City Journal

James Q. Wilson
Why Don’t Jews Like the Christians Who Like Them?
Liberalism can’t abide conservative evangelicals.
Winter 2008

Selected Responses:

Sent by George B. Woods on 03-27-2008:

Many Jews and non-Jews alike don't like evangelical Christians because of the evangelical/fundamentalist belief that only those that follow their particular interpretation of the Bible will go to heaven after death, and that all others will be damned to hell for all eternity.

This is an appalling belief that is universally ignored by the defenders of these people. Listen to what they say when they are talking amongst themselves and you will hear it expressed as a core value. It is a belief unworthy of respect by civilized people.

Sent by Michael Cecire on 03-27-2008:

A good article, but Dr. Wilson falls short of offering a rebuttal to the frequent claim that evangelicals support Israel only because their faith dictates that the Jews - all being in Israel - should either convert or be killed at the end of days.

If I recall, AIPAC actually released some data refuting the notion that the majority of evangelicals tie a great deal of thought to this concept, especially in relation to contemporary Israeli policies, but I haven't been able to locate it. Either way, many in Jewish circles are understandably wary of evangelicals for this very reason, which smacks of anti-Semitism, or at least can use it to justify their intense and sometimes mystifying aversion to evangelicals.

I had hoped Dr. Wilson would address this in his piece, and perhaps he does in his Manhattan Institute lecture, but it's certainly important enough to discuss further.

Sent by Shalom Freedman on 02-06-2008:

James Q. Wilson rightly points to the largely liberal Jewish-American community's reluctance to form close ties with evangelical Christians. He is also right in indicating how important the evangelical support for Israel has become, and in suggesting that there is something self-defeating in this rejection. But he does not distinguish between those Jews both in America and Israel for whom the survival and well-being of Israel is an issue of utmost importance, and those for whom it is far down on the list of priorities.

My own sense is that those Jews who do deeply care about the survival of the Jewish state have moved somewhat closer in mind and heart to their evangelical supporters. And that there is within the Jewish community an understanding that in a world in which one has only a limited number of friends, each of those friendships should be not simply appreciated, but cultivated with diligence.

Sent by Eero Iloniemi on 02-06-2008:

Mr. Wilson misses one key point concerning liberal views on Israel. Precisely because Israel is a democracy, many people hold her to a higher standard of conduct than they hold her Arab and Palestinian neighbors. It would be wrong, however, to view this as an anti-Israel bias, as it is highly doubtful that Israelis wish to be compared to surrounding dictatorships.

Sent by digbydolben on 02-06-2008:

Maybe Jews don't like fundamentalist Christians for the reason that they are "theological," to wit: that the fundamentalists believe that the function of the state of Israel is merely instrumental to the supposed return of Jesus Christ, and that Jews who, in the end, refuse to embrace Christ as their "lord and savior" will burn in hell.

Sent by Craig Payst on 02-06-2008:

The ambivalence that many Jews feel towards evangelical Christians is, despite Dr. Wilson's charming insistence that anything liberal must necessarily be irrational, entirely apolitical.

Dr. WIlson seems to be missing a key point in the evangelical narrative of the end of the world. Not only must all the Jews return to Israel, but a certain number must convert to Christianity in order to bring about the apocalypse. Those who don't cast their lot in with Jesus will be tossed into hell along with the rest of the sinners.

The cultural discomfort between Jews and evangelicals comes from the simple fact that in the evangelical play about the universe, Jews don't get to make it to the final act. Try starting a political conversation with that subtext and see how far you get. A group whose ultimate goal is the complete elimination of the Jewish religion and people hardly seems like a natural bunch for Jews to align themselves with.

Furthermore, it's hard to believe that casting in your lot with a group that is not only eagerly awaiting the end of the world, but doing what it can to bring it about, can really be considered in anyone's long-term interest.

Sent by Jacob Stutzman on 02-06-2008:

Wilson's approach here is fundamentally pragmatic, which is a valid approach to many issues but ignores the idealism inherent in any policy to which religious concerns are relevant. Dispensationalist evangelicals do not support Israel because they are in favor of democratic states, and they are not Judeo-philic because they find special merit in Judaism. The existence of Israel is necessary to their visions of the coming apocalypse, in part because it will be the place where 144,000 Jews will convert to Christianity. Dispensationalists view Israel and Jews with an instrumental eye. That, rather than the evangelical predilection for government-by-theology, explains Jewish distaste for dispensationalist support.

