When I met in Nov. 2015 with Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), I was a reporter for the Jewish Journal. It’s a widely-read Jewish newspaper whose readership at the time trended to the left politically and religiously.
I had a vague idea of what I hoped would develop into a big story. A story exploring why so many Christians are so passionate about Israel and the Jewish people. More passionate and more financially generous, in fact, than many Jews.
I didn’t know know why.
But I knew that one common explanation — that Christian support for Israel stems from the eschatological belief that the Jews’ return to the Holy Land will lead to the rapture — seemed simplistic.
But let’s say that were Christians’ motivation. What was the basis? Was it scriptural? That was the deeper why I was searching for.
I came to this story with some uninformed assumptions of my own. For one: my image of the typical pro-Israel evangelical Christian. A friend once told me about a drive through rural Texas in which he came across a house that had a tall flagpole waving a massive flag of Israel.
These were not Jews.
This, I assumed, was Eckstein’s constituency. A handful of ultrarich political and religious conservatives who live far outside city limits.
I thought that could have explained the success of the IFCJ, which markets to evangelical Christians, whose 2017 program spending was nearly $110 million, and which has raised over $1.4 billion in 25 years.
And then I interviewed Eckstein.
He told me that the IFCJ has one-and-a-half million donors, most of whom were making small donations, under $100. This was two-and-a-half years ago. A 2017 IFCJ report said that since its inception over 1.6 million people have donated.
Eckstein said the group gets about 7,000 pieces of mail a day from evangelicals around the world.
He told the story of a single mom with two kids in Florida who for a long time had given IFCJ $35 a month. All of a sudden $35 became $65. A staff member called the woman to thank her and ask why her donation nearly doubled.
The woman said she’s a teacher, does not own a car and instead takes a bus to work. As a “luxury” before going into school every day, she’d buy a latte from Starbucks for $5.50. She realized, though, that she could go across the street to McDonald’s, get a latte for $4 and “save the dollar fifty each day to help Israel and the Jewish people.”
Christians like this woman give because they support the IFCJ’s work, which includes renovating bomb shelters in Israel, supporting impoverished Jews in the former Soviet Union, and helping other Jews with aliyah, immigration to Israel.
They give because they view the Bible as God’s inerrant word. And giving to the Jews fulfills that word.
In Genesis 12:3, God says to Abraham, “And I will bless those who bless you; and the one who curses you I will curse, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.”
Help the Jewish people, and you’ll be helped. Hurt the Jewish people, and you’ll be hurt. The Jews are God’s vehicle for blessing the world.
It’s not about making a deal with God that will pay dividends later, but about doing what He says, because He said it.
“Christians can legitimately share their message with the Jewish people in a way that isn't an affront or offensive to us, and that is by blessing Israel,” Eckstein said in our interview at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles.
But would Christians second this Orthodox Jew’s explanation? And if so, why are there divisions among them when it comes to Israel? Why are some Christians passionate Zionists, while others ally with Progressive and pro-Palestinian groups, even endorsing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement?
Over months of interviews with mainline and non-mainline pastors, bishops, reverends and Christian leaders in Southern California, I came to understand the divisions. Some of them were even familiar. They are the same divisions that exist among Jews.
Politically conservative Christians, regardless of denomination, tend to passionately support Israel. Politically liberal Christians tend to ally with the Palestinians at least as much, often more so.
But what about differences among religious Christians, whether mainline, non-mainline, or evangelical?
Why do millions of Christians who believe in the Bible and view Jesus as the messiah fundamentally differ when it comes to the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Perhaps the answer shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. It was so basic as to be easily overlooked: Political differences stem from theological differences, from different readings of the Bible
Non-mainline Protestants view the Bible as God’s authoritative and inerrant word. Genesis 12:3, as Eckstein said, is determinative and absolute—God wants the nations to bless the Jews.
Most mainline Protestants, however, do not view the Bible as God’s authoritative word, but as a historical document that contains God’s word.
Christians who live by Genesis 12:3, Reverend Sandra Olewine of the First United Methodist Church (UMC) of Pasadena told me, must also go beyond the book of Deuteronomy and factor in the prophets and their call for justice.
