WASHINGTON — The nation’s main coalition of evangelical Christian churches is under internal pressure to adopt a Middle East policy for the first time, and observers expect the group to emerge more centrist and moderate than its current image.
In recent weeks, key members of the National Association of Evangelicals, a loose federation of 52 denominations with 30 million followers, have been pushing for an internal process that would culminate with an official position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Those behind the push favor a resolution that would, in addition to strongly supporting Israel and its well-being, recognize the rights of Palestinians and call for a two-state solution.
Those evangelicals pushing for an official policy say that they are responding to unconditionally pro-Israel comments attributed to the association’s president, the Rev. Ted Haggard, during his recent trip to Israel. After a May 10 meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Sharon, Haggard was quoted in The Jerusalem Post as saying that his organization’s official policy was to support Israel “come hell or high water” and that he and his fellow evangelicals believe that Sharon was chosen by God to lead Israel in this difficult time in history.
Haggard immediately denied making the comments, but not in time to stop them from being carried in American Christian newspapers.
In recent years, as Jerusalem became increasingly isolated internationally, evangelicals — who supplied an estimated 40% of President Bush’s votes in 2004 — emerged as a key pillar of pro-Israel activity in Washington. Critics of various religious and political stripes, however, have sought to discredit this support by tying it — despite denials from evangelical leaders — to the belief that the ingathering of Jewish exiles is needed to bring about Armageddon. Jewish interfaith experts say that a balanced statement on Israel would help to short-circuit such efforts to discredit evangelical pro-Israel activism.
“That would be fabulous. It would be exactly what we need, which is to create in America a mainstream consensus commitment to a two-state solution, to protect Israel’s security and provide for a true Palestinian state,” said David Elcott, the American Jewish Committee’s director of U.S. interreligious affairs.
Elcott said that a balanced statement would serve to boost the credibility of pro-Israel evangelicals, especially among liberal Protestant mainline churches that support efforts to divest from companies that do business in Israel.
“These [mainline] churches try to dismiss the evangelicals as being so extreme,” Elcott said. A balanced resolution calling for a two-state solution “would be very helpful in showing that they are not.”
It was partially in response to the growing success of the divestment movement that Haggard led a delegation of evangelical leaders to Israel in mid-May. The idea was to provide a Christian counterbalance to the divestment campaign and to discuss ways to encourage Christian tourism to Israel.
In an interview this week with the Forward, Haggard repeated his denial of comments reported in The Jerusalem Post. “These were not my words,” he said.
But senior members of the evangelical association who read the quote in the newspapers were taken aback, sources said.
“Ted was not in a position to articulate our position, because we don’t have one,” a senior member of the association said. “We always knew that we wouldn’t be able to agree on one.”
Now, members said, several of the organization’s leaders are pushing to hammer out a position, even if it would need to be watered down to reflect a broad consensus.
“There are calls coming from varying people… to begin a formal discussion of this topic,” said a senior member of the evangelical association, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Another senior member of the organization, Ron Sider, president and founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, said that many in the coalition would like to see a coherent position on Israel formed through a process of internal consultation. “Such a process would be very important and I strongly support it,” Sider said, explaining that the goal would be to explore the common ground that evangelicals share on Israel-related issues.
Gary Bauer, a former GOP presidential candidate and a leading Christian conservative supporter of Israel, said he was confident that any statement adopted by the association would stress strong support for Israel. Bauer, who is not a member of the association, said that evangelicals “are not confused about who the good guys are in the Middle East and who the bad guys are.”
Haggard denied that any internal push for an official policy was taking place, saying that members of the evangelical association are satisfied with the way he characterizes the organization’s position on Israel. “I’ve had nothing but positive comments on the way we represented these issues,” he said.
Still, Haggard told the Forward, he would be open to adopting an official statement that recognized both the evangelical community’s commitment to Israel and the need to achieve justice for both sides.
The evangelical association recently adopted a landmark political platform on social issues, part of the organization’s attempt to intensify its involvement in public affairs. Sider was the co-author of the document, a 27-page manifesto that sets principles for civic engagement in public affairs. The document, “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility,” briefly touches on engagement in foreign affairs but does not mention Israel.
For years, the evangelical association has avoided adopting a position on the Israeli-Palestinian issue because of profound theological and political differences that exist among member denominations. Contrary to popular perceptions, not all evangelicals hold the position that Israel must be supported unconditionally, said Bob Wenz, the association’s vice president of National Ministries, a coordinating body that tries to achieve unified evangelical positions on domestic and local affairs.
At the heart of any evangelical debate on the issue are several conflicting theological doctrines on the historical role of Israel in the fulfillment of biblical prophecies, Wenz said.
One evangelical camp believes in a so-called “dispensational” eschatology, which states that the prophecies of the Bible will be fulfilled in the literal, political nation of Israel that was reborn in the form of the State of Israel in 1948. But other eschatological doctrines hold that in terms of biblical prophecy the birth of Israel is irrelevant. One, the “amillenial” eschatology, says that the biblical nation of Israel was replaced by a “spiritual Israel” — the church — the venue through which biblical prophecies are now fulfilled. Another view, known as the “preterist” doctrine, holds that biblical prophecies were fulfilled shortly after they were given.
Polls support the notion that evangelicals are not a monolith when it comes to Israel.
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life recently published an analysis of evangelical positions on Israel, based on two polls taken in 2003 and 2004 — and concluded that evangelicals, who constitute about 26% of the American population, are far from united on the issue.
When asked if America should support Israel over the Palestinians, 52% of white evangelicals said yes, compared with 35% of the overall American population. But 25% of white evangelicals disagreed, and 23% said they had no position. Among “traditionalist” evangelicals, characterized by a high level of orthodox belief and a high level of church attendance, 64% agreed, but 18% disagreed and another 18% had no position. When asked if Israel fulfills the biblical prophecy about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ — the “classical” dispensationalist view — 63% of evangelicals said yes (compared with 36% of the overall American population), but 22% said no.
The diversity of opinion means that any position adopted by the evangelical association would end up incorporating the views of the “many evangelicals who think that Israel needs to do justice to the Palestinians and deal with the problem of settlements in the occupied territories,” said Timothy Weber, author of “On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend.”
“They do that out of love for Israel, not out of spite for it,” said Weber, the outgoing president of the Memphis Theological Seminary. “This may be a very interesting indication of some movement or some serious discussion going on among American evangelicals over this issue,” Weber said. “This is part of the rise of consciousness among non-dispensationalist evangelicals who are thinking: ‘We have to define a position on Israel that is supportive but also seeks to achieve peace in the Middle East.’”