Wilson is also imprecise in his labels here. Not all evangelicals are dispensationalists, and it is important to recognize the distinction.

Finally, Wilson seems to assume that the endpoint of Jewish politics is support of Israel simply because Israel is the Jewish state. In fact, the endpoint of Jewish politics for many Jews is the promotion of social justice, equality of opportunity, and effective governance towards those goals. If Israel is not moving towards those goals, then it cannot be rightly called a Jewish state. Some of Israel's critics quite obviously turn the corner to anti-Semitism. That said, it is time to stop pretending that Israel should be beyond the dictates of international law because of its unique status as a Jewish state. If anything, such a distinction implies a higher moral standard, not a lower one.

Dispensationalist support of Israel comes part and parcel with rhetoric that dehumanizes Arabs and Muslims and excuses for every civil rights violation that one can fathom. The original Zionist goal was not a state for Jews, but a truly Jewish state. Dispensationalism supports only the former and is a dangerous influence on American foreign policy.

Sent by Kim Serca on 02-06-2008:

What an unbelievably dishonest - or ignorant - article. The author somehow forgot to mention that evangelical support for Israel is conditional on the belief that half of the Jews will be converted, and half damned to hell during the end days. Jews aren't supported as such - they're only seen as Christians in embryo. Jews haven't forgotten Billy Graham's comment to Nixon that there are "Satanic Jews" one has to watch out for. Overall, a shoddy piece of work equating anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism. Since many liberal Jews are more critical of Israel than Christians are, it might just be that they prefer to think critically and morally about who their friends are.

Sent by Brian on 02-06-2008:

Well, it could be that pre-millenial dispensationalism has as its endpoint all Jews who don't accept Jesus being condemned to hell. I have yet to understand why conservatism must include an exaggerated respect for absurd (and dangerous) beliefs merely because they are called "religious."

We are perfectly free to point out the demonstrable absurdity of any other empirical claims, so why not those of religion?

Sent by Bennie Morgan on 02-06-2008:

What Wilson perceives as black anti-Semitism is black anger and "reap what you have sown" for Jews discriminating against blacks in hiring, in major black urban centers like Harlem, into the 1960s. Added to that is anger at Israel's total support of and aid to the racist, repressive, murderous South African regime, and it's genocide against the native black Africans, even after most countries in the world had officially boycotted them for their racist policies.

Sent by Faimon Roberts on 02-06-2008:

I think perhaps Dr. Wilson has missed one other major reason that Jews distrust fundamentalists - because fundamentalists are committed to converting Jews to Christianity.Fundamentalist leaders, while accepting the idea that Jews are God's chosen people, still think that in the end times Jews will "come to Christ." This sentiment engenders a significant amount of resentment in Jews.

Sent by Marci on 02-06-2008:

While Jews are grateful for any non-Jewish population that appreciates them, they are understandably suspicious, considering the way that 15th century Spain and 20th century Germany turned on them. The Jews have suffered a constant harrassment long before the capriciously given stigma of deicide befell them. Even today, the welcoming evangelical movement believes that, in the end, the Jews by their denial of Jesus' divinity will be denied eternal life. And just today, the Catholic Church is finally ridding its liturgy of specifically praying for the Jews' salvation. The Christian world has a long way to go to allay Jews' suspicions, but Jews are forgiving people, even to their own detriment.

Sent by Mike on 02-06-2008:

There are two simple reasons for the distrust:

1. A long shadow of history. In Europe, the term Christian in a political party name generally meant "anti-Semitic." Furthermore, "the right" had associations with fascism and anti-Semitism, as it did for some time in the U.S., particularly back in the 1920s. This may change; in particular in Israel, among the center-right parties, the Christian right has been welcomed (the left generally doesn't like religious people as a category).

