Melani McAlister is an associate professor of American studies and international affairs at George Washington University. Her books include Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and US Interests in the Middle East (2005, o. 2001) and The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals (2018), a study of evangelical internationalism since 1960.
Are evangelicals the magic ingredient in the recipe that led Trump to claim he would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital? Yes and no.
American evangelicals are, after all, divided on how they feel about President Trump, especially when theologically conservative Asian, black, and Latino Protestants are counted. Still, the president and vice president clearly thought they had a heartwarming moment prepared for their conservative white base when they put together the Jerusalem photo op. Indeed, evangelical Christians in the United States have long been a key base of support for Israel. Often, the assumption is that evangelicals’ views are based on biblical prophecy, and there is no question that, for a significant subset of evangelicals, the belief that Jesus will return to fight in the great battle of Armageddon (Har Megiddo) is key to their political and emotional commitments to the Jewish state.
But there are more prosaic reasons as well, including the powerful role that Holy Land tourism plays in shaping Americans’ perceptions of the region. Ever since Israel took control of all of Jerusalem in the 1967 war, American evangelicals have declared their support for its territorial ambitions by voting with their plane tickets. Within a month of the war’s end, Americans were rushing to join trips that no longer required complicated travel to Jordan. Israeli tour guides quickly ventured into the new territories, and the control of those unfamiliar places turned out to be quite lucrative, as an avalanche of tourists and dollars began to flow into the region. The number of tourists increased from an average of 269,000 arrivals a year in the 1960s to 772,000 a year in the 1970s. In 2016, there were 2.9 million.
On tours led either by pastors or other well-known religious leaders, American evangelicals, and other Christians, have learned to love Israel in the most material of ways—seeing the land, eating the local foods, “walking where Jesus walked,” all while being told that Israel could be counted on to guarantee their access to the religious sites they loved, in Jerusalem and beyond. It is through these ordinary practices of visiting Israel—and ignoring Palestine—that American Christians have most commonly come to understand themselves as tied to the land, to Israel, to Jerusalem.
There are other motivations as well. Some evangelicals make political arguments about U.S. interests; others simply argue that God has declared his preference for Jerusalem in the Bible. The combination of factors has made love of Israel into a kind of evangelical common sense over the last 50 years. It was no surprise, then, when a raft of American evangelicals welcomed President Trump’s announcement that he would recognize Jerusalem. A roll call of conservative leaders lined up to tout Trump’s decision as an act of bold and faithful promise-keeping.
And yet, on closer inspection, evangelical opinion was far more divided than all the ring-kissing seemed to imply. Christianity Today’s Morgan Lee commented on the issue: There were so many evangelicals hailing and praising the move, she said, and many of those evangelicals were the same ones who were saying that evangelicals in the United States really needed to “stand up” for Christians in the Middle East. But those Middle Eastern Christians were not particularly happy about this decision. So, she said, “I really wanted to get at what the disconnect was.”
Disconnect indeed. Evangelical Christians in the Middle East were outspoken about their feelings of anger and betrayal at Trump’s announcement. Botrus Mansour, who is co-chair of the Lausanne Initiative for Reconciliation between Israel and Palestine, told CT that the announcement “will increase resentment and possibly spark unnecessary violence, making peace harder to obtain.” He added, “America will lose any remaining legitimacy it had as a fair broker.”
It is far from clear that the United States had any such legitimacy left, but the striking thing was exactly the “disconnect” that CT’s reporting highlighted. For more than two decades, the persecuted Christians movement among global evangelicals had talked about the “suffering church”—a social movement that had both conservative and liberal implications. On the one hand, the modern focus on Christian persecution emerged from, and profoundly fed into, the anti-Muslim tenor of much of evangelical life. Violence against Christians was a real and persistent problem in many parts of the world, but since the 1990s when evangelicals took up the cause of the International Religious Freedom Act, religious activists had not infrequently misrepresented conflicts that emerged from on-the-ground tensions over land, resources, or power as matters of Muslims' personal hatred of Christians.
At the same time, the persecuted Christians movement had emerged out of the human rights activism of the 1970s and 1980s, and had pushed Americans and others to pay attention to the difficulties of fellow believers in the Global South. And it encouraged the American church to give more consideration to the racially diverse believers who were well on their way to becoming the global majority of evangelicals. That meant that, when Middle Eastern Christians talked, American evangelicals should, theoretically, listen. And, indeed, a small subset of U.S. and other evangelicals had begun to pay particular attention to what Palestinian Christians were saying.
This self-awareness about the globalizing of evangelicalism meant that even a moderately conservative journal like Christianity Today responded to Trump’s announcement by asking how a move of the U.S. embassy would affect relationships between American evangelicals and Christians in Middle East. When reporters asked people in those churches what they thought of the policy change, some were blunt. Mitri Raheb, an evangelical Lutheran pastor and author, said that “local Christians [had been] sacrificed on the altar of imperial politics.” The head of the Coptic Church in Egypt and the Christian mayor of Bethlehem announced that they would not be meeting with Vice President Pence during his visit to Israel and Egypt in December. The message was clear, for those who wanted to listen.
The Trump announcement also came at a moment when cracks were showing in the pro-Israel edifice at home. It turns out that younger American evangelicals, much like younger Jews, are tracking differently than their parents. According to recent polls, evangelical millennials have far fewer attachments to Israel. Forty percent of evangelicals aged 18 to 34 say they have no particularly strong views about Israel. When asked whether the founding of Israel was an injustice to Palestinians, 19 percent say yes, and 47 percent are not sure. In fact, when younger evangelicals consider the key issues facing the Middle East, they are more likely to think about Iraq and ISIS than Israel. Compared to previous generations of evangelicals, they are simultaneously more critical of Israel and less interested in it.
President Trump’s embassy announcement seemed to have been designed as yet another attempt to encourage his base, thumb his nose at European allies, and give shape to his foreign policy. He may have succeeded at all of those goals. But if his goal was to curry favor with evangelicals, there is a lesson that he has yet to learn: evangelicals are global, and their politics are changing almost as fast as their demographics.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The original long-form version of this piece can be found on the University of Notre Dame's Contending Modernities.