How Millennial Evangelicals See the Israeli-Palestine Conflict

Millennial Christians are developing views of Israel that are distinct from their parents’ pro-Israel perspective. Here’s why.

An evangelical friend called me in frustration last week. As she and her daughter, who is home from college for the summer, were watching the news reports on Israel and Gaza, they became embroiled in their own conflict. “She just doesn’t see Israel the way I do,” said my friend. “She doesn’t have a biblical view of the situation.”

My friend’s comments didn’t surprise me. When I researched evangelical views on the Israel-Palestine conflict for my latest book, I found a growing gap between older and younger evangelical views. Like respondents in a recent Pew Poll, younger people I interviewed tended to be somewhat less supportive of Israel’s actions than their parents, even if they remain more supportive of Israel than the general population. As I tried to explain to my friend, young evangelicals are forming their views of Israel based on a different set of experiences — especially these five:

1. Young people see Israel as a modern state, not a biblical land.

When I interviewed younger evangelicals about Israel, they tended to describe Israel as a democracy and world power while evangelicals 50 and older used descriptions like the “promised land.”

Most older evangelicals learned more about Israel in church than they did in school. The Israel of the Bible was often tied closely and almost seamlessly to the modern state of Israel and viewed as part of God’s plan. Israelites were equated with Israelis. Zionism was viewed through a religious, not political, lens, and both the founding of Israel and such events as the 1967 (“Six Day”) War were often described as “miracles.”

Younger evangelicals have learned about Israel in school at least as much as they have in church. They study its politics and geography and learn about conflicts in the Middle East as part of a geo-political landscape.

2. Young evangelicals value justice.

While older evangelicals grew up on stories of Israel overcoming the odds in order to survive, younger evangelicals see Israel as an established, wealthy, and powerful nation. Older evangelicals are more likely to see Israel as the underdog and a country that needs help from America.

Far more than their parents, younger evangelicals are attracted to justice issues like HIV/AIDS, poverty, and human trafficking. They are drawn to the underdog. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Palestinians are seen as poorer and less powerful than the Israelis. For some young evangelicals, Palestinians are seen as the victims in a power struggle.

3. Old time religion is gone.

Most evangelicals older than 50 grew up in churches that taught some form of dispensationalism, a theology that views Jews as God’s chosen people, Israel as the land promised to them, and the second coming of Christ tied to Jews returning to Israel. Older evangelicals have heard a lot of sermons featuring lengthy discourses on biblical prophecy.

Younger evangelicals have grown up in “seeker-friendly churches” where sermons are more often about relationships and practical matters of faith and youth groups are oriented toward service and fun, not indoctrination. As a result, younger evangelicals value “living out their faith” and are less interested in — and educated about — theology, prophecy, and biblical exegesis. Dispensationalism has fallen out of fashion in many evangelical circles and is no longer taught in many seminaries or from pulpits.

4. It’s cool to be Jewish.

From Jon Stewart to Adam Levine, in popular culture being Jewish is cool. “Everyone I know who is Jewish is proud of that identity,” Justin, a young evangelical, told me. “A guy I know wears a ‘Super Jew’ t-shirt. I can’t imagine what kind of response I would get if I wore a t-shirt about being a proud Christian on campus.”

Older evangelicals remember discrimination against Jews in America, while younger evangelicals consider it something that happened “a long time ago” and see no evidence of it. If anything, they see Jewish students as having a freedom of identity and expression that evangelicals lack on campuses. Anti-Semitism seems far removed, and they have a hard time identifying Jews as victims of hatred and violence.

5. God’s chosen people may not want to be chosen.

Jen, a young evangelical woman from the Midwest, told me she hadn’t known any Jewish young people until she went to college. When she finally met Jewish students at her school she thought she would be able to relate to them. “I know it sounds naïve, but I was shocked to discover that I knew more about the Old Testament than most of my new Jewish friends. Some even laughed at the idea that they were ‘chosen’ or that Israel was given to the Jewish people. One guy asked if I was one of those ‘Christian Zionists’ — and he didn’t say it in a positive way. I guess I thought we would have more in common.”

Younger Jews sometimes bristle at the notion that their evangelical classmates see them as part of a biblical plan and they are less likely to share political values of their evangelical counterparts. “Almost everyone on campus who is Jewish is a liberal Democrat,” said one young man. “But the evangelical kids are more likely to be Republicans. We don’t really have much in common.”

So, can this generation gap be bridged?

For evangelical parents like my friend, their children’s views on Israel can seem downright “unchristian.” Others, like David Brog, have gone so far as to warn that young evangelicals are turning against Israel. In my interviews with young evangelicals, I found them far more nuanced and conflicted, having learned about Israel in different ways and at a different point in history than their parents. They may see Israel as an important ally of the U.S. and are generally supportive, but many have stopped short of using the biblical terms their parents often use or calling themselves Christian Zionists.

On Israel, as on many issues, young evangelicals are less likely to see the world through the eyes of their parents.

Image via Shutterstock.

Dale Hanson Bourke
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  • Sally J Lewis

    A well reasoned and valuable article. I am a ‘older than 50’ Christian but my own views mirror those of the younger generation.

  • jesuswithoutbaggage

    How refreshing! I was raised as a fundamentalist-dispensationalist in the 1950s and 60s. Yet I identify with the evangelical millennials described here.

  • Martin Hughes

    I certainly hope that my fellow Christians will come to see that Zionism – the belief in exclusive Jewish rights over the Holy Land – has no foundation in the New Testament or in standard political morality, such as Locke’s – the most influential in UK or US history, and very Christian. Rights for all, regardless of whether one is ‘Jew or Greek’ have full foundation on both these bases.

  • Carstonio

    Bourke could have gone further in dissecting how American fundamentalism fetishizes Israel. In its view of American history, the US is simply Israel 2.0, with the Pilgrims as stand-ins for the ancient Israelites.The ideology misreads Revelation, originally written as a condemnation of the Roman Empire, and insists that Israel’s continued existence is a necessity for the return of Jesus. Fundamentalism does Israel a disservice by treating that nation as a plot device in a Mary Sue fanfiction version of Christianity.

    • Fred Harrell

      Carstonio that was brilliant!

  • Micah Did-Dell

    Speaking as a young evangelical, I think the influence of #2 can not be underestimated. The three biggest events in Israel’s history that we have witnessed as young adults have been the 2008-09 Gaza War, 2012 Operation: Pillar of Defense, and the current Operation: Protective Edge. The disproportionate nature of these operations combined with the high civilian death toll has lead, I think, to many of us not taking an overly positive view of Israel in regards to its foreign policy.

  • Joel Richardson

    Throughout history, the Church looked to the wandering Jews as being punished for the sin of killing Jesus. Then they return to their ancient (promised) homeland and suddenly they no longer have any connection to the Israel of history. Tragic really.

    • Martin Hughes

      It would be hard to deny that Jewish people now have any connection at all with people called Jewish in ancient times or that contemporary Christians have certain connections of great antiquity or that contemporary democratic societies have certain connections with ancient Athens, one of their consciously chosen models. What those connections (which may well not be close resemblances) imply is another matter. I hesitate to speak for, or even try for a minute to think like, those who believe in hereditary guilt. But I think that if you put aside the idea of hereditary guilt you should also put aside the idea of hereditary merit or hereditary right, except where those ideas are part of the structure of a society to preserve its normal functioning.

  • A J MacDonald Jr

    People who consider themselves Christians and support Israel should read what Jesus said in Matthew 23… Especially versus 38-39.