2. What does liking "Jews" mean to Americans, who like to think of themselves as individuals rather than representatives of some kind of ancient conception? Particularly, when the evangelical definition of Jew is all wrapped up with some kind of relationship to Jesus--a definition which has connection to the average Jewish-American's self definition. I have had the experience of people walking up to me in the street and telling me they "loved me," meaning they recognized me as a "Jew" and future fulfillment of their idea of Jesus' plans, etc., while all I was trying to do was get to work and live my normal life.

The core of racism/anti-Semitism is group definition by a more powerful majority with a set of assumptions based solely on preconceived ideas not fostered by the people being stigmatized. And whether it is love or hate, it is unpleasant.

Sent by Joshua Sharf on 02-06-2008:

I would submit that the Jewish distrust of evangelicals is also based on their...evangelism. Jews are pretty prickly about being prosyletized to, and also constitute the main target of such conversion efforts. As a small minority, prone to intermarriage, we feel the threat of disappearance keenly.

Such perceptions are not without basis. When Bill McCartney showed up - along with many other Christians - to protest a sign outside a Pentacostal Church claiming that, "Jews Killed Christ," he used the moment to announce the formation of a group called "Path to Jerusalem," his effort to convert Jews.

On that occasion, I welcomed his help. On other occasions I have worked closely with Zionist Christian groups and churches to support Israel. But there are times when it's impossible to escape the feeling that the evangelical desire to love and protect Jews comes with expectations that are bound to be disappointed.

Sent by Stephen Ryza on 02-05-2008:

First, only 18 percent of evangelicals are dispensationalists. Second, even most of these believe that the end of times is God's work, not man's. As David Brog's research showed, most evangelicals are greatly influenced by the line from Genesis: "Those that curse the Jews will be cursed, those that bless the Jews will be blessed." That and the shared Bible, democracy, and the fact that Jesus was a Jew turn out to be much greater factors in the evangelical support for Israel.

Sent by Dan Storm on 02-05-2008:

Good article. I am an evangelical Christian of Jewish ethnicity, but not a dispensationalist. One reason why Christians are warming up to Jews is that Christianity is undeniably an Ancient Near Eastern religion whose founder was a Jew. The Old Testament (or perhaps better called the Hebrew Scriptures) is more often seen as a corpus worthy of more detailed study to gain a better understanding of our faith. I do not believe, as another poster does, that the love of Israel is insincere. However, as the late Art Katz often said, Christian love of the Jew is sometimes sentimental, in which case the Jew is actually put on a pedestal. Not that sentimentality is good, but it can spring from good motives. Don't forget Paul's letter to the Romans: Jews are natural branches of the tree, while Gentiles are wild branches grafted in. Gentiles do not "replace" Jews; they supplment them in the eyes of God.

Sent by Allen on 02-05-2008:

Although the article seems to hit the nail on the head, the author fails to identify the major reason why the Presbyterian Church (USA) opposes (ostensibly) Israel: namely, that Israelis are Jews, whereas, at least until recently, approximately one-third of Palestinians are or were Christians, with a large portion of those being Presbyterians. Today, this is less often the case, as many of those Palestinian Christians have fled to America, but even today, the Palestinian voice remains very strong and loud within PCUSA circles.

Sent by George Ertel on 02-04-2008:

Perhaps one reason Jews dislike evangelicals is because of the latter's insistence that all, including Jews, must acknowledge and follow Jesus as their Messiah. Other types of Christians are not insistent on that.

No one likes to be told that they're not on good terms with G-d. So despite the political agreements, there's beneath that a personal dislike for the religion.

Sent by Ellis Gee on 02-04-2008:

Prof. Wilson makes some good points. In our defense, however, it is difficult to trust a group who have spent the last 2,000 years trying to exterminate you, have come very close to succeeding, and now profess friendship. Are they now trying to do with carrots what they couldn't accomplish with sticks?

Sent by Mark Bonacquisti on 02-04-2008:

Is it really that hard to understand why Jews might feel a tad cold to people who are eagerly awaiting a de facto Second Holocaust? Jews may find fundamentalist Christian eschatology laughable, but the joke wears a little thin when you realize these people are counting on your mass slaughter. And we don't even have to discuss the fundamentalist belief that the victims of the upcoming Holocaust, like those of the previous one, and indeed all "unconverted" Jews ever, will be hellbound and forever out of God's grace. With "friends" like that....

