Changes on the Evangelical Front
by Dexter Van Zile
Evangelical Protestants in the United States have, along with American Jews, been the most ardent supporters of the Jewish state since its establishment in 1948.
For people who think Israel’s founding is a good thing, Evangelical support for Israel is a source of comfort. American Evangelicals who represent a significant portion of the American population have proven quite willing to invest the time, energy and money necessary to have an influence on both public opinion and foreign policy in the United States.
Evangelical support for Israel does have its downside however, because a lot of people harbor an unshakeable contempt for Evangelicals as a group and in some instances, this contempt colors peoples’ perceptions of Israel. The logic is that if those nasty Evangelicals support Israel, then Israel itself must be a bad thing to support.
Nevertheless, American Evangelicals have served as a powerful bulwark against anti-Zionist activism from the hard left in the United States.
But alas, as George Harrison once said, “All things must pass.” Change is taking place in American Evangelicalism that will affect how (and how much) it supports Israel in its battle against Islamism in the decades ahead.
As a subgroup, American Evangelicalism has historically benefited from being in tension with American society. But there are limits to how much American Evangelicals can stand in opposition to the forces of change in the United States without retreating into an isolating sectarianism that diminishes the community’s ability to interact with the rest of American society. These days, American Evangelicalism is reaching a breaking point with its relationship with the rest of American society and with its own young people.
It’s a complex story but the upshot is this: An increasing number of young Evangelical Protestants, especially those in their twenties and thirties, are internalizing the contempt leveled at their community by outsiders. They are feeling isolated from mainstream American society because they belong to a community that is increasingly regarded as a bastion of angry bible-thumping bigots who are opposed to scientific, intellectual and political progress. And the young people who are born into Evangelicalism don’t like the reputation they’ve been saddled with.
Evangelical leaders and commentators are fully aware of what’s going on.
David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons documented growing levels of contempt for Christians, Evangelicals especially in their 2007 book, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity … And Why It Matters, (Baker Books). In their text, which is based on extensive surveys and interviews, Kinnaman and Lyons detail a growing hostility toward Christians in the United States in general and antipathy toward Evangelicals in particular.
“Disdain for evangelicals among the younger set is overwhelming and definitive,” they write, reporting that 49 percent of non-Christians surveyed between the ages of 16 to 29 and who were aware of the phrase “Evangelical” had a negative impression of the community. Only three percent of the non-Christians surveyed had a good impression of the community.
This disdain is having an impact on the community itself. Young Christians, Kinnaman and Lyons report, feel they must “distance themselves from the current ‘branding’ of Christianity” in order to protect their ability to bring others into the faith.” The authors report these young people “don’t fear being unpopular, but they feel that raising the Christian flag would actually undermine their ability to connect with people and to maintain credibility with them.”
In a follow-up book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…And Rethinking Faith (Baker, 2011), Kinnaman reports that this sense of isolation from American society (documented in unChristian) is one of a number of factors having an impact on the ability of Evangelicalism to recruit the next generation of believers into its ranks. He writes that “many young Christians and ex-Christians feel as though the church makes them choose between faithfulness to friends and faithfulness to faith.”
Many young Evangelicals are leaving the community altogether, while others are casting about for a signal to send to their non-Evangelical peers that they while they are still committed to their faith, they do not buy into everything their community says about the issues of the day.
The main issue driving this schism is how Christians and society at large should respond to the increasing visibility of gays and lesbians in American society and to their demands for the right to marry, adopt children, and in some religious churches, serve in the pulpit.
It’s still a highly contested issue, but it appears that the momentum is on the side of gay rights activists. An increasing number of states have legalized gay marriage, and public opinion is shifting in favor of legalization. Opposition to gay marriage is on the decline among Evangelicals, particularly amongst the younger segment of the community.
This is forcing Evangelical leaders to respond.
Some Protestant leaders – particularly those who are part of the “emerging church” which is made up of theologically and politically liberal refugees from the fundamentalist wing American Evangelicalism – are arguing that it is time to acknowledge gay rights, even if it means risking being drummed out of the fold of American Evangelicalism altogether. Brian McClaren, one of the leaders of the “emerging” church falls into this category.
Other Evangelical leaders, particularly those on the left, who are sympathetic to gays and lesbians, but are not willing to leave the fold of Evangelicalism, affirm the Bible’s teachings regarding homosexuality but assert that it’s something the community needs to talk about. Tony Campolo, one of the leaders of the Evangelical left, typifies this response.
