Young evangelicals souring on Israel because of 'social justice,' media deception: theologian

Shelley Neese of The Jerusalem Connection Report speaks with Anglican theologian and author Gerald McDermott at a gathering in Washington, D.C. on February 4, 2019.
Shelley Neese of The Jerusalem Connection Report speaks with Anglican theologian and author Gerald McDermott at a gathering in Washington, D.C. on February 4, 2019. | Photo: Mark Tooley

Correction Appended

WASHINGTON — A leading Anglican theologian is arguing that the reason younger evangelicals are distancing themselves from supporting Israel, including the theological underpinnings for doing so, is in part because of mass media derision of their "immoral" parents.

Before a small crowd of journalists, Christian and Jewish thinkers, and Israel advocates at a gathering at MindSpace in The Washington Post building on Monday, sponsored by the Christian foreign policy journal Providence, Gerald McDermott, Anglican Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, recounted his experiences as one of only two pro-Israel voices at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference, which is usually held in Bethlehem, Jesus' birthplace, but occurred last fall in Oklahoma City.

With its strong pro-Palestine bent, critics say the conference is aimed at turning younger Christians away from the pro-Israel theological paradigm that presently dominates American evangelical Christianity.

Yet millennial evangelicals are increasingly distancing themselves from modern Israel, the Anglican theologian said, in part because they want to distance themselves from their parents, who tend to support Israel enthusiastically, he said in response to a question from The Christian Post about why recent polling data indicates waning support for the Jewish state among younger Christians. CP asked if this trend is a reaction against what they see as uncritically blind, total support for Israel through figures such as San Antonio pastor John Hagee, an outspoken Christian Zionist and the founder of Christians United for Israel.

"Their parents are roundly criticized in our culture for being uneducated, and for being, now, at this point in our culture, immoral. For their opposition to gay marriage, that's sort of a leading reason. And young people don't want to be thought of as bad people," McDermott explained.

Survey data from LifeWay that was published in December 2017 revealed that 77 percent of evangelicals ages 65 and older said they supported the existence, security and prosperity of Israel, whereas only 58 percent of evangelicals ages 18 to 34 said the same. "For the most part, younger evangelicals are indifferent about Israel," said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, observed at the time.

The shift is not just political but theological, as younger Christians don't see a biblical connection between the land of Israel and the modern nation-state, in addition to the ongoing role of the Jewish people in salvation history.

University and college professors have played an important role in this, McDermott said Monday, adding that millennial evangelicals are also more concerned with social justice than their parents.

Their parents recognize that there are many types of "social justice" and some of what is passed off as justice is not, he continued, as some forms actually hurt rather than help the poor, and the form many millennials support is inextricably linked to left-wing politics.

During their formative university years, he continued, "what little media they take in, and it's mostly social media, rather than The New York Times or The Washington Post, but The New York Times and The Washington Post trickle down into social media. And what they hear there over and over again is the standard Palestinian narrative."

"I'm for Palestinians," he stressed, distinguishing that from the storyline pushed in much of the mainstream media that Israel is the bad guy and that Palestinians are helpless victims of an evil Israeli state.

That narrative is "wrong from beginning to end", he argued, and many millennials have simply never heard a cogent pro-Israel case; when their parents start talking about the rapture and end-times theology that often centers around Israel, "they just roll their eyes and say: 'Yeah, mom. Sure, sure.'"

He recounted a journey he took to the Holy Land several years ago during one of his sabbaticals. During his trip he stayed with both Jews and Arabs, interviewing them about what day-to-day life was like in Israel. McDermott talked with countless people — Arab Muslims, secular Jews, religious Jews, Arab Christians, Messianic Jews — who lived in Galilee, asking them their opinions on Jesus and a variety of other things.

"And you know what happens when you ask an average person what they think about something? They are really thrilled to tell you," he said.

"What I found, whenever I talked to Arab Christians, to a person," he recounted, "they'd pull me aside, and take me around a corner where we couldn't be overheard. And the first thing they'd say was 'Don't use my name.'"

He emphasized: "And then they would sort of lean over and whisper: 'Don't believe what you read in the media, that our enemy is the Israeli government. It is not. We wish the Israeli government would do more to protect us from our real enemy, which is our Muslim cousins. They are out to destroy us."

McDermott heard a version of that same story all over Israel but they were afraid to say so publicly because if they did there would have been repercussions for them and their families, he explained.

Those personal accounts strike at the heart of what is wrong with the Palestinian narrative, he stressed.

Asked to elaborate on increasing millennial distaste for Israel, McDermott explained in a follow-up interview with CP that what is known as the theory of intersectionality — the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage — is influencing young minds, and it is in this system where Israel is routinely referred to as an "apartheid" state.

"And apartheid immediately raises the specter of racism. And recalling the, I believe it was the 1975 UN Declaration that said Zionism is racism, these days, particularly because of our very tense national conversation on race, now Jews are portrayed as racists, as the new Nazis. And the Palestinians are sort of the perfect victims, and everyone who cares about justice ought to care about victims. The Palestinians are the quintessential victims and thus, obviously, the Jewish Israelis are the cruel, Nazi-like oppressors," McDermott said.

He does not believe that critiques from Christians who are otherwise supporters of the Jewish state when it does indeed err will matter much.

"I think a whole generation has so bought into the leftist approach to Israel into so-called social justice that these little attempts at atonement by Israel supporters by criticizing the government of Israel, I don't think it will make any difference."

For Christians who care about standing with Israel, he urges them to visit and speak with the natives like he did.

Unfortunately, reporters are plentiful who work for purportedly mainstream new outlets who, despite knowing better, churn out stories the feed the master narrative line, that Israel is the bad guy and the Palestinians are these poor victims who can't do anything to help themselves, he said, adding that if they write a story that deviates too much from those predetermined characterizations they will not get promotions as major newsroom editors will accept nothing else.

McDermott is the author of Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently About the People and the Land and is the editor is of The New Christian Zionism, a volume of Christian scholarship on Israel released in 2017. His latest book, Everyday Glory: The Revelation of God in All of Reality, was published in November.

Correction, February 10, 2019. 

A previous version of this article stated that McDermott was the only pro-Israel voice at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference. He was one of two pro-Israel speakers. 

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