Senator Ted Cruz’s vigorous defense of Israel at a recent conference for persecuted Middle Eastern Christians in Washington, D.C., provoked jeers from a loud minority in the audience, made up largely of Catholics and Orthodox, many of them from the region or of Middle Eastern background. In June, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to divest from three firms doing business with Israel to protest Israeli policies towards Palestinians. More politically significant than those events, however, is a shift underway among some evangelicals, who traditionally have been Israel’s strongest Christian boosters in America.
The late Rev. Jerry Falwell, a founder of modern conservative religious activism, often boasted that America’s Bible Belt was Israel’s safety belt. But Falwell’s zeal for conservative red meat causes has become passé for much of the current generation of evangelical elites, who eschew the confrontational politics of the old religious right.
Polls show that evangelicals remain strongly pro-Israel and are America’s strongest pro-Israel demographic by far, with the possible exception of Jews. But there are few if any pro-Israel evangelical leaders today as outspoken and prominent as Falwell. And an increasing number of evangelicals in parachurch groups and evangelical schools are endorsing pro-Palestinian activism or at least a more neutral stance between Israel and its foes. Often the new evangelical perspective is premised on concern for Palestinian Christians, who number about 50,000, or just over
1 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Palestinian population.
One relatively new voice for evangelicals is the Telos Group, based in Washington, D.C., and winsomely advocating a “pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, pro-American, pro-peace movement.” Its founder is a U.S.-born Palestinian Christian attorney, and its executive director is Todd Deatherage, who was chief of staff to Senator Tim Hutchinson, the Republican senator from Arkansas, and later worked in the State Department under George W. Bush. Two evangelical bishops, one of whom is Hispanic, serve on the Telos board.
Deatherage belongs to a large orthodox Anglican church outside Washington attended by many prominent conservatives. Part of Telos’s mission is to send “influential Americans from across the political and theological spectra on high-touch, multi-narrative pilgrimages to the Holy Land,” where they are exposed to sympathetic Palestinians.
“The work of Telos is to contribute to the creation of a new paradigm, one in which Americans get to know real Israelis and Palestinians, respect them as individuals, and take in their stories,” Deatherage explained earlier this year. “There are some who believe our pro-Israel, pro-Palestine approach is nothing more than slick marketing, covering a more sinister (and one-sided) agenda,” he admitted. “Not only has our methodology been questioned, but so has our funding,” he added, obviously referring to grants to Telos by George Soros’s Open Society Institute. “And we make no apologies for welcoming financial support from any who will affirm freedom, security, and dignity for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”
During the recent Gaza conflict, Deatherage benignly blogged that a “ceasefire is needed immediately.” Neither “acts of terrorism nor aggressive military campaigns” can displace the need for “addressing the fundamental issues underlying the years of violence,” he noted, as “each side needs friends who will challenge them to do what is best for their own people, and, at the same time, who will encourage visionary leadership which realizes that the future of the two people is interconnected, that neither is going away, that the pain of grieving mothers is always the same, and that freedom and security for one people cannot be found at the expense of the other.”
Such agreeable appeals for peace and security for both Palestinians and Israelis from the new-style melodious evangelical activism are different from the denunciations of Israel by harder-line critics on the old religious left, especially the curia of Mainline Protestant agencies, whose constituencies are limited and lack political influence.