Other Evangelicals – those in the center and on the right of the movement condemn the hateful rhetoric that came out of the mouths of some Evangelical leaders during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s but state that Biblical teachings regarding homosexuality are non-negotiable. In the understanding of these Evangelicals, people who have same-sex attractions who are unable to form a union with someone from the opposite sex are called by the church to remain celibate. According to this worldview, Christians are called to stand with gays and lesbians as they struggle with their sexual identity. This seems to be the editorial stance of Christianity Today, the flagship publication of American Evangelicalism.
This discussion for many young Evangelicals may be too little too late. In December 2012, Evangelical pastor John S. Dickerson lamented that “a majority of young people raised as evangelicals are quitting the church, and often the faith, entirely.” He adds: “Evangelicals have not adapted well to rapid shifts in the culture – including, notably, the move toward support for same-sex marriage. The result is that evangelicals are increasingly typecast as angry and repressed bigots.”
The challenge facing Evangelical leaders is that there is an upper limit to how far they can go accommodate the ongoing shift in public opinion regarding homosexuality without acceding to a revolutionary change in how their community interprets the Bible. Both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are pretty clear in their assessment of homosexuality as a sin. And one of the primary aspects of Evangelical identity is that it places a great emphasis on the Bible as a reliable guide to belief and practice.
Consequently, Evangelical leaders and young people are caught in a dilemma. If they maintain their Biblical faith, they risk being isolated from mainstream American society. If they accommodate public opinion on homosexuality, they risk becoming unmoored from the faith of their fathers and ostracized from community into which they are born.
In response to this dilemma, young Evangelicals (and the leaders who cater to them) are casting about for ways to send off a signal that they are not like those “other” retrograde Evangelicals that make the papers. Tony Campolo, a previously mentioned leader of the Evangelical Left gave voice to this concern while speaking to an audience of 600 Evangelicals, which included a large contingent of people in their 20s and 30s, in 2012.
Lamenting the suspicion he has to overcome when speaking on college campuses in the U.S., Campolo reported “The word ‘Evangelical’ has collected a lot of ugly baggage. When I go to speak at a place like Dartmouth College or Harvard University, the red flags go up. Immediately I am defined as a Christian who is anti-women, anti-gay, pro-war, anti-Arab. It goes and on.” Campolo continued:
And I have to stand back and say, “That’s not who I am.” And I’m tired of having to explain myself and I think a lot of Evangelicals who are not anti-women, anti-gay, anti-environmental, anti-Arab have a hard time explaining themselves. So a group of us sat together and said, “Can we come up with a new name?” We got a new name from a secular Jewish country and western disc jockey in Nashville, Tennessee [laughter] who began to refer to us as “Red Letter Christians.” You know the old bibles that have the words [of Jesus] in red letters. We’re going to be red letter Christians. We’re going to take the red letters of the bible seriously. We’re going to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously.
Campolo, interestingly enough, offered this testimony at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference being held in Bethlehem in 2012, where Israel was put in the docket for judgment while the sins of its adversaries was ignored. The story told at this conference was similar to the story told by mainline Protestants about the Arab-Israeli conflict: Israel can bring a unilateral end to the Arab-Israeli conflict by ceding territory to the Palestinians. And like mainline Protestants who embrace this story, Evangelicals who buy into this narrative ignore a troubling reality – that Israel has been attacked very virtually every bit of territory from which it has withdrawn since the Oslo Accords.
There are some differences in the two narratives proffered by activists in the mainline and Evangelical communities, however. While mainline peace activists portray Israel as a singular obstacle to peace and human rights in the Middle East, Evangelical peace activists remind their fellow Evangelicals that the modern state of Israel is a homeland for Christ-denying Jews. They also set up a dichotomy between support for Israel and the call to spread the Gospel to Muslims in the Middle East.
This agenda, propounded in movies like With God on Our Side and Little Town of Bethlehem, is gaining traction amongst young Evangelical Protestants in the United States. David Brog, executive director for Christians United for Israel (CUFI) offered this warning to journalist Jim Fletcher:
Anti-Israel activists are making surprising inroads into the evangelical community, especially among the Millennial generation. They are telling lies about Israel. But their lies are hitting the right moral notes and they are making progress. We ignore them at our peril.
The irony is this: In their effort to protect themselves from the charge of anti-gay bigotry, young Evangelicals are embracing another form of bigotry: Hostility toward the Jewish people and their homeland.
Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.