That’s why, in Jan. 2015, the UMC put five Israeli banks on a divestment blacklist, citing Isaiah as they did it. And that’s why, two years ago, 51 percent of United Church of Christ (UCC) delegates labeled Israel as an apartheid state at the church’s general synod.
What, I wondered, does this split among Protestants mean for Israel?
Will more mainline churches follow suit with the UMC, UCC, and the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) in joining divestment efforts?
Will non-mainline, conservative churches remain unwavering in their support of Israel?
Or will the anti-Israel climate on many American universities have a pernicious impact on evangelical students, as Pastor Jim Tolle of El Camino Metro Church believes they already are?
“Say that: ‘A Christian is to honor Israel,’ ” Tolle announced to his mostly-Hispanic, largely immigrant congregation at a Sunday morning church service in March 2016 inside the auditorium at Byrd Middle School in Sun Valley, a working class suburb of Los Angeles.
“A Christian is to honor Israel,” responded hundreds of people in unison, mostly parents with their young children.
On this Sunday, Tolle invited a former Israeli paratrooper, Bentzi, to share his experience in Israel’s 2014 war against Hamas.
At one point in his story, Bentzi put his smartphone up to the mic, opened the “Red Alert” app, and played the insufferable siren that goes off in Israel to warn of impending rockets.
“The reason we invite people from Israel to be with us is because there’s a biblical mandate,” Tolle said.
Bentzi’s experience is a teachable moment for Tolle’s congregants. Bentzi’s story is a way of “fostering” support for Israel among “successive generations,” Tolle said.
“We must embrace Israel not because it’s perfect but because the Lord put it into existence, and He is wanting us to always honor Israel,” Tolle said.
Two months earlier, over lunch in Pasadena, Tolle said that his parents started him on this path. They taught him to “embrace the Jewish people,” he said, and he had Jewish friends at North Hollywood High School.
Tolle’s son is married to, ironically, a Palestinian. A woman who converted from Islam, which, Tolle said, forced her and her family to flee the West Bank. They now live in California. Tolle is also a board member of the Lashon Academy Charter School, a public English-Hebrew charter school in Van Nuys.
Tolle fascinated me. I’ve been immersed in Judaism my entire life, and here was a Christian who cites Scripture on par with any rabbi and defends Israel as eloquently as a pro-Israel activist.
Israel is a nation, Tolle said, that “by and large tries to do things right as a state.”
“It's not an aggressor state. It's a highly defensive state trying to protect its existence,” he said. “It has a democracy that’s functioning, whereby people who are non-Jewish can actually get into the democratic process.”
Tolle, like every other non-mainline Protestant I interviewed, draws his support directly from the “essence and the spirit of what [the Bible] says.”
“You’ve heard Evangelicals quote Genesis 12:1-3 time and time again, and no good Evangelical would throw that away. We are convinced of its centrality,” Tolle said. “If it says that God spoke to Abraham, and God blessed Abraham, and that God was going to bless all the nations in the earth, all the peoples of the Earth, we take that at its face value. It’s so straightforward, how do you open that to interpretation?”
Pastor Lorraine Coconato, founder and Senior Pastor of the Leaves of Healing Tabernacle, an evangelical church in Chatsworth, agrees.
“That is the foundational verse that we can’t deny,” she said.
In late 2002, the late IDF. Gen. Shimon Erem founded the Israel-Christian Nexus (ICN), whose aim is to strengthen Christian support for Israel.
Coconato works with the ICN and Israel’s consulate in Los Angeles to connect evangelical religious and lay leadership with their local Jewish counterparts.
That includes bringing pastors to the consulate to meet with Israeli officials, including the Consul General, and inviting Israeli officials to her church.
But Coconato’s mission transcends politics because “Israel” means not just the Jewish state, but the Jewish people.
In her office a watercolor painting of Abraham and Isaac sits on the wall, along with a painting with the text of Ezekiel 47:12 (“...Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.”) On the bookshelf behind her desk is a Hebrew-English copy of the Torah, and on her desk are pins of the Israeli and American flags, along with a photo of a pro-Israel rally in Los Angeles.
She has built close relationships with many Jews, she said, and has attended several Shabbat dinners, including at Sinai Temple, one of the largest Conservative synagogues in the nation.
“According to the Bible, it says that all families of the earth will be blessed because Israel is blessed. We stand with Israel because we love the God of Israel and we love the word of God,” Coconato said.
