Jews & Evangelicals: From Missionizing to Partnership?

May 1, 2007
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Yehiel Poupko

Viewed by some Jews as friends, by others as foes, the one thing certain is that Evangelical Christians pose a great conundrum for American Jews.

“Evangelical Christian” is a term that is descriptive and deceptive. It is descriptive both because these are Christians who believe in the calling to spread the “good news” of the New Testament and because it is the preferred term of this segment of Americans, which is rapidly growing both in numbers and influence. It is deceptive because many Christians, including those in mainline Protestant denominations, can be described as evangelical — and because Evangelicals include several groupings, including Fundamentalist, Charismatic, and Pentecostal Christians. The Jewish community has so very little experience with Evangelicals. Where there are large Jewish communities, such as the West Coast and the Northeast, there are relatively small Evangelical communities, and in the areas where large Evangelical communities exist there are few Jews.

Every faith system should be understood in the words of its faithful. The pre-eminent historian of American Christianity, himself a pious Evangelical, Professor Mark Noll, writes:

“Evangelicalism at its best is an offensive religion. It claims that human beings cannot be reconciled to God, understand the ultimate purposes of the world, or live a truly virtuous life unless they confess their sin before the living God and receive new life in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.”

This statement is at the heart of the challenge for American Jews. Many Americans see Evangelicals as coming from a lower socioeconomic class, being less cultured, and subscribing to a form of Christianity that is anti-modern and conservative. This impression is not accurate. The popular media play a critical role in shaping American attitudes about Evangelicals. For many Americans, the face of evangelical Christianity is that of people such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Ralph Reed.

On important social positions, Evangelicals generally hold a set of positions that are different from those held by a majority, but not all of American Jews. Some of the social positions of Evangelicals are: homosexuality is a sin; no absolute right to

abortion; government aid to religious schools and “moments of silence” in public schools are desirable, though not for the purpose of worship or religious instruction.

Who are the Evangelicals, and in what ways are they different from mainline Protestants? Evangelical Christianity is a uniquely American form of Christianity, with roots in the Colonial period. American Protestantism held two opposing positions about the nature of humanity and the Christian faith. One position held that there is a benevolent God who would ultimately grant everyone salvation. The other held that humanity is characterized by depravity and original sin and that without a radical personal conversionary experience, one could not be saved. The former is the source of liberal Protestantism in America, the latter of evangelical Christianity. What separates them are the doctrines of original sin, eternal damnation, and the role of biblical inspiration.*

The mainline Protestants, with whom Jews are most comfortable by virtue of social, political, economic, and educational status, as well as many shared positions on domestic issues, have often turned out to be Israel’s most ardent critics. The Evangelicals, with whom most American Jews do not share a common set of social, political, and cultural views, have turned out to be Israel’s best friends. Some American Jews find this paradox embarrassing. Most find it confusing.

As Ethan Felson of the JCPA (see his essay on page eight) notes, interfaith relations do not always carry with them a quid pro quo. Just as Jews have learned to make common cause with Catholics and mainline Protestants on certain issues while maintaining difference and distinction on others, the same ought to be true in our relations with Evangelicals.

While many Evangelical Christians are strong supporters of Israel, they present a dilemma for the Jewish community. Evangelicals are the only Christian grouping in the U.S. who today vigorously and clearly assert that without Christ there cannot be any salvation, redemption, or cleansing from sin and actively work to convert anyone, Jews included.

Thus, at the risk of over simplification, one can describe a paradox. Evangelicals are great supporters of our Jewish national identity as expressed in Zionism and as realized in the State of Israel, and not our friends in the matter of the faith of the Jewish people, Judaism. Mainline Protestants, many of whom are hardly friends of Israel as the expression of Jewish national identity, are on the other hand friends of the faith of the Jewish people, Judaism, because they have renounced and do not practice the mission to the Jews.

