One of the few 'movements' that the mainstream media have yet to praise and promote is the evangelical movement in America. Despite the dramatic growth in the number of people who consider themselves evangelicals, commentators and critics have routinely disparaged the theology and practices that are the heart of evangelicalism. Instead, criticism has become increasingly harsh, as some take aim at the perceived social, political and diplomatic consequences of the growing influence of the movement.
Many opponents of Israel have found fault with evangelicals' strong support of Israel, and believe that President Bush has been too supportive of Israel because of the importance of his evangelical electoral base. Conversely, many American Jews who are concerned about the survival of Israel have been enlightened about the impact new friends in the Christian community can have on foreign policy. While the speculative impact on American policy of the growth of the evangelical movement has received much attention, the astounding growth rate of foreign evangelical communities has been under the radar screen. Yet the astounding growth rate of these communities may have dramatic consequences for Israel.
Over the last few years, the friendship and support once shown for Israel by Western Europeans seem to have evaporated. Europe has seen the boycott of Israeli goods and Israeli employees, harsh and one—sided media criticism of Israel, extreme diplomatic pressure on Israel to force it to make concessions to the Palestinians, and the continual funding of Palestinian groups tied to anti—Semitism and terror. One now infamous poll of European attitudes is a potent barometer: Israel was judged to be the biggest threat to world peace.
However, fundamentalist European Christians seem to be organizing to help Israel overcome these problems. Recently, the Chicago—based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) convened a meeting in Jerusalem of European Christian leaders with their counterparts from Australia, Canada, Israel and America to draft plans to help Israel. Amongst the groups represented were Germany's Evangeliscghe Allianz and Christians for Israel in Holland. Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein of the IFCJ stated that 'the objective of the meeting is to reach out to our friends in the pro—Israel Christian community in Europe. We want to invigorate them and send them back to their communities with new ideas for how they can help Israel.'
On the more overtly political front, the European Coalition for Israel was recently formed. Fifty representatives from nine nations came together to form what one wag termed 'a pro—Israel lobby alongside the European Parliament'. As new nations in Eastern Europe are soon to join the EU, efforts are being made to gain friends there. While one Israeli noted that 'the pro—Israel Christian coalition is still small, because Europe is today secular by definition' he also feels that the religious conflicts raging in the world will lead more Christians to view the Jewish people and the Jewish state as part of a shared Judeo—Christian heritage under attack.
This view is echoed by Malcolm Hedding, the executive director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, who has stated that his offices are being flooded with thousands of e—mails from all over the world who support efforts to help Israel. He proclaimed to Israelis that 'the eyes of the Christian world are upon you'. He stated what is almost axiomatic in the current climate, 'Christians are better positioned to defend Israel than Jews because if a Jewish person speaks out, people are inclined to assume that he is biased. But if someone from the Christian community speaks out on behalf of Israel, it has greater clout'. As one reporter commented, 'Once such a sentence would have sounded like a threat; now there are those who would see it as a political promise'.
The evangelical movement has been very active in the Third World, or as Paul Freston, an evangelical in Brazil has called it, 'the Two—Thirds World,' since two—thirds of the world's people reside in lesser—developed nations. While Europe struggles with a birth rate that has fallen below replacement levels, population growth still occurs in most nations of Asia, Africa, and South America. The growth of Christianity will be paced by its growth in these areas of the world, and such growth has been healthy.
People in these lands have found that the leftist 'liberation theology' popular among some Catholic priests there has not met their religious needs. A similar schism has also developed due to the increasingly loose moral codes in the churches of the Western world (for instance, the granting of religious leadership to gays). Missionary efforts by evangelicals have found fertile grounds among the disaffected legions.
The IFCJ's Rabbi Eckstein has been expanding his outreach movement to Latin America, which has a fast—growing evangelical movement. In a speech he delivered to a mutlti—denominational audience recently he noted that in Chile, a nation once entirely Catholic, thirty percent of the population is now evangelical Protestant. In some of these nations, such as Argentina and Brazil, a substantial and well—organized Jewish community exists, that can partner with evangelical groups in support of Israel. While conjectural, there are no apparent blocks to such an alliance. Since most of these nations are now democracies, people will be free to petition their governments to support Israel.
One of the more significant developments that could affect Israel is the startling growth of Christianity in China. When Christians were persecuted under Chairman Mao, a widespread clandestine network of 'house churches' sprang up. Most were evangelical in nature and were quite successful in increasing their memberships.
A new book, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Balance of Power by David Aikman provides the most in—depth account of this history and a prophetic view of its future impact. He notes that many intellectuals and business leaders have had contact with the Western world and have been influenced by this exposure to become Christians. Furthermore, the evangelical churches have provided a degree of emotional warmth and support that many have found appealing. Aikman, in an interview for the National Review, stated that Christians in China are pro—Israel and:
[I]f Christians began to fill positions in China's foreign ministry, strategic think tanks, and even within the government as a whole, China would become far less opportunistic about supporting any Middle Eastern group that happened to be critical of, or hostile to, the U.S. In addition if China ever became open enough to be willing to permit Chinese missionaries to travel overseas, it would probably be supportive of efforts of Chinese missionaries to evangelize the Islamic world, especially the Arab Middle East. This of course, would render China far less popular in the Muslim world as a whole and thereby more likely to try to be 'even—handed' in the Israeli—Palestinian conflict.
Aikman also believes that Chinese Christians will be pro—American and supportive of America's support of Israel. Since China is one of the world's most powerful and populous states, and occupies a permanent Seat on the Security Council of the UN, this scenario has hope for Israel. Aikman sees South Korea as a precedent for how China might change in the years ahead. Though Christians are not a majority in South Korea ——perhaps amounting to one—third of the population —— Christians fill very important positions throughout society and government. In many ways this self—organizing experience was both a result of and a promoter of modernization, and could be a model for China's experience ahead.
In response to a question from this writer, George Mamo of the IFCJ, noted that South Koreans have shown continued support for Israel by continuing to travel there (in record numbers) despite the travails of the recent years. Undoubtedly the growth of the technology industries in these nations (and their nations' defense needs) will nourish additional bonds of friendship that should provide some measure of solace for Israel in the years ahead.
Supporters of this rapidly emerging development might want to consider the importance of evangelicals to Israel's security. Since many of these efforts are being promoted by American evangelicals, care must be taken to avoid damaging the ties Jews have with evangelicals here. The recent controversy over Mel Gibson's movie, 'The Passion of the Christ' seems to provide a telling case in point. While many Jewish Americans expressed concern over possible anti—Semitism in the movie, such pressure did not stop the movie from being distributed, and may have helped it achieve huge audience numbers. Yet, in a poll of Evangelicals by the IFCJ, only two percent blamed Jews for the death of Jesus, and it is a fair assumption that among them this blame did not carry down two thousand years. More than eighty percent blamed all of humanity. They took away from the movie that evil exists and must be defeated by the good.
Instead we should concentrate on recognizing the commonality of Jews and Christians and understand that we share a Judeo—Christian heritage which is the foundation of Western Civilization. This civilization is now under attack by the malignant forces of radical Islam. This is the true evil that must be defeated.