“We want to know the Jewish people. We want to be friends with them. We want to encourage them and we want them to know that we are here. We’re here to stand with them and to serve them.”
"I KNOW THAT I'M TO PRAY FOR ISRAEL"
“What do the African Americans think about Israel?” Bishop Kenneth Ulmer asked aloud, paraphrasing my question.
Ulmer is spiritual leader of Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood, a predominantly black Pentecostal/Charismatic church, and a member of the IFCJ’s African American Advisory Council.
From East St. Louis, Illinois, Ulmer grew up attending a Baptist church, where Israel was rarely, if ever, mentioned. He said that’s the norm in black churches.
“I never heard anything theologically about Israel growing up—not in church, not in school, not in college,” Ulmer said in an interview at his office, where he was joined by Joshua Hoyt, Vice President of the Ulmer Institute and a former employee at Israel’s consulate in Los Angeles. “It was a personal journey for me...for the most part fueled by a trip that I took."
That 1980s trip to Israel served as, Ulmer said, a “connection of [his] spiritual roots,” just as his first trip to South Africa was a “connection of [his] ethnic roots.”
“If I saw two stories in the news, one about East St. Louis, my hometown, and one about Israel or Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, I would respond unto it with the same passion, regret, grief as I would as if there was a bomb on 13th and Tudor in East St. Louis,” Ulmer said.
During a trip to Israel in 2014, during the most recent Gaza war, Ulmer was in Tel Aviv with a group of other evangelical leaders. Suddenly, a rocket launched by Hamas exploded in the sky above him. Witnessing Israelis’ communal and professional response to the psychological trauma of rockets raining from the sky, Ulmer decided that similar methods towards treating trauma could be used in America’s inner cities.
In May 2016, Ulmer opened the Ulmer Institute, a treatment and research center for victims of physical and sexual assault, gunshot wounds, and other all too common occurrences in South L.A. One of his partners in the effort is former IDF psychologist Eyal Fruchter, a visiting scholar at USC.
Ulmer’s connection to Israel is, at least outwardly, as passionate as that of a pro-Israel Jew. And, surprising to me at the time, his love for Israel is motivated more by the Torah than it is for most pro-Israel Jews.
“My approach to Israel was always biblical and theological,” Ulmer said. “I am under a remaining mandate to pray for Israel, be concerned about Israel, the peace of Israel.”
As with Tolle and Pastor Lorraine Coconato, Ulmer is driven by what he believes God wants.
“Those of us who are not only comfortable with Israel but committed to Israel acknowledge the unique sovereignty of God and His regard [for] Israel,” Ulmer said.
But that doesn’t mean, Ulmer cautioned, that he does not feel for the Palestinians. “When I recognize my own passion both spiritually and personally for Israel, I won’t force myself to be therefore ‘anti.’ I can be ‘pro’ and recognize the injustices, and grieve, and concern about [the Palestinians],” Ulmer said.
Within black churches, he told me, his views are the exception, thanks to what is known as replacement theology, or supersessionism.
Replacement theology is a liberal Christian theory that says Christians have replaced Jews as God’s Chosen People. Therefore, people should edit Bible verses that say Israel is a vehicle for God—including Genesis 12:3, Exodus 23:22, Deuteronomy 7:6-9—to read as the Church being a vehicle for God.
If God is no longer concerned about Israel, Ulmer asked rhetorically, then why would a Christian be?
And if black churches usually side with whichever group they view as weaker — an all-too-familiar tendency among American Jews — then of course they aren’t pro-Israel.
“The African-American church will almost always try to identify the oppressed and side with the oppressed, which is an outgrowth of a theology that states that God is always on the side of the oppressed,” Ulmer said.
I responded that many Jews have a similar strong versus weak moral calculus, even when it comes to Israel. This surprised him.
“One of the reasons I'm so comfortable with Jews is ‘cause you guys are as mixed up as we are,” he said, laughing.
"WE WANT TO EVANGELIZE EVERYBODY"
Early one Wednesday in Dec. 2015, I drove to Walnut, an eastern suburb in L.A.’s sprawl, to meet with four Christian clergy at the First Evangelical Church of Diamond Bar: Pastor Carlos Robles of On a Mission Church, Pastor Peter Lundell of Walnut Blessing Church, Pastor Albert Wong of First Evangelical Church, and David Rodriguez, a traveling pastor.