Mainline Protestants are now in a battle with Evangelicals for the very pews of their churches, for the very heart and soul of American Christendom. They are attacking the Evangelicals on all fronts, but perhaps nowhere more intensively than Evangelical support for Israel and the theological meaning of the return of the Jewish people to sovereignty in the State of Israel.

Mainline Protestants reject Christian support for Israel based on a theology grounded in biblical literalism, inerrancy of prophecy, and the assertion that one can look at contemporary events and know God’s will. Beyond that, they hold the Jewish people and Israel accountable for Evangelical support. Many mainline Protestants in effect are saying, “How justified can Zionism and Israel be if their strongest support in the Christian community is coming from Evangelical quarters and is meant to culminate in the conversion of the Jews?”

At the same time, Evangelicals turn to the Jewish community and in effect say, “For decades, many of you have made common cause with mainline liberal Protestants on a variety of social, political, and economic issues. Now when it comes to Israel, which we Evangelicals know matters most to you, they are not your friends, and we are.”

In their critique of Evangelicals many Protestant spokespersons and organizations conflate two good and sacred terms, Zionism and Christianity, in order to present an odium, Christian Zionism. They do so without differentiation. There are many kinds of Christian Zionists. At the very least they include the following: Christians who support Israel because it is a democracy that shares important values and ideas with America; those who support Israel because it is an ally of the U.S. in a difficult part of the world; those who support Israel because they read and study the Hebrew Bible, and in the Jewish people today, they see the children of Abraham and Sarah and, in the words of one Evangelical commentator, “Israel figures prominently in the Evangelical imagination”; and those who are premillennial dispensationalists, who believe that the return of the Jewish people to Israel is a sign of an imminent, eschatological, apocalyptic event.

John Greene of the Pew Center has demonstrated that if one construes the white adult Evangelical cohort in America by the broadest definition, there are 52 million Evangelicals of whom ten percent are premillennial dispensationalists. Approximately eight percent of this cohort is on the so-called Evangelical left and hardly supporters of Israel. But for approximately 80 percent of Evangelicals there is an innate sense of respect and admiration for the Jewish people unrelated to any “end-time” scenario.

The Jewish community finds itself caught in the middle of this feud; mainline Protestant attacks on Israel often appear to be based not on an evaluation of the merits of the situation, but on a reflexive opposition to whatever the Evangelicals embrace.

Jewish history teaches that we Jews have to take our friends where and when we can get them. We have to do so with the intellectual integrity that has always characterized our interfaith relations. When we accept Evangelical support and friendship, it must be accompanied by a very clear statement that we find efforts to missionize us anathema. When a scholar of Christianity once asked me why we accept Evangelical support for Israel since we have been written out of the second chapter, I reminded him of the apocryphal story in which, when asked about support from Jerry Falwell, Menachem Begin is reported to have said either one of the following: He can keep his theology, I’ll take his help; or meanwhile, He isn’t coming.

It may be possible that we Jews are beginning a path with the Evangelicals that in fact we have walked over the past half-century with the Roman Catholics. Following World War II, the Catholics surely understood that they were in need of developing a relationship with us and atoning for their sins. As Jews and Roman Catholics began to talk, they came to know each other, especially in the American setting. As we slowly and tentatively got to know each other, year by year, decade by decade, it became clear to the Roman Catholic Church, that the Jewish people continue to have a vibrant and flourishing religious civilization, that in our life of Torah and mitzvot God is indeed in our midst, and that our covenant with God is efficacious. To be a Christian is to believe that everyone needs Christ. Yet the Roman Catholic Church rarely, if ever, practices the mission to the Jews. Possibly it has decided that this is a task that needs to await another time, if not the end of time. Is it not possible that we are beginning to walk such a path in our newly developing relationship with the Evangelical community? Many Evangelical theologians, clergy, scholars, professionals, and activists seek good relations with the Jewish people. It is very hard to proselytize someone with whom you regularly talk and exchange hospitality. Perhaps, just perhaps, we are beginning to walk the path we have walked with the Catholics with the Evangelicals.

* (see Protestantism in America, by Randall Balmer, chapter 3)

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