Why American Evangelicals Back Israel: ‘Neutrality Isn’t an Option’

ARLINGTON, Texas — Pastor Jared Wellman took the stage Sunday morning at Tate Springs Baptist Church, 7,000 miles west of Jerusalem, to talk to his congregation about Israel.

“Neutrality isn’t an option,” Mr. Wellman told the crowd, to murmurs of “Amen.” He traced the history of aggression and oppression against the Jewish people through ancient Egypt into the Roman Empire and then from Nazi Germany to the attacks on civilians last weekend by Hamas terrorists from Gaza, which he described as “acts conceived in the darkest pits of hell.”

American evangelicals are among Israel’s most ardent advocates, compelled in part by their interpretation of scripture that says God’s ancient promise to the Jewish people designating the region as their homeland is unbreakable. Some evangelicals also see Israel’s existence connected to biblical prophecy about the last days of the world before a divine theocratic kingdom can be established on earth.

Now, one week after at least 1,300 people in Israel were killed in Hamas attacks, and as the number of dead in Gaza soared past 2,400 in Israeli airstrikes, evangelical leaders across the United States are voicing that support in sermons, public statements and calls to action.

“There’s probably no greater friend to the state of Israel than American evangelical Christians,” said Daniel Darling, director of Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

Conservative evangelicals have long formed the backbone of the Republican Party’s support of Israel. (Evangelicals cheered when President Donald J. Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, announcing that he would move the United States Embassy there.)

That support is not just abstractly political. American Christians flock to Israel as pilgrims, sometimes on trips sponsored by churches like Tate Springs, or led by guides who specialize in Christian history. Some tourists memorialize their trips with tattoos or get baptized in the Jordan River, where Jesus is said to have been baptized by John the Baptist.

At Tate Springs on Sunday, Mr. Wellman, after pointing to a new page on the church website directing prayers and donations to Israel, led the congregation in prayer: for peace, for justice and for “innocent people in Gaza, in the West Bank and in Israel.”

In a pew toward the back of the church, Brandy and Brian Johnson welcomed the message. But their minds were also on more practical concerns: Just last week, they paid more than $10,000 for a “bucket list” trip to Israel sponsored by the church and scheduled for January, which is now unlikely to take place. Mrs. Johnson had been looking forward to walking through historical sites there, “just to know that it’s his land,” she said, referring to Jesus.

At Sunnyside Baptist Church in Kingsport, Tenn., on Sunday, the congregation cheered the return of a tour group of about 50 people from the church who had gotten stuck in Jerusalem for several days after the attacks.

“This has been a week unlike any week that I have ever experienced,” the church’s associate pastor, David Luster, said from the stage, noting that he had been praying constantly for the travelers and for Israel.

Many evangelical pastors condemned the assaults by Hamas and urged their congregations to pray for a country to which many of them feel intense spiritual, cultural and political connections.

Others took a more apocalyptic tone.

At Radiant Church, which has several locations in southwest Michigan, the pastor, Lee Cummings, preached a sermon about the escalating war between Israel and Hamas, describing the Jewish people’s right to the land as an inheritance from God.

Peace between the Palestinian and Israeli people is not possible right now because of Hamas, he said, speaking ominously about future violence. “When they’re done with the Jews, they’re coming for Christians,” he warned. “Prepare your hearts for the rising storm because this isn’t calming down.”

An “Evangelical Statement in Support of Israel” was signed by about 90 pastors and other leaders last week, including the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Bart Barber, and the editor in chief of Christianity Today, Russell Moore.

The statement condemned the attacks by Hamas and affirmed “Israel’s right and duty to defend itself against further attack,” citing Christian just-war tradition and a passage from the New Testament book of Romans on governmental authorities as agents of God’s justice.

The intensity of American evangelical attachment to the state of Israel is impossible to disentangle from popular beliefs about the role of the state of Israel in the end times. Books like “The Late Great Planet Earth,” an overheated tour of apocalyptic predictions published in 1970, and the “Left Behind” series of novels reinforced the appeal for many evangelicals of interpreting contemporary global events as the culminations of prophecies recorded in the Bible.

In Plano, Texas, the pastor at Prestonwood Baptist Church, Jack Graham, who advised Mr. Trump when he was in office,

evoked the specter of the end times. “The last days are coming and are here, when you will come again, for your church and for your people,” he prayed.

More than 60 percent of American evangelicals believe humanity is living in the end times, according to a survey last year by the Pew Research Center. (For comparison, 39 percent of American adults overall shared that belief.)

And many evangelicals see Israel as a key setting for those events. Four out of five American evangelicals say that the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948 and the return there of millions of Jewish people were fulfillments of biblical prophecy, according to a survey conducted in 2017. Almost half of respondents said the Bible is the primary influence of their opinions on Israel.

The survey was conducted by LifeWay Research, which is associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, and it was co-sponsored by an organization that evangelizes to Jewish people.

Joel C. Rosenberg, the survey’s other co-sponsor, was born in the United States but has lived in Israel for almost a decade. He hosts “The Rosenberg Report,” a show broadcast on the conservative evangelical Trinity Broadcasting Network that offers a “biblical perspective” on Middle East news, often with an eye to how news events line up with biblical prophecies.

In an interview, he described American evangelicals’ support for the country as primarily theological, not political.

“God has laid out his love and his special plan for Israel and the Jewish people, starting in Genesis 12 and going right through to the book of Revelation,” he said.

Other Christian groups have taken a more circumspect approach, condemning violence against all civilians and stopping short of outright support for either side of the conflict. Many evangelical leaders, while firm in their support of Israel, acknowledged the Palestinian Christian population and prayed for them, and emphasized that not all Palestinians are responsible for the actions of Hamas. Though the Palestinian population is largely Muslim, a segment of the population is Christian and has long been part of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions.

But the grip of apocalyptic prophecies on the evangelical imagination is declining in some corners. At least one Protestant denomination has removed assertions about the end times from their statements of core beliefs in recent years. And younger evangelicals are distinctly less likely to view news events in Israel through the lens of biblical prophecy. Like their generational peers, they are less likely to support Israel overall.

Mr. Wellman, the pastor at Tate Springs Baptist Church, who is 40, once endorsed a theological framework that sees contemporary events in Israel as ushering in the end times. But a few years ago, he began to rethink that piece of his theology. These days, he said, “it’s really hard to find people my age in my circles” who interpret every event in the Middle East as correlating with specific biblical prophecies.

His message at Tate Springs on Sunday asked his congregation to think about the situation historically, rather than purely “eschatologically or prophetically.”

But the shift in his theology hasn’t changed his affections, he said. As a pastor, “you give your whole life to studying a small piece of real estate about the size of New Jersey,” he said. “I love this nation and these people.”

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