We had a nice, albeit at times uncomfortable, conversation that explored their views on Israel, the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, and the suspicion among many Jews that what really drives evangelical support for Israel is a desire to evangelize.
In Jews’ defense, the suspicion doesn’t come from nowhere. Outfits like Jews for Jesus and other “Messianic Jewish” churches help fuel it.
For Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, his “red line” for working with Christian groups is whether they’re “actively trying to proselytize or missionize Jews.”
His decades-long balancing act is chronicled by author Zev Chafets in “The Bridge Builder: The Life and Continuing Legacy of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein.”
Eckstein had his first look into the potential of an evangelical-Jewish alliance in the 1970s, while working in Chicago for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). There, he was warmly embraced by Pentecostal and Southern Baptist Churches, many of whose members, he said, were eager to donate to Israel and assist Soviet Jewry.
Eckstein saw that evangelicals were a major ally in waiting for Israel and Jewish causes. But he was concerned about connecting Jews with so many Christians who, as a matter of religious practice, believe in evangelizing.
Christians who actively missionize or proselytize are beyond the pale for Eckstein—he won’t work with them in an official capacity.
But Christians who “witness,” who share their faith, act upon their faith, and carry out God’s commandments for others to see — Eckstein can work with them.
“When they are helping a Holocaust survivor in the Ukraine, that is their way of sharing with the Jewish people,” he said.
And, I learned, there are Christians who hope their support of Jews will bring some of them to Christianity; who hope their role as witnesses to God’s word may spur God to act upon the recipients of their blessings.
Take Pastor Peter Lundell, for example. He began our conversation with an apology on behalf of Christians for “how horribly, how despicably Jews were treated by Christians for centuries.”
“[But] we were the Christians who saw through that,” Lundell said.
He says Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is his “hero” and is “the best leader in the world,” but he added that he has mixed feelings about Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Just as Ulmer said Israel is for him spiritually what South Africa is ethnically, Lundell said Sweden is in his ancestral lineage, while Israel and the Torah are in his “spiritual lineage.”
“Would you reject your spiritual ancestors? No, you celebrate them,” Lundell said. “The Bible is true and we want to be on the right side of this.”
And what would you say to Jews who fear you’re trying to turn them into Christians, I asked?
“If we want to evangelize the Jews,” Lundell responded, “It's only because we want to evangelize everybody.”
At least he’s consistent, I thought.
When I challenged him about groups like Jews for Jesus, he said Messianic Jewish groups are there so that Jews “wouldn’t have to encounter additional stumbling blocks,” and that they could still be “culturally Jewish and follow Yeshua [Jesus], rather than have to become Gentiles.”
“This is enabling them to be Jews and followers of Jesus, which we think is great, and is good missiology,” Lundell said.
I disagreed with Lundell. I see these types of groups as deceptive. If you believe Jesus is the messiah, you’re Christian. That’s perfectly fine, but it’s not Jewish. Judaism and Jesus as messiah are mutually exclusive.
Lundell did say, though, that he understands why Jews would see “Messianic Judaism” as a sort of “invasion.”
“I can truly understand from a Jewish point of view how it feels threatening,” Lundell said. “I can really understand how they're upset about it.”
But, he emphasized, the commandment to support Israel is independent of Jews accepting Jesus, because the Bible says Israel is God’s chosen people, full stop.
“If they don't want to be Christians, it's a free country,” Lundell said, “But we are going to support Israel anyway because it's the right thing to do.”
Next, Pastor Carlos Robles shared his story. He grew up with a supersessionist version of Christianity, and was taught that Israel was a “nation among other nations,” not a “light on to the nations.”
When he was in his 20s and working in northern California alongside Cesar Chavez, Robles says he had a “born again” experience and left the labor movement to spread the gospel.
He now leads On a Mission Church, a small congregation in Walnut.
Robles said he sometimes includes prayers for the state of Israel in services, along with an admonition to God “to protect [Israel] from the third intifada.”
He does not believe a two-state solution would work, given the Palestinians’ rejection of multiple large-scale Israeli offers for territory.
But like Lundell, Robles prays “for Israel, too, to receive Yeshua ha mashiach.”
