Mike Evans calls himself “the largest evangelical leader in the world.” That might explain why folks listen when he opens his mouth. And boy, has it been wide open lately.
First, there was the public letter he issued accusing Naftali Bennett of being “so obsessed with destroying [Benjamin] Netanyahu that you’re willing to damage the State of Israel for your worthless cause,” and calling him a “disgusting disappointment” and a “pathetic, bitter little man.”
Then came a blog post last week on the Times of Israel website, where Evans compared members of the proposed “coalition of change” to “rabid dogs” who wish to “crucify” Israel’s longest standing prime minister.
If that weren’t enough, he rushed to Jerusalem earlier this week in a last-ditch effort to knock some sense into the majority of Israelis who voted for parties that will participate in the new governing coalition.
Should Netanyahu be forced to leave the Prime Minister’s Office, he told an emergency gathering of local reporters, Israel risked losing the support of the evangelical world.
“If Bibi Netanyahu goes into opposition, we evangelicals will go into opposition with him,” he told the press conference. Well, not exactly a press conference – more like a 30-minute public meltdown.
What infuriated Evans wasn’t only that Bennett had the gall to think he could step into Netanyahu’s shoes. It was also his decision to team up with “anti-Zionist Arabs” (a reference to the United Arab List, which Netanyahu also previously courted) and “post-Zionists” (a reference, it would seem, to Labor and Meretz) in forming this unity government. In other words, parties that support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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“Evangelicals are not two-staters,” Evans said, “but I can tell you that a whole lot of people in that unity government are.”
‘Represent on steroids’
On more than one occasion, he referred to his 77 million followers – the basis for his claim to being the largest evangelical leader in the world. That is a reference to the number of “likes” he had (both real and purchased) on his Jerusalem Prayer Team Facebook page, before it was shut down last month by the social media giant for ostensibly violating content guidelines.
“I don’t represent all the evangelicals but I represent 10 percent of them,” he said. “And the 10 percent I represent, I represent on steroids.”
Many evangelical leaders have distanced themselves from Evans in recent days, concerned that his inflammatory rhetoric – which included profanities and sexist imagery – and blatant interference in internal Israeli politics might reflect badly on them as well, reinforcing age-old Jewish beliefs that Christians aren’t to be trusted.
The International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, which has been active in Israel since 1980 and describes itself as the world’s “largest pro-Israel Christian organization,” issued a statement in response, professing its unconditional love for Israel.
“After going through four divisive elections, the yearlong coronavirus crisis, the recent conflict with Hamas, the rising global antisemitism, the latest denigration of Israel in UN forums, and the ever-looming threat of a nuclear Iran, the Israeli public right now needs to be hearing that evangelical Christians stand in solidarity with them regardless of who is leading their nation,” wrote ICEJ President Dr. Jürgen Bühler.
The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the largest private philanthropy in Israel, said that it “does not nor will it ever endorse political parties or candidates.” Rather, it said in a statement: “The Fellowship is committed to partnering with elected governments for the benefit of the Jewish people. Similarly, we are confident that evangelical Christians will continue to stand for Israel. Their support for the Jewish state – and, indeed, all of their values – are rooted in the Bible, not political parties or administrations.”
Similarly, God TV, one of the largest Christian broadcasting networks in the world (whose Israeli station was shuttered last year by the regulatory authorities amid concerns that it was proselytizing), took issue with Evans’ meddling in Israeli politics.
“While we honor the legacy of Prime Minister Netanyahu and admire his leadership on the world’s stage over the past several decades, our support for Israel is not based on who is prime minister,” it said in a statement.
None of these responses, it is worth noting, mentioned Evans by name. Tuly Weisz, an American-born, Israeli rabbi known for his close ties to the evangelical world, did, however.
“It is inconceivable that Mike Evans would defy the word of God, in the name of the 100 million Christians he purports to represent and threaten to revoke that support,” he said in a statement, noting that Evans often refers to himself as a “defender of Zion.”