Sent by John Hubers on 02-03-2008:

What Professor Wilson fails to understand is the dark side of Christian Zionism, which Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg understands well. Gorenberg, who has studied American fundamentalist support for Israel, recognizes that much of the so-called evangelical love of Jews is less a love of Jews as people than a fetishization of Jews. They don't love Jews as fellow human beings and neighbors, but as characters in a biblical drama which ends with the slaughter of all who fail to convert to Christianity in the End Times. Jews who understand this are rightfully reluctant to accept such support.

Albrecht Durer's Revelation of St. John, 1498.
Albrecht Dürer’s Revelation of St. John, 1498

In the United States, the two groups that most ardently support Israel are Jews and evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. Jewish support is easy to explain, but why should certain Christians, most of them politically quite conservative, be so devoted to Israel? There is a second puzzle: despite their support for a Jewish state, evangelical and fundamentalist Christians are disliked by many Jews. And a third: a large fraction of African-Americans are hostile to Israel and critical of Jews, yet Jewish voters regard blacks as their natural allies.

The evidence about evangelical attitudes is clear. In 2006, a Pew survey found that evangelical Christians were more favorable toward Israel than the average American was—and much more sympathetic than either mainline Protestants or secularists. In another survey, evangelical Christians proved much likelier than Catholics, Protestants, or secular types to back Israeli control of Jerusalem, endorse Israeli settlements on the West Bank, and take Israel’s side in a Middle Eastern dispute. (Among every religious group, those who are most traditional are most supportive of Israel. The most orthodox Catholics and Protestants, for instance, support Israel more than their modernist colleagues do.)

Evangelical Christians have a high opinion not just of the Jewish state but of Jews as people. That Jewish voters are overwhelmingly liberal doesn’t seem to bother evangelicals, despite their own conservative politics. Yet Jews don’t return the favor: in one Pew survey, 42 percent of Jewish respondents expressed hostility to evangelicals and fundamentalists. As two scholars from Baruch College have shown, a much smaller fraction—about 16 percent—of the American public has similarly antagonistic feelings toward Christian fundamentalists.

The reason that conservative Christians—opposed to abortion and gay marriage and critical of political liberalism—can feel kindly toward Jewish liberals and support Israel so fervently is rooted in theology. One finds among fundamentalist Protestants a doctrine called dispensationalism. The dispensationalist outlook, which began in early-nineteenth-century England, sees human history as a series of seven periods, or dispensations, in each of which God deals with man in a distinctive way. The first, before Adam’s fall, was the era of innocence; the second, from Adam to Noah, the era of conscience; the third, from Noah to Abraham, of government; the fourth, from Abraham to Moses, of patriarchy; the fifth, from Moses to Jesus, of Mosaic law; and the sixth, from Jesus until today, of grace. The seventh and final dispensation, yet to come, will be the Millennium, an earthly paradise.

For dispensationalists, the Jews are God’s chosen people. For the Millennium to come, they must be living in Israel, whose capital is Jerusalem; there, the Temple will rise again at the time of Armageddon. On the eve of that final battle, the Antichrist will appear—probably in the form of a seeming peacemaker. Fundamentalists differ over who the Antichrist will be (at one time he was thought to be Nero, at another time the papacy, and today a few have suggested the secretary-general of the United Nations), but dispensationalists agree that he will deceive the people, occupy the Temple, rule in the name of God, and ultimately be defeated by the Messiah. Many dispensationalists believe that how a person treats Israel will profoundly influence his eternal destiny.

Christian dispensationalists were early Zionists and continue to support Israel today, for it is there that they believe Christ will return. In 1878, William Blackstone, a well-known dispensationalist and the author of Jesus Is Coming, wrote a document that argued for a Jewish state in Palestine. It appeared in 1891, five years before Theodor Herzl called for a Jewish state and six years before the first Zionist Congress. Blackstone got more than 400 dignitaries to sign his document, including the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the Speaker of the House, John D. Rockefeller, J. P. Morgan, and several other prominent Americans, almost all of them Christians. After President Benjamin Harrison ignored the petition, Blackstone tried again in 1916 with President Woodrow Wilson, who was more sympathetic—and who supported the British foreign minister, Arthur Balfour, a devout Protestant, when in 1917 he issued his famous declaration calling for a Jewish home in Palestine.