“I don't understand why [Jews] would be afraid of some of the young Jewish boys and girls to receive the message of love, because when you receive the message of love, it says it sets you free. The truth will set you free. So are they afraid of the truth?,” Robles said.
These are the types of quotes, I thought to myself, that make Jews distrust Christian assistance.
To his credit, though, Robles said he could see how this outlook could sound “like it’s conspiratorial and that we’re out to get something.”
“But I would never force that on anybody or look down on any Jewish person that doesn’t agree with that,” he said. Conversion may be on his mind, but “increasing our numbers” is not his core motive.
That would be following “the word of God”: bless Israel.
THE PROTESTANT DIVIDE
On May 21, 1922, Harry Emerson Fosdick, a liberal Baptist, spoke at New York’s First Presbyterian Church. He said fundamentalist Christians wanted “to drive out of the evangelical churches men and women of liberal opinion.”
By liberal, he meant Christians who interpreted the Bible in light of some of the major scientific advances of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and who differed from the fundamentalists in four key areas: a belief in the literal historical inerrancy of the Bible; a belief in Christ’s “second coming”; a belief in the “virgin birth”; and a belief that the only route to personal salvation is the acceptance of Jesus.
His speech was a breaking point in the Presbyterian Church’s (PCUSA) fundamentalist-modernist controversy.
While the split began with Presbyterians, it spread to every major mainline Protestant denomination, including Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians. It culminated in today’s divisions among non-mainline pastors and bishops like Ulmer and Tolle; and among their counterparts in most mainline Protestant churches like the United Methodist Church, the PCUSA, and the United Church of Christ.
But, I came to understand, the mainline and non-mainline division is overbroad, evangelicals and fundamentalists aren’t the same, and understanding Protestantism’s divisions required a deeper dive.
In a 2004 PBS Frontline project, “The Jesus Factor,” John Green, a University of Akron political science professor and a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, explained some key terms:
“Evangelicals and fundamentalists both agree that the Bible is inerrant,” Green said, “But fundamentalists tend to read the Bible literally. Many evangelicals don’t actually read it literally. They’re willing to understand that there’s metaphor and poetry in the Bible, and it’s just that the truth expressed in that metaphor and poetry is without error.”
“We’ll often say, ‘Well, that person takes the Bible seriously. They must be a fundamentalist,’ ” Green said. “When in fact they may not be a fundamentalist at all. They may be simply a person that takes the Bible seriously, but doesn’t have the other attributes of fundamentalists.”
Furthermore, while journalists often use the term “evangelical” to apply to a Christian who holds conservative political beliefs, the term itself has nothing to do with politics. It comes from “evangel,” a Greek-derived word from the New Testament that refers to the “good news” of Jesus serving as a vehicle to salvation.
And while all non-mainline Protestants are evangelical by definition, some mainline Protestants are also evangelical.
George W. Bush, for example, is a member of the mainline United Methodist Church, but, at least during his presidency, his language and politics were more in line with its evangelical, politically conservative wing.
But while all major Protestant churches believe in spreading the gospel, it is generally a more central and urgent belief for non-mainline Protestants and evangelical mainline Protestants.
To simplify the core differences among Protestants, then, is that some see the Bible as God’s inerrant word, and some don’t. Their political differences are an expression of that core belief.
That’s why, for politically liberal mainline Protestants (which is most), spreading the gospel goes beyond proselytizing, and can encompass a number of “social justice” issues.
Mainline Protestants, however, generally read the Bible “not as the inerrant word of God, but as a historical document,” John Green said, “which has God’s word in it and a lot of very important truths, but that needs to be interpreted in every age by individuals of that time and that place.”
But fundamentalists and non-mainline Protestants believe that the truths of the Bible are inerrant. That includes Genesis 12:3. Which is why they tend to adamantly support Israel while most mainline Protestants don’t.
“I don't know that any extended conversation can avoid that. I can't even imagine one,” Ulmer said, when I ran my it-comes-down-to-the-Bible-conclusion by him. “I think eventually it always comes down to that.”
ISRAEL AND THE MAINLINE CHURCHES
On June 22, 2014, the PCUSA’s national umbrella organization voted 310-303 during its General Assembly to divest about $21 million of investments in three companies—Caterpillar, Hewlitt-Packard and Motorola Solutions—that many church leaders said assist Israel in occupying and mistreating Palestinians in the West Bank.