“A defender of Zion is someone who puts his life on the line for the Jewish people, someone who thinks day and night about Israel’s security, as Naftali Bennett has done,” the statement said. “And let me tell you who is not a friend of Zion. Someone who literally takes out ads and billboards, calling himself the ‘largest evangelical leader in the world’ and then publicly attacks, threatens and delegitimizes Israel’s democratically elected prime minister.”
The ‘defender of Zion’
Not one prominent Christian leader has come out in recent days to support Evans or stand by his side. So how representative are his views and how much clout does he truly wield in the evangelical world?
To hear it from Evans, Netanyahu would never have become prime minister were it not for him. The evangelical leader often boasts about helping Netanyahu land a job in the Israeli Embassy in Washington 40 years ago, which set the aspiring young politician on his path.
And to hear it from him, the United States would never have moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem were it not for the huge billboard campaign he financed ahead of Donald Trump’s first presidential visit to the country. (Evans has also taken personal credit for Israel’s normalization agreements – widely known as the Abraham Accords – with four Arab countries in the past year.)
A member of Trump’s unofficial group of evangelical advisers, Evans was not known to have been particularly close to the former president, but was allegedly adept at pushing his way into gatherings at the Oval Office where there would be good photo ops.
The story Evans likes to tell is that he decided to become a “defender of Zion” after witnessing his antisemitic father beating his Jewish mother. He made his fortune writing bestselling books that focus on biblical prophecy.
His pet project of recent years has been the Friends of Zion Museum in Jerusalem, a state-of-the-art shrine to prominent evangelicals who have supported Israel and the Jewish people.
According to Motti Inbari, a professor of religion at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, Evans does not represent as large an evangelical base as he would have the public believe.
“He is part of a stream that views the second coming of Christ as an event that will take place in the near future, one in which the State of Israel will play an important role,” says Inbari, who studies attitudes toward Israel among evangelicals.
“These ideas about prophecy and end times have been circulating for a while, but our research shows that they are losing their grip, especially among young evangelicals. So I would say that Evans represents the old school – it is still a stream in the evangelical world, but not the dominant one.”
Contrary to widely held perceptions – and indeed, Evans’ own claims – Inbari’s research also shows that most evangelicals are not opposed to a two-state solution.
A study Inbari conducted in 2018 among evangelical adults, for example, found that only a third supported Israeli annexation of the West Bank, while another third opposed it and an equal share had no opinion on the matter.
A survey he conducted together with colleague Prof. Kirill Bumin, published last month, found that young evangelicals are increasingly distancing themselves from Israel. Indeed, according to their findings, only a third of the 800 respondents said they supported Israel more than the Palestinians, while about a quarter said they supported the Palestinians more than Israel; the rest said they supported neither.
The findings also showed that young evangelicals are far more likely to have voted Democrat than Republican in the last presidential election.
“Most evangelicals are far more pragmatic than you’d think,” Inbari says.
Outside the evangelical world, responses to Evans’ attack on the new Israeli government tended to be variations on the theme of “Good riddance,” “We told you so” and “Who needs them?”
Butch Maltby, a U.S.-based evangelical consultant with long-standing ties to Israeli government agencies, says he was deeply hurt by those responses.
“I wasn’t surprised by what Mike said because he has a reputation for being hyperbolic,” Maltby said, in a phone conversation from his home in North Carolina. “But unfortunately, he seems to have confirmed some of the worst suspicions people have about evangelicals, and I find that very troubling.”
Evans, he believes, represents a “subset of voters” within the evangelical world who took Trump’s election loss very hard and see many parallels in Netanyahu’s fall from power. “This is a group of people who tended to see both these men as Lions of Judah,” Maltby says.
But they are far from the majority, he insists. “To say that Evans has 77 million people willing to jump off the cliff with him is simply not true,” Maltby notes.