A new poll has revealed a powerful force behind partisan divides in public opinion on Israel: the Evangelical right.
It’s generally assumed to be a political fact that Republican voters and candidates are more unilaterally supportive of Israel than their Democratic counterparts. But the poll, released by Dr. Shibley Telhami, a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, indicates that difference is largely produced by a single sector of the Republican party.
“A large majority of Evangelical Republicans want the U.S. to lean towards Israel,” Telhami said, speaking with the Forward over the phone. “If you take those out of the Republican party, the Republican party looks more or less just like the rest of America.”
Writing for the Washington Post on December 14th, Telhami observed that “Regarding the importance of a candidate’s position on Israel when voting, 64 percent of Evangelical Republicans say this matters ‘a lot’ compared with just 33 percent of non-Evangelical Republicans and 26 percent of all Americans.”
Similarly, 60% of Evangelical respondents would want the United States to vote against a possible U.N. Resolution in favor a Palestinian state, while only 38% of non-Evangelical Republicans and 26% of all respondents would want the same.
“What you’re going to find is a large number of Evangelicals interpret the Bible to mean that the boundaries of modern-day Israel should coincide with their interpretation of what Biblical Israel was like,” Telhami said in conversation with the Forward. “It’s not surprising on the surface but is in some other ways because they are deriving some policy conclusions from religious beliefs.”
Ari Morgenstern, a spokesperson for Christians United for Israel (CUFI), wrote in an email to the Forward that his organization did not find the results surprising.
“Evangelicals are theologically predisposed to supporting Israel because they believe the Bible to be the word of God,” he wrote. “In addition to this theological view, Evangelicals tend to place a strong emphasis on the values and democratic principles shared by the US and Israel. Thus their theological predisposition is complimented by a Western worldview and this combination leads to strong support for Israel.”
So, why does the Evangelical right — which, according to Telhami, accounts for around a quarter of the Republican party —wield such substantial influence on this issue?
“Politics isn’t just about public opinion,” Telhami said. “It’s about campaign contributions, it’s about passionate segments of the public that care more deeply and will lobby more heavily. They’re a passionate segment of the public [on this issue].” Telhami also found that, among Evangelical respondents, those who reported they occasionally watched Christian television or listened to Christian radio were significantly more supportive of Israel than those who did not consume specifically Christian media.
Also in the Washington Post, Telhami reported that 82% of Evangelical Republicans who watch Christian TV said that a political candidate’s stance on Israel mattered a lot to them, where 41% of the same group who didn’t watch Christian TV said the same. The divide between Evangelical Republicans who listened to Christian radio and those who did not was only a few degrees smaller.
“The issue of Israel is prominent in their typical coverage,” Telhami said, referring to Christian media outlets. “The Israel angle is one where there’s an interpretation closer to where Bibi Netanyahu is.”
The level of support for Netanyahu among Evangelical Republicans correlates with their support for Israel.
“When you ask the Republicans ‘Who do you admire most,’ in an open question, ‘national or international leaders,’ Republicans – about 12% – name Bibi Netanyahu, tied with Ronald Reagan. When you ask the Evangelical Republicans almost 22% say he’s by far their favorite leader. I suspect – I haven’t actually run the correlations yet with those who watch and listen –but I’m willing to guess that those will rank that even higher than the 22%.”
Telhami sees the support of Evangelical Republicans for Israel as impacting the Republican party’s broader position on the Middle East.
“In my own view is there’s a correlation between attitudes on Israel and attitudes towards Iran,” Telhami said. “When you look at the view of the Evangelicals vs. the views of non-Evangelical Republicans, their attitudes towards other Middle-Eastern issues, such as their attitudes towards Islam and Muslims are also more negative than other Republicans. That suggests to me that their views on the Middle East are very much driven by their views on Israel.”
Looking outside of Evangelical Republican responses, Telhami noted that there is a gap between the positions politicians take on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, compared to those stated by their constituents — particularly within the Democratic party.
“About half the Democrats want to see some punitive measures against Israel on the issue of settlements,” Telhami said. “Name a single American politician – Democratic – who voices that.”
“I think that gap – you can argue it’s only a matter of time before there’s pressure on it to be bridged,” Telhami said. “But on the other hand I think there’ll be some frustrations among progressives in the Democratic party. This is not a top priority issue for most of them in a way that’s going to be absolutely consequential in the short term.”
Telhami’s poll, conducted in November, gained a total of 1,738 responses. Evangelical and Born-again Christians constituted 24% of the national sample for the study.
Talya Zax is the Forward’s culture intern.