Evangelicals and Global Christian Zionism
Last week I enjoyably attended an Israel Allies Foundation reception at the Museum of the Bible honoring Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales for announcing his country’s moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. He is an Evangelical in a traditionally Catholic country that may be now 40 percent Protestant/Evangelical. For 50 years much of Latin America has experienced an upsurge in Evangelicalism, much if most of it Pentecostal. Evangelicals are politically influential in especially Central America, Brazil and Chile, among other places. Even more than USA Evangelicals, Global South Evangelicals, especially Pentecostals, tend to be pro-Israel, and their Zionism is influencing the foreign policy of their nations.
Global Evangelical growth, especially Pentecostalism, which may be the world’s fastest growing religious movement, is starting to have a similar impact in Africa, Asia and elsewhere. This recent Washington Post story reports young American Evangelicals are less Zionist than their parents, but global Evangelical growth, with which Israel is politically networking, may partly compensate. While post colonial leftist regimes in Africa often aligned against Israel during the Cold War, dramatic Evangelical increases in sub-Saharan Africa are helping shift some of those countries in more Israel friendly directions.
Evangelical growth in much of Asia also is strong but doesn’t have the demographic strength of Africa or Latin America. Outside of South Korea and the Philippines, with perhaps Taiwan, Protestants and Evangelicals, even while increasing, are not yet very influential politically, often struggling as minorities among Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist majorities with varying degrees of religious tolerance. Yet even these Evangelical minority communities often offer international solidarity to Israel from cultures not otherwise friendly.
The very special case in Asia is China, which restricts and often persecutes its surging Christian demographic that is mostly Evangelical. Even the largest estimates put Christians under 10 percent in China, but even so, on its current growth trajectory, China may within current lifetimes have the numerically largest Christian population of any nation. Chinese Christians are disproportionately middle class and educated, making their influence in society larger than their percentage of population might otherwise imply. Israel-friendly attitudes by Chinese Christians inevitably some day will influence Chinese relations with Israel.
Less attention getting are growing Evangelical communities in Eastern and Western Europe, which also lean Israel-friendly. This growth is often fueled by immigration. Not all immigration to Europe is Islamic, and as church historian Philip Jenkins has often emphasized, many immigrants from traditionally Muslim nations especially in Sub-Saharan Africa are Evangelicals, often attending large ad hoc immigrant churches in European suburbs that are “invisible” to wider society. These pockets of Evangelical Zionism, if they continue to grow, may ultimately counteract some of Europe’s increasing antisemitism fueled by Muslim immigration and far right nativist movements.
Supposedly Richard Nixon, when asked privately about Israel’s future, despite his own views and policies, responded with a thumbs down. His response of 45 or so years ago was not illogical. After all, his 1973 emergency arms airlift had helped ensure Israel’s survival in the Yom Kippur War but also precipitated the Arab oil embargo against the West that starkly illustrated the high price of friendship with Israel. Israel was tiny, surrounded by more populous enemies, in a Cold War world mostly hostile to it. Today Israel has a growing population and economy, many of its traditional neighboring enemies have become de facto allies with it against Iran, and the ongoing energy revolution led by American fracking has somewhat defanged Mideast oil as a global weapon against Israel.
But also important to Israel’s improved global standing is the ongoing global growth of pro-Israel Evangelicals, numbering in the hundreds of millions, whose influence could affect foreign policy in dozens of nations in the Global South. This trend, like the Cold War’s end, the energy revolution, and the Arab response to Iran, could not have been easily foreseen by Nixon or anybody else several decades ago. Yet historical determinisms and reflexively gloomy forecasts are typically wrong, trumped by the unpredictability of human events, which only Providence can foresee and guide.