Evangelical and fundamentalist Christian preachers enthusiastically promote this pro-Israel vision. In a study of preachers in 19 denominations, political scientist James Guth of Furman University found that evangelicals were much likelier to back Israel in their sermons than mainline Protestants or Catholics were, a difference that persisted after controlling for age, sex, party identification, and type of media used to reach congregations. Guth also showed that self-described evangelicals who attended church regularly, and thus heard their ministers’ sermons, were much more inclined to support Israel than were believers who did not attend regularly.

Evangelical preachers are reinforced by popular Christian books. In 1970, Hal Lindsey published The Late Great Planet Earth; in 1995, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins followed with Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days, and went on to write 11 more volumes on the same theme. Lindsey can claim more than 35 million sales, and the Left Behind books have sold 60 million. These bestsellers tell the dispensationalist story, discuss Armageddon, and argue for the protection of Jews and of Israel. Lindsey argues that, based on the book of Revelations and related biblical sources, “some time in the future,” there will be “a seven-year period climaxed by the visible return of Jesus Christ” but that this will not happen until the Jewish people have reestablished their nation in their ancient homeland.

Whatever one makes of his prediction, Lindsey is unambiguous about the importance of Israel to him—and, by extension, to his millions of readers. Reinforcing the preachers and writers are various pro-Israel evangelical organizations, including Bridges for Peace, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, and the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel.

Mainstream Protestant groups, such as the National Council of Churches and the Middle East Council of Churches, have a very different attitude toward Israel. The NCC, for example, refused to support Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967, and immediately afterward began to protest victorious Israel’s expansion of its territory. From that point on, the NCC’s positions ran closely with Arab opinion, urging American contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization, for instance, and denouncing the Camp David Accords because they supposedly ignored the Palestinians’ national ambitions. In 2004, the Presbyterian Church decided to study a proposal to divert its investments from firms doing business with Israel. Within a year, the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and parts of the Methodist Church followed suit. As Paul Charles Merkley sums up in his book about Christian Zionism, mainline Protestant churches’ “respectable leadership had backed away from Israel; all of her constant friends were seated below the salt.”

Why do mainline Protestant leaders oppose Israel? That question becomes harder to answer when one recalls that Israel is a democratic nation with vigorously independent courts that has not only survived brutal attacks by its Arab neighbors but provided a prosperous home for the children of many Holocaust survivors. As with any other nation, Israel has pursued policies that one can challenge. Some may criticize its management of the West Bank, for example, or its attacks on Hamas leaders. But these concerns are trivial compared with Iran’s announced desire to wipe Israel off the map by using every weapon at its disposal, including (eventually) a nuclear one.

The answer, I think, is that many Christian liberals see Israel as blocking the aspirations of the oppressed—who, they have decided, include the Palestinians. Never mind that the Palestinians support suicide bombers and rocket attacks against Israel; never mind that the Palestinians cannot form a competent government; never mind that they wish to occupy Israel “from the sea to the river.” It is enough that they seem oppressed, even though much of the oppression is self-inflicted.

After the Marxist claims about the proletariat proved false and capitalism was vindicated as the best way to achieve economic affluence, leftists had to stop pretending that they could accomplish much with state-owned factories and national economic plans. As a result, the oppressed replaced the proletariat as the Left’s object of affection. The enemy became, not capitalists, but successful nations.

That shift in focus has received encouragement from certain American academics, such as Noam Chomsky, and from the European press, including the BBC, the Guardian, the Evening Standard, and Le Monde. All tend to denounce Israel in the most unrestrained terms. When Israeli ground forces sought to root out terrorists hiding in a Jenin refugee camp, they lost 23 soldiers and killed 52 Palestinians. Among other press critics, the British writer A. N. Wilson, uninterested in the facts, called the episode a “massacre” and a “genocide.” The Left will always have its enemies; Israel has merely replaced John D. Rockefeller at the top of the list.

