If you'd taken a poll last week among evangelical Christians in the United States, right after another Palestinian suicide bomber had gratuitously snuffed out the lives of 11 more Israelis, including four children--and if you had asked, "Where do your sympathies lie in this conflict?"--would you have been at all surprised to find two-thirds of the respondents siding with Israel?
That is almost certainly what you would have found. Expert observers aren't quite sure why, but conservative Christians very predictably line up in support of Israel.
But what might surprise you is how secular the justification for that support tends to be. When a nationwide poll last month gave respondents an opportunity to choose between theological reasons on the one hand and geopolitical reasons on the other, even Christians--by a 2-1 margin-tended to cite issues like military solidarity and democratic values rather than eschatological issues or Old Testament promises about Israel. (Details of the poll are available at www.standforisrael.org.)
All that and more came in for serious discussion by two dozen participants last week at the Ethics and Public Policy Center's "Evangelicals and Israel" gathering in Washington, D.C. The meeting, funded by the Pew Charitable Trust, brought together a diverse group that looked at both kinds of motivation for what tends, year in and year out, to bind American Christians to Israel.
Whatever unlikely glue the theological issues may provide between Christians and Jews, those same issues tend at the very same time to splinter and fragment Christians from themselves. Scholar Gerald McDermott summarized for the group the long history of widely ranging views. Some evangelicals think political Israel (including its territorial claims to land) is still central in God's scheme of things. Others argue that the Jews, as a people, have forfeited all claim to God's special covenant because of their repeated rebellion. A hundred other variations sit in between.
Indeed, American Christians' love affair with Israel is often much more intuitive than principled. Journalist David Aikman, formerly of Time and now at Trinity Forum, insisted that even dispensational theology has little to do with it. Noting how charismatic Christians worldwide--including perhaps millions in the house churches of China--tend to be highly pro-Israel, Mr. Aikman stressed that such people are almost always just following intuition.
A huge problem resulting from such fuzziness (and American Christians are probably every bit as fuzzy as are their Chinese brothers and sisters) is that terribly wrong conclusions are so easily drawn. Major media, always ready to paint overly simplistic black-and-white pictures, tend to lump all Christians together, reporting that "70 million evangelicals agree that Israel is entitled to the land it now holds." They might, but they might not. Fuller Seminary President Richard Mouw noted that it might be helpful if somebody seriously mapped out all the perspectives American evangelicals hold on the subject.
It would be a hard assignment. For there is a significant group within evangelicalism (some at the meeting said the group is growing rapidly) that would call themselves sympathetic toward Israel, but still puts a high priority on the plight of the Palestinians. Serge Duss of World Vision put the question bluntly to several participants who were not cautious in expressing their loyalty to Israel: "What," he said, "are you going to do about the Palestinians?" Nobody had a good answer, other than to say a little limply, "That's a very legitimate question."
But if nobody had a good answer, it's partly because the question itself is not in the first place altogether legitimate. Simply to ask the question-at least in the way it is often asked-often implies a sort of moral equivalence between the two causes. Yet, I believe the main reason people intuitively side with the Israelis is their sense that there is nothing approaching a moral equivalence between them.
That is hardly to make saints of all Jews (or Jewish causes) and devils of all Palestinians. It is simply to recognize who picks most of the fights, who systematically inculcates racial venom among their youngsters, and whose religion teaches the destruction of the other. You don't have to be too theologically sophisticated or too nuanced in reading every day's news to catch on: One of the parties in this squabble is easier to identify with than the other one.
To be sure, Israel could do a whole lot more to make things easier for its backers. Two issues were discussed at the Washington gathering: Israel itself could spiff up its own approach to religious freedom-perhaps especially with Christians. And Israel could (and should, as its duty to God) take a vastly improved leadership role in the Middle East in demonstrating how to take good care of alien people within its own borders. Those are not trivial issues.
But we don't always have a choice between right and wrong. Sometimes it's between wrong and evil. American evangelicals may not find that choice always to be pleasant--but neither, apparently, do they find it particularly hard.