While the same resolution reaffirmed Israel’s right to exist and explicitly disassociated PCUSA from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement, it was a vote that exposed the liberal-conservative fissure within the Presbyterian Church.
Rev. Drew Sams of Bel Air Presbyterian Church said some of his congregants have dropped their membership and stopped their financial giving since a portion of church dues go to PCUSA, which has nearly 1.5 million active members, and falling.
“There’s been huge fallout within our congregation,” Sams said at the time. “To develop policy that would convey the message that we are turning our back on our brothers and sisters in Israel is just very, very disappointing.”
One year later, on June 30, 2015, the United Church of Christ (UCC), which has nearly 900,000 members, voted 508-124 at its general synod in Cleveland to divest holdings from five companies that “profit from occupation of the Palestinian territories.”
Later that week the Episcopal Church, with 1.8 million members, rejected a similar divestment resolution.
In Jan. 2016, the United Methodist Church’s pension board blacklisted five Israeli banks—including divesting under $3 million from Bank Leumi and Bank Hapoalim—because it said those banks violate the church’s human rights guidelines for investments by financing construction in West Bank settlements.
But five months later, it rejected four resolutions that would have divested the UMC’s holdings from companies that do business in the West Bank, and then voted 478-318 to withdraw from the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. That came one week after Hillary Clinton, a Methodist, criticized the BDS movement.
Last July at its assembly in Orlando, the Mennonite Church, which has under 100,000 members, endorsed BDS with 98 percent voting in favor.
Reaching mainline Christian leaders for interview for this story was no easy task. For whatever reason, most emails and phone calls went unanswered or hit dead ends, but I managed to have three fruitful interviews from Methodist and UCC leaders.
Bishop Mary Swenson, a retired leader in the Methodist Church, told me about the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, which was developed by John Wesley, who founded Methodism in the 18th century.
The quadrilateral itself shows how distinct Methodist and non-mainline Protestant theology is.
Scripture is the first part of the quadrilateral. While it is considered the foundation, it is accompanied by tradition, reason and experience.
“We put everything to that four-point test,” Swenson said.
I saw, of course, that “inerrancy” was not part of this equation, especially one that includes something like “experience,” which is subjective.
Rev. Sandra Olewine of the First United Methodist Church of Pasadena said that while mainline denominations and churches like her own are considered “more center or left of center” than non-denominational churches, “We all think we are following the gospel.”
“We don’t think we’re left at all,” she said.
“We are not literalists,” Olewine said. “We understand that the Bible conveys the word of God but that it’s a living document. We bring the tradition of the church, we bring our experience, we believe the Holy Spirit breathes through scripture.”
From 1996 to 2006, Olewine was the UMC’s official liaison in Jerusalem, where she would bring Methodist tourists to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
She believes that Israel, as a nation-state and as the more powerful party in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has a “higher sense of responsibility.”
“It doesn’t mean that both sides haven’t done acts of atrocity,” Olewine said, “[But] the onus of that lies on the state of Israel’s shoulders, as it does on the United States’ shoulders, as we fund so much of it.”
She supported the UMC’s divestment measure, and criticized Christians who use Genesis 12:3 as their foundation as it pertains to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but then don’t “read past Joshua.”
“You have to go to the prophets. You can’t selectively use scripture,” Olewine said. “God chose the Jewish people to be a light unto the nations, not to do whatever the hell they want to do as a nation-state. If you’re going to use Scripture there are a lot of scriptures you can use against the policies of the state of Israel.”
Like the Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, said The Rev. James Moos, places an emphasis on “progressive witness and...peace and justice.” Moos heads the Wider Church Ministries, one of the UCC’s four ministries.
“The progressive witness of the United Church of Christ sets it apart from most non-mainline churches, which tend to be theologically and socially conservative,” Moos said, citing the UCC’s ordainment of the first female minister in modern times, the first black in a predominantly white church, and the first openly gay person.
Most UCC members, Moos said, “do not hold to the inerrancy of scripture,” but do read the Bible as containing “God’s intention for the church of the world,” with the Biblical prophets and the word and life of Jesus “forming the basis for the UCC’s emphasis on social justice.”
