At a Brookings Center for Middle East Policy event last Friday, Shibley Telhami– a professor of peace and development at the University of Maryland- released the results from his public opinion poll focused on how Americans feel about Israel. At this time last year, Telhami conducted a similar poll looking at how Americans felt about the Middle East, but this year’s poll attempts to “unpack” last year’s results in order to understand how American evangelicals feel about Israel. The survey, conducted in November so that the results would be fresh, included a large oversample of self-identified evangelicals and “born-again” Christians so that the study could better dissect how these voters feel.
One of the first results that may surprise most Americans is that when asked in an open-ended question to name a national or world leader they admire most, a plurality of evangelicals (16%) named Benjamin Netanyahu. Only 11% of evangelicals named Ronald Reagan, and only 1% of self-identified Democrats chose Netanyahu. The Israeli Prime Minister’s favorability numbers among Republicans remained nearly constant from 2014 to 2015 (49% and 51%, respectively), whereas among Democrats his favorability numbers dropped from 25% to 18% and his unfavorability numbers rose from 22% to 34%. While explaining these findings, Telhami emphasized that Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, DC in March 2015 to speak at the U.S. Congress about the Iran Deal likely raised his profile, for better or worse, amongst all Americans. In other words, when 16% of evangelicals named him as their favorite leader, they did so in part because they knew his name. When asked about other world leaders, like British Prime Minister David Cameron, respondents were less likely to know them or have any opinion about them. Interestingly, around 5% of Republicans chose Russian President Vladimir Putin. These questions are more about popularity, notoriety, or name recognition than about any specific policy position.
When asked if Israel has “too little,” “too much,” or the “right level” of influence in American politics, a plurality of Democrats said “too much” (49%) while a majority of Republicans said Israel’s influence was at the “right level” (52%). Evangelicals were more likely to say that Israel had “too little influence” (39%) compared to Republicans as a whole (22%), and evangelicals were also less convinced than other Republicans that Israel had the right amount of influence. Evangelicals are also more likely to say that before voting they consider a candidate’s position on Israel “a lot” (55%) than the Republican Party as a whole (40%). Only 14% of Democrats say they consider a candidate’s position on Israel “a lot.” Thus, the evangelical wing of the Republican Party is much more pro-Israel than the rest of the party as a whole, and Telhami asserts that evangelicals’ eschatological beliefs create this more-intense support for Israel.
The study also found that Christians’ view on eschatology, or end times, correlated with their views on Israel. A vast majority of both evangelical and non-evangelical Christians believed that Christ would return someday, and more evangelicals Christians (63%) than non-evangelical Christians (51%) said that Israel had to control all of the land that God promised in the Old Testament for rapture to occur. When analyzing these results, Telhami emphasized that these eschatological beliefs helped drive evangelicals’ support for Israel and gave greater “intensity” to that support. Even if a near-majority of Democrats thinks that Israel has too much influence on American politics, this position is not nearly as strong or intense as evangelicals’ beliefs, even if evangelicals are only a minority within a minority. Republican presidential candidates can pull on these beliefs in order to win important primaries or caucuses in states like Iowa or South Carolina.
Though the study did find a strong correlation between a particular set of eschatological beliefs and support for Israel, the study does not appear to have measured how well Christians understood critical eschatological works like Revelation. These works of prophesy are famously complicated with images that could be interpreted in multiple ways, and many well-read Christians struggle to understand these passages. There is no consensus amongst well-educated Christians about things like “rapture” or Israel’s literal condition during the end times. Therefore, when the study asked Christians about their beliefs in the end times, some respondents may have had foggy or uncertain notions about what they believe. In other words, their views on eschatology may be less intense than their views on Israel, which would mean that evangelicals’ intense support for Israel may not come from a particular belief in the end times. An interesting follow-up study could ask respondents open-ended questions about their beliefs on end-times and then the study could compare how their beliefs correspond with their views on Israel.
During a panel after Telhami presented his findings, Tamara Wittes- director of Brooking’s Center for Middle East Policy- noted how the poll showed that Netanyahu’s speech to the U.S. Congress about the Iran Deal did not have a significant impact on American public opinion. Even though his favorable numbers declined among Democrats, they remained stable among Republicans. Plus, there was little year-over-year change in public opinion on important issues like whether or not the two-state solution is best, what role the United States should play in Israel-Palestine relations, how the United States should behave in the United Nations towards Israel, or whether Iran or Islamic State is a bigger threat. Netanyahu’s speech may not have changed American public opinions on these issues, but the speech did contribute slightly to the ongoing partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats. This poll essentially demonstrates how public opinion is becoming even more divided and partisan on yet another issue. Susan Glasser, founding editor of POLITICO Magazine and another panelist, argued that the numbers show how divided the Republican Party is since the evangelicals diverge so much from the rest of the party, whereas the Democratic Party is more united on this issue and others. If this observation is accurate, then Telhami’s poll and others that show division in the Republican Party may be an indication that the GOP may struggle to rally enough voters to cast ballots in November 2016, especially in battleground states. Michelle Boorstein, the religion reporter from the Washington Post, pointed to another sign of division in the Republican Party. Even though the general public thinks that evangelicals have immense power over government, evangelicals often feel powerless or ignored because there is a perception that candidates use their intense support in primaries before abandoning them in the general election or in office. This disgruntlement may continue, and evangelicals could decide to stay home in November 2016 if they are unconvinced their candidate sufficiently supports Israel, even though the party as a whole does not support Israel as intensely as they do. Whoever wins the Republican primaries and caucuses over the coming months, he or she will therefore have great difficulty keeping the Republican coalition together on Israel and many other issues.
Mark Melton is the Deputy Editor for Providence. He earned his Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and has a specialization in civil conflict and European politics. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Foreign Language & International Trade from Mississippi College. Prior to moving to DC, he worked as a political science adjunct professor at community colleges in Mississippi. He is Providence’s resident Millennial (don’t let the premature salt and pepper hair fool you- he’s still a Millennial).
Photo Credit: John Kerry and Benjamin Netanyahu meet in July 2014 (U.S. Department of State)