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By Jim Fletcher
Although a rising number of “New Evangelical” Christian leaders like Cameron Strang, Erwin McManus, and Scot McKnight tweet photos of themselves with President Obama, and a general leftward tilt has emerged within evangelicalism, one front in the cultural religious wars is particularly hot at the moment: Israel and the Palestinians.
As recently as the ‘90s, evangelical leaders had to feel good about the strength of support for the Jewish state, especially in traditionally strong places like the Southern Baptist Convention and the Assemblies of God. Indeed, a packed-out gathering I attended to honor Benjamin Netanyahu in 1997 was so emotionally charged that one wondered if Ronald Reagan could have been any more beloved.
All that is changing.
In November 2012, Blue Like Jazz author Donald Miller wrote a scathing blogpost, and the object of his ire was Israel. Alleging—among other things—that Israel actually controls the calorie intake of Gazans. Miller presented a fairly typical rant that has been passed from the Palestinian Authority to evangelical leadership.
No longer are undocumented charges fired at Israel from America’s traditionally liberal mainline churches. Now, the rhetoric flows from the pens, keyboards, and mouths of rising stars like Lynne Hybels (co-founder of WillowCreek), Shane Claiborne, and Margaret Feinberg.
Even millionaire businessman Mart Green has gotten into the act, producing the 2011 film, “Little Town of Bethlehem,” which purports to give a balanced view of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but in fact tilts heavily toward the Palestinians. Green, who keeps a low profile, is firmly entrenched in the Bible Belt, both figuratively and literally. His Mardel Christian bookstore chain is headquartered in Oklahoma City, along with his family’s Hobby Lobby empire.
Among the skewed charges emanating from within the fort of Evangelicalism now is the one that portrays Bethlehem as a “prison,” in which hapless Palestinians are completely encircled by a high, thick wall and guard towers. The imagery fits well with Yasser Arafat’s old propaganda that flipped the Jews’ experience with the Nazis.
Of course, Israel’s security barrier is found on two sides of the famous little biblical town, not four. And the barrier was erected to stop the murder of Jews. Specifically, only a tiny portion of the wall is cement, with the rest being a fence. This is lost on the evangelicals being targeted by Palestinian propagandists; after all, how many Americans have actually been to Bethlehem?
This is a reality the New Evangelicals are loath to talk about much.
David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), is well aware of the inroads the Palestinian narrative has made into American churches:
“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.”
Miller, who has not brought forth documentation so far for the “starvation” charge against Israel, is a leading light among Millennials. He and his friend, Cameron Strang (publisher of Relevant magazine) visited what they call “Israel/Palestine” last year, along with Hybels, who is acting as a mentor of sorts for young evangelicals eager to free Palestinians from the “occupation.”
Anti-Israel ideas incubated for decades within American seminaries, but have now reached full flower in the wider population.
In 2011, David Gushee (Mercer University) and Glen Stassen (Fuller Theological Seminary) penned an open letter to “Christian Zionists,” accusing those of us who identify with the movement as “sinning” due to support for the Jewish state. It is curious that they evidently don’t believe their own camp is sinning by supporting the Palestinians.
Rank-and-file evangelicals, though, are for the most part unaware of this shift that is taking place. It is easy to continue believing “70 million evangelicals” support Israel, but the spokesmen and leaders of the past (such as Jerry Falwell) are passing from the scene.
As they do, a new generation of leaders suspicious of Israel and her supporters are fomenting a growing hostility for the Jewish state…and her backers in the church.