Evangelicals and Israel: Pointing to the Third Millennium

Donald Wagner

Rev. Dr. Donald Wagner, an ordained Presybterian minister, is associate professor of Religion and Middle Eastern Studies, and executive director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at North Park University. He served from 1980-89 as National Director of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign. He is the author of Anxious for Armageddon, (1995), and Dying in the Land of Promise: Palestine and Palestinian Christianity from Pentecost to 2000 (revised edition, 2003).

Two incidents in the Fall of 1996 underscore the priority the Netanyahu Government will give to the evangelical Christians. The first occurred on October 4, 1996, when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu chose the convention of the International Christian Embassy—Jerusalem (ICEJ) as his venue for a hard-line defense of Israel's right to open the controversial tunnel in Jerusalem's Old City. Netanyahu's remarks were broadcast on CNN and many international media outlets with the Christian Embassy's name on the rostrum, implying that despite an outpouring of international criticism, his policies had the support of this so-called "Christian" organization.

ICEJ spokesman Charles Levine noted the importance of Christian Zionist support for Israel's hard-line policies: "We're talking about hundreds of millions of people out there whose Bible beliefs can be translated into support for Israel." Like his Likud mentors Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, Netanyahu will increasingly utilize the services of Christian Zionists to enhance and justify his government's political and public relations needs in the United States, particularly as controversial issues like Jerusalem, settlements, land confiscation, water, and political sovereignty rise to the foreground during negotiations with the Palestinians.

Three weeks later, the Israel Christian Advisory Council was was born in Tel Aviv's Panorama Hotel, apparently having been conceived and underwritten by Israel's Ministry of Tourism. Participants included the Rev. Dr. Don Argue, president of the influential National Association of Evangelicals, which represents approximately 25 million Christians in 49 denominations and 50,000 U.S. congregations; and the Rev. Brandt Gustavson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters, under whose auspices the sizable evangelical television and radio networks function. Dr. Argue, addressing the Israelis, stated: "Your best friends in the United States are American evangelicals. . . . We are a 'people of the book' first, and Israel is the land of the book. . . . We were taught at our mother's knee to love Israel."

North Americans can expect more visible support for the Netanyahu Government's political agenda from Israel’s old evangelical friends like Pat Boone, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, plus new evangelical leaders who view the modern state as a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. At the same time, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism is making a major investment to promote Holy Land tourism in North America, South Korea, Europe, and other markets. Israel hopes to revitalize its slumping tourism industry, which saw a 25 percent decline in the last quarter of 1996.

Themes to be emphasized in the tourism and public relations campaigns are Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem, its 50th anniversary, and the countdown to the year 2000 with its various "Armageddon" end-of-time prophecy sub-themes. In all planning and programming, the missing element will be the Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians, who will be bypassed by the new roads built on confiscated land for settlers and tourists, and new luxury hotels, such as those being constructed in "Upper" Nazareth and the Israeli settlement districts near Bethlehem. At least three recent tour groups have told me that their Israeli guides encouraged them to "avoid Bethlehem" because it is more dangerous now that it is under the Palestinian Authority. These are but hints of what is to come.

The American evangelical community is far from a monolithic and unified body. Numbering between 65-75 million, there are several traditions, sub-communities, and organizations that constitute this group. The term "evangelical" denotes an umbrella category that is nearly impossible to define in present-day American Christianity. One can find the fundamentalist-oriented Christian Coalition on the far-right while Jim Wallis of Sojourners Magazine and President Clinton's advisor, Dr. Tony Campolo of Eastern Baptist College, represent a politically liberal wing.

The evangelical "center," largely disengaged from Middle Eastern issues, represents perhaps 40 percent of American evangelicals, and is vulnerable to persuasion from a number of directions. Included in the evangelical community are growing numbers of ethnic minorities, especially African Americans, Hispanics, and Koreans. Added to the evangelical equation are the Orthodox evangelicals, who recently have affiliated with the Antiochian (Arab) Orthodox Church, and are sympathetic to the justice concerns of the Arab world.

A significant new area of growth in evangelical Christianity are the megachurches of 5,000-20,000 members as well as evangelicals within mainstream Protestant denominations (Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, etc.). These new tendencies of American evangelical growth could represent as many as 25 million people. Many churches and leaders within these new constituencies are not of the Christian Zionist orientation and some are acquainted with the grievances of Arab Christians. While there is a resurgence of Christian Zionist themes within the fundamentalist and Christian "right" wing of evangelicalism, the impact on the remaining 75 percent of evangelicals will be minimal.

One example is Willowcreek Church in South Barrington, Illinois. Organized as an independent mission to reach the “unchurched” in Chicago’s suburban northwest corridor, Willowcreek began in the 1970s with home meetings of a few dozen participants. Under Pastor Bill Hybels, Willowcreek is now the most influential “megachurch” in the world with 15,000 members and a multi-million dollar budget. Its vast mission arm reaches around the world. While the Middle East is not at the top of Willowcreek’s agenda, the issue receives balanced and fair treatment. There is no hint of a pro-Zionist perspective to Willowcreek's Middle East work. Annual trips to the Middle East include work projects in the West Bank and Galilee with Palestinian Christians, often led by Dr. Bilezekian, an Armenian Christian born in Beirut.

Another example is World Vision International, a prominent evangelical organization and the third largest non-governmental relief and development agency in the world. World Vision's projects in Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel serve the poorest of the poor, regardless of their religion or political affiliation. Projects near Hebron and the Gaza Strip have supported families of Palestinian prisoners, victims of Israeli house demolitions, and farmers who lost their land to illegal Israeli settlements.

The December, 1996 Link [“Slouching Toward Bethlehem”] told the story of World Vision’s appeal on behalf of George Ghattas, a Palestinian Christian from Beit Sahour, who lost his land and business when Israeli bulldozers cut down his olive trees during the seizure of the Abu Ghneim Mountain. World Vision—Jerusalem, in cooperation with the Palestinian Land and Water Establishment, appealed to the international community to take action on behalf of the Ghattas family.

Several other evangelical relief agencies and large churches increasingly are becoming involved in issues of Middle East justice. Through these efforts, thousands of North American evangelicals are now aware of the suffering that Palestinians, Lebanese, Egyptians, and others face daily. Both churches and individuals send personal financial support to projects in the West Bank and Gaza, pray regularly for the situation, and receive updates and personal letters from their new Middle Eastern friends.

There are numerous strategies and programs already being planned for the year 2000. While the majority of the strategies are being coordinated between large evangelical agencies and the Israeli government or its subsidiaries, there are some refreshing alternatives on the drawing board. One evangelical initiative, Holy Land 2000, is conducting its planning in full cooperation with Palestinian Christians, Muslims, and Jewish human rights agencies.

Whether these and other new efforts will gain more support and have a more constructive impact in the Middle East and among the broad and diverse American evangelical community remains to be seen. Clearly, the major "right" wing evangelical organizations have considerable funding, control of most electronic media outlets, and the full support of the Government of Israel. Also, there will be little political impact from the new developments as the moderate evangelicals will be less likely to engage in lobbying efforts for Middle East peace with justice. One can only hope that the gradual process of awareness will translate into some immediate and long-range practical and moral benefits to the Palestinian community and those throughout Israeli society who are working to build a just and durable peace.

This article comes from Middle East Window