But why do so many Jewish groups and voters abhor their Christian evangelical allies? To answer that question carefully, we would need data that distinguish among Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and secular Jews. It is quite possible that Orthodox Jews welcome evangelical support while Reform and secular ones oppose it, but I could find no data on which to base a firm conclusion. Most Jews are political liberals, devoted to the Democratic Party and liberal causes generally. As Milton Himmelfarb once put it, “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” Such voting habits are not hard to explain in a population that historically includes victims of discrimination, oppression, and mass murder. By contrast, evangelicals tend to be conservatives to whom politics seems less important than their dispensationalist beliefs.

That liberal politics trumps other considerations—including worries about anti-Semitism—for many American Jews becomes clearer in light of other data. The most anti-Semitic group in America is African-Americans. This wasn’t always the case. Many early black leaders, including W. E. B. Du Bois and Ralph Bunche, were quite supportive of American Jews. Du Bois even criticized Bunche for being “insufficiently pro-Zionist.” The NAACP endorsed the creation of Israel in 1948, and the Jewish state received continued support from Paul Robeson, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King, Jr. But by the time of the 1967 war, much of that leadership had left the scene. Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, James Forman, Malcolm X, and Shirley Du Bois (widow of W. E. B. Du Bois) were critical of Israel. At a New Left convention in the late 1960s, black delegates insisted on passing a resolution condemning the “imperialist Zionist war.” Nowadays, according to several polls, about one-third of U.S. blacks have very anti-Semitic attitudes, and this hasn’t changed since at least 1964, when the first such poll was conducted. And it has been African-American leaders, not white evangelicals, who have made anti-Semitic remarks most conspicuously. Everyone recalls Jesse Jackson’s reference to New York as “Hymietown,” to say nothing of Louis Farrakhan, a great admirer of Hitler, who has called Jews “bloodsuckers.”

Yet African-American voters are liberals, and so often get a pass from their Jewish allies. To Jews, blacks are friends and evangelicals enemies, whatever their respective dispositions toward Jews and Israel.

But another reason, deeper than Jewish and evangelical differences over abortion, school prayer, and gay marriage, may underlie Jewish dislike of Christian fundamentalists. Though evangelical Protestants are supportive of Israel and tolerant of Jews, in the eyes of their liberal critics they are hostile to the essential elements of a democratic regime. They believe that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and worry about the decay of morality; they must wish, therefore, to impose a conservative moral code, alter the direction of the country so that it conforms to God’s will, require public schools to teach Christian beliefs, and crush the rights of minorities.

Christian Smith, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina, analyzed four surveys of self-identified evangelicals and found that, while they do think that America was founded as a Christian nation and fear that the country has lost its moral bearings, these views are almost exactly the same as those held by non-evangelical Americans. Evangelicals, like other Americans, oppose having public schools teach Christian values, oppose having public school teachers lead students in vocal prayers, and oppose a constitutional amendment declaring the country a Christian nation. Evangelicals deny that there is one correct Christian view on most political issues, deny that Jews must answer for allegedly killing Christ, deny that laws protecting free speech go too far, and reject the idea that whites should be able to keep blacks out of their neighborhoods. They overwhelmingly agree that Jews and Christians share the same values and can live together in harmony. Evangelicals strongly oppose abortion and gay marriage, but in almost every other respect are like other Americans.

Whatever the reason for Jewish distrust of evangelicals, it may be a high price to pay when Israel’s future, its very existence, is in question. Half of all Protestants in the country describe themselves as evangelical, or born-again, Christians, making up about one-quarter of all Americans (though they constitute only 16 percent of white Christian voters in the Northeast). Jews, by contrast, make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, and that percentage will shrink: as many as half of all Jews marry non-Jews. When it comes to helping secure Israel’s survival, the tiny Jewish minority in America should not reject the help offered by a group that is ten times larger and whose views on the central propositions of a democratic society are much like everybody else’s. No good can come from repeating the 1926 assertion of H. L. Mencken that fundamentalist Christians are “yokels” and “morons.”

James Q. Wilson, formerly a professor at Harvard and at UCLA, now lectures at Pepperdine University. In 2003 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. His article is adapted from a Manhattan Institute lecture.

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