The UCC’s official position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict calls for a two-state solution, and Moos cited Isaiah 5:8 and Micah 2:1-3 as forming the basis of the church’s opposition to Israel’s “occupation and the seizure of Palestinian land.”
When I asked Moos what Genesis 12:3 means to UCC members as it pertains to Jews today, he said many UCC members do not “directly correlate Biblical Israel with the modern state of Israel,” adding that this “is by no means a delegitimization of the state of Israel.”
THE ROAD FORWARD
The story of Protestant Christianity in the last generation has been one of a growing evangelical movement and a shrinking mainline movement.
The Pew Research Center 2014 Religious Landscape Study tells much of the story:
In 2007, there were about 41.1 million adults in the U.S. who identified as mainline Protestant. By 2014, that number dropped sharply—to about 36 million. In 2007, 18.1 percent of American adults belonged to mainline churches. By 2014 that share dropped to 14.7 percent.
Mainline Protestantism’s retention rate is also low—45 percent; meaning that only 45 percent of adults raised mainline Protestant still identify as such.
To look at one church in particular, PCUSA’s membership dropped dramatically from 2005 to 2014—from about 2.3 million to 1.5 million. Another 300,000 members left between 2014 and 2016. As of 2016, the organization counted 9,451 member churches, 811 fewer than in 2012.
The evangelical population, meanwhile, grew from 59.8 million in 2007 to 62.2 million in 2014. And their retention rate, at 65 percent, far outpaces that of mainline Protestants.
In May 2015 the United Methodist Church put out a press release in which one of its top economists said the church has until 2030 to reverse its decline if it’s to have a sustainable future.
Methodist average weekly church attendance in the U.S. has declined from over 3 million in 2006 to under 2.7 million in 2017.
If that doesn’t change, and in the right direction, the church simply won’t have the funds for its infrastructure or core missions, from conferences, bishops and agencies to missions and international disaster response.
“What we are doing is disassembling our infrastructure faster than we are experiencing decline in the U.S.,” economist Donald House told the church’s General Council on Finance on Administration. “If this were a business model, I’d say you were gracefully closing your doors.”
A simple look at the data shows that evangelicals are the dominant force within American Protestantism, and likely will be for a long time.
As Martin Marty, an ordained Lutheran minister and longtime contributing editor for the progressive mainline Christian Century magazine said at a National Evangelical Association meeting, “You’ve won.”
If present trends continue (famous last words), what that would mean for the future of Christian-Jewish relations, at least as it pertains to Israel, is likely that mainline Protestant churches will remain split, with a tendency to side with the Palestinians, while American evangelicals will remain a strong pro-Israel force.
TWO YEARS LATER
When I began this story over two years ago, I knew nothing about nothing about Protestants in the United States.
After all, I started by interviewing a rabbi.
My findings, after many hours of interviews and many miles on my Honda, did not surprise me.
But they did educate me. They replaced my preconceptions and assumptions with knowledge and facts.
I learned that evangelicals’ strength, when it comes to supporting Israel, comes from their size and reach.
They are everywhere.
The wealthy Texan family flying an Israeli flag in their front yard is a drop in the bucket compared to the millions of working and middle class Americans who give $20 or $40 or $50 per month to the IFCJ and other Israel causes. The types of Americans who Pastors Jim Tolle, Lorraine Coconato, and Carlos Robles sermonize every week.
I don’t think most Jews know quite how many Christians in America want the best for them and Israel.
And it’s not because of the rapture, but because evangelicals take the Bible, the Hebrew Bible, seriously.
They interpret Genesis 12:3 — “I will bless those who bless you” — to mean “I will bless those who bless you.”
I also don’t think most Jews know how divisions within American Protestantism neatly mirror divisions within American Judaism.
Protestants’ political differences stem from their religious differences. Mainline and non-Mainline Protestants have fundamentally different views of the Bible.
Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians are closer politically than Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews because the former both view the Bible as God’s inerrant word.
Reform Jews and mainline Protestants share politics because they both interpret the Bible through multiple prisms, God’s word being one of them, but not the only one, and often not the main one.
A person’s politics, a group’s politics, not only correlates with their theology. It comes from it.
So if Christian support for Israel stems from a verse in Genesis that I, too, interpret seriously and literally, why would I not embrace it?
Why would anyone who is pro-Israel not embrace it?