to be treated with respect, and their rights need to be respected... We always prefer that the weapons of war be beaten into ploughshares. And that is certainly something the Judeo-Christian faith is ultimately called to."