Evangelical Christians have historically fixated on Israel, the land of Jesus’ prophesied return. But a new generation has emerged that questions the literal beliefs of the Bible and rejects the politicization of their religion by some on the right.
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“I think evangelicalism is in a real crisis right now,” says Brandan Robertson, 25, lead pastor of a progressive Christian community in San Diego, California.
Despite growing up learning about the Chosen People in what he calls “the hotbed of Christian Zionism,” modern technology and globalization led Robertson and his peers to question those teachings. “Because we live in such an interconnected globalized world, as students we were able to go on Facebook or easily travel to a different part of the world and see that the things we were being told – based on, in my opinion, antiquated theology – didn’t live up and match up to the reality of what was happening to the world,” he says.
There are an estimated 60 million adult evangelicals in the United States, 25 percent of all Christians in the country, according to the Pew Research Center.
A survey published earlier this month by LifeWay Research found a generational gap in values and approaches when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with older evangelicals more likely to be pro-Israel than those under 35. Richard Flory, a senior director of research and evaluation at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, sees this as part of a broader change: Younger people are generally leaving religious groups and affiliations in higher rates, he says, and while some do follow the paths of their parents, others choose to express their faith in different ways.
“They would look like evangelicals – meaning they have a high view of the Bible and would follow the traditional evangelical scriptural teachings – but they are parting company because their life experience is different than their parents’,” Flory says. He adds that many have lost interest due to the politicization of their faith and moved on to promote peace and social justice in their own ways.
Looking elsewhere for answers
“My dad is huge on end-times prophetic stuff,” Ephraim Gatdula, a 27-year-old evangelical from Long Beach, California, is quoted as saying in University of Southern California research conducted by Flory’s colleague, Nick Street. “I’m a believer that God didn’t tell us specifically what’s going to happen and when he’s going to do it, so why bother looking through Scripture for it?” Gatdula asks. Instead, he chooses to focus on the needs of homeless people and the “working poor” in his neighborhood.
Representing the next wave of Christianity, the majority of this younger generation holds a completely different set of social and political perspectives, including on Israel.
“They’re not in any way opposed to Israel – they just don’t elevate or view it in the same special way their parents’ generation did,” Flory observes. “They would frame it less as ‘We’re on the side of Israel’ than ‘We’d like to see peace to all people in the region.’ They’d say, ‘We’re not interested in favoring Jews over Palestinians.’”
This, of course, is not the case for all young evangelicals. Ruth Malhotra, 33, agrees there is a distinct difference in how her generation expresses the Christian worldview, but considers herself a strong supporter of Israel.
“I have been involved in pro-Israel activism for many years,” she says, including leading 800-people trips to Israel with the First Baptist Church Atlanta. “I really believe in advocating for Israel here in the U.S., and also combating so many of the lies and falsehoods and misconceptions about the country often times spreading in the media and college campuses,” she notes.
Despite not voting for him in last year’s election, Malhotra was encouraged by President Donald Trump’s recent announcement recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which she found “a very significant step toward recognizing reality.”
Robertson, however, viewed it as irresponsible, taking the peace process “10 steps backward.”
He believes that “Trump’s position is not only an affront to Christianity, but it puts the world in danger.” As a progressive evangelical, he says the most disturbing thing “is seeing some of my older evangelical people that I used to look up to cheering Trump’s decision and the impending violence as a sign of the end-times and Jesus coming back – and I think that is fundamentally opposed to everything Jesus preached and represented.”
He explains the larger shift within his generation as having less to do with religious beliefs and more to do with society.
“Even among my peers who have a more conservative or traditional theology, socially we’re becoming very progressive,” Robertson says. “So issues of immigration or marriage equality or women’s rights or Black Lives Matter – these are issues that younger evangelicals are rallying around and caring about, and these are issues that older evangelicals see as a threat to their values.”
Parting political ways
The 2016 presidential election has created a large divide in the evangelical community. Although white evangelicals overwhelmingly voted for Trump (81 percent, according to exit polls), many of the younger generation are less vocal in their support of Trump – some even making a sharp turn to the other side.
Robertson pinpoints Barack Obama’s years as president as his turning point. “The night Obama got elected the first time, I wept because I thought our country had sold its soul to the devil,” he admits. But by 2012, Robertson had created a group called Evangelicals for Obama and in 2016 he worked with the Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton campaigns, helping them reach young evangelicals.
Malhotra shares similar sentiments when it comes to the incumbent president. “I was very disheartened to see so many Christian leaders and older conservative evangelicals who would rally around candidate Trump at the time and seemingly explain away his extreme rhetoric, his many indiscretions. They would almost portray him as this paragon of virtue, wholeheartedly embracing and defending his behavior and character. And I thought that was deeply troubling and intellectually dishonest,” she says.
She is especially concerned by what she calls “double standards and lip service” – when politicians condemn their opponents but condone their own for similar behavior. “It’s some of the same people now telling us to vote for Roy Moore because we need another vote and cannot afford to lose another vote in the senate,” she says, referring to the failed Republican senate nominee from Alabama who faced allegations of sexual impropriety with teenage girls.
“At least for those within my congregation I would say the majority are registered Republicans, but I don’t think they vote Republican,” says Pastor Derrick Engoy, founder of The Branch, an evangelical Christian church in Long Beach.
Engoy, 40, says his community has been adopting an all-inclusive approach, and the political disagreements reach beyond the president or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to a wider moral code. “There is value in everyone as people,” he says. “I think it’s an evolution of where we’ve come as a country: We’re no longer just black and white, we’re a melting pot.”
Not just millennials
Carolyn Custis James, a Christian author and activist from Pennsylvania, grew up in the 1950s surrounded by supportive views of Israel. “I remember wishing I was Jewish,” she says. “It always seemed like the ultimate.”
Yet, along with the shift she sees among many millennials, she too feels that evangelicalism today contains many negative connotations, ones that she and her community “abhor.”
Flory sees a division within evangelicals that is not just younger versus older, but a growing group of people who are no longer willing to identify as evangelical. “Although they have an evangelical theology per se, they would never allow that label on themselves,” he says.
Robertson agrees. “The word evangelical is harder and harder to hold onto because of how Donald Trump, and Christian leaders who have supported him, have represented that word – so it’s always a love-hate relationship.”
Some evangelicals attest to traveling the world and higher education as eye-opening experiences, both more accessible today than ever before. In the past five years, Robertson has visited 14 different countries and studied theology at an academic level, and seen firsthand “what white evangelicals have exported to other countries. It’s damaging and doesn’t produce life or peace or justice,” he says.
For James, the decisive moment arrived while she was living with her husband in Oxford, where they met an Israeli and a Muslim Indian. “Our Israeli friend was very sympathetic [to] the Palestinians and we have never heard anything like that,” she recalls. “And our Muslim friend was a sweetheart of a man who talked to us about his feelings about what was happening in the Middle East, and gave a different perspective of what America was doing. It was just eye-opening to live at a distance from your own country – that was a turning point for us.”
The change is largely motivated by the political arena, where some of the younger generation feel they have lost faith in their representatives. “I consider myself increasingly independent,” Malhotra says. “I still hold to the core values of the Republican Party, but I feel like the Republican Party abandoned people like me. With everything from Donald Trump to Roy Moore, there’s a kind of frustration that people from our side have been blinded by partisanship.”
Evangelicals today have a vast organizational infrastructure in the United States, ranging from mega-churches and publishers to universities and political organizations.
Even if their numbers are diminishing, they still have a lot of power to wield, Flory says. But “it’s not clear that all these churches and schools are going to last, because there’s a declining number of younger people.”
Whether they remain staunch supporters of Israel or critical activists, the different approaches of millennial evangelicals marks a shift from their predecessors.
“I think in that diversity there is the ability to have creative solutions,” Robertson concludes.