As Israel increasingly relies on US evangelicals for support, younger ones are walking away: What polls show

Former Governor Mike Huckabee (Republican of Arkansas), a candidate for the 2016 Republican nomination for President of the United States, shares his thoughts on Israel and the Middle East at the 2015 Christians United For Israel Summit Candidates Forum at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC, USA, on Monday, July 13, 2015. Photo by Ron Sachs/CNP/ABACAPRESS.COM

As the recent eruption in Israel/Palestine brought attention to shifting Democratic attitudes toward Israel, including among younger Jewish Americans, Israel’s focus on the evangelical right as a cornerstone of U.S. support for the Jewish state has proven increasingly important. As our University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll research has shown, evangelical attitudes toward Israel account for most of the Republican Party’s support for Israel; without evangelicals, Republican attitudes on Israel do not substantially deviate from the rest of America.

These trends in American politics may explain the recent statement by former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer that Israel should spend more of its energy reaching out to “passionate” American evangelicals than to Jews, who are “disproportionately among our critics.” Criticizing Dermer, Israel’s former consul general in New York, Dani Dayan, added that “our embassy in the United States capital has invested most of its energy in the relationship with conservatives, Republicans, evangelicals, and a certain type of Jews only.”

But a new survey commissioned by University for North Carolina at Pembroke researchers, carried out by Barna Group, has exposed what we have been finding for some time: younger evangelicals are much less supportive of Israel than older evangelicals, by a widening margin. The poll found a dramatic shift in attitudes between 2018 and 2021: support for Israel among young evangelicals dropped from 75% to 34%. This raises questions about the sustainability of the strong evangelical support for Israel that the Israeli right has cultivated for years and that proved reliable during the Trump administration.

To examine this shift further, I analyzed our two large University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll surveys of evangelicals in 2015, at the start of the U.S. presidential campaign, and 2018, two years into Donald Trump’s presidency. The gap in support for Israel between under-35 evangelicals and those 35 and over had widened significantly by October 2018.

Note that our poll question, asked over many years, probes specifically “the role that you want the United States to play in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” with three options: lean toward Israel, lean toward the Palestinians, and lean toward neither side. Over the years the percentage of evangelicals/born-again Christians who chose “lean toward Israel” has been higher than any other segment of the population. And, as expected on many issues across the U.S. population, including on the issue of Israel, age is a factor. Overall, older (35 and up) Americans have been more likely to want the United States to lean toward Israel than younger (18-34) ones. But there are notable differences in the trends among evangelicals compared with those of the rest of the population.

First, our 2018 poll showed a dramatic drop in young evangelicals’ support for Israel since 2015, accompanied by a dramatic rise in those wanting to see the U.S. lean toward the Palestinians. While 40% of young evangelicals wanted the U.S. to lean toward Israel in 2015, only 21% said the same in 2018. At the same time, while only 3% of young evangelicals wanted to lean toward the Palestinians in 2015, 18% gave that reply in 2018. The difference between the partisans of the two sides shrunk from 37 percentage points in 2015 to three points in 2018 — a virtual tie (within the margin of error).

A dramatic drop in young evangelical support for Israel in 2018 | Question: In general, what role do you want the United States to play in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? [among evangelicals and born-agains]

Second, the difference in opinion on leaning toward Israel between younger and older evangelicals also expanded from 2015-18. The gap went from 14 percentage points in 2015 to 24 points in 2018, suggesting there are dynamics at play among evangelicals that go beyond the typical generational differences across the population. This conclusion is further bolstered by the next finding.

Third, among non-evangelicals, the gap between younger and older respondents who want the U.S. to lean toward Israel was also present, but narrower than it is among evangelicals; it was 10 points in 2015 (compared with 14 among evangelicals); and 13 points in 2018 (compared to 24 points among evangelicals).

Notably, and in parallel, in 2018, young evangelicals grew to be twice as supportive of the Palestinians — with 18% choosing “lean toward the Palestinians” — as non-evangelicals, with 9%. In comparison, in 2015 only 3% of young evangelicals leaned towards the Palestinians while 5% of non-evangelicals said the same.

Young evangelicals grow to be twice as supportive of the Palestinians as non-evangelicals in 2018 | Question: In general, what role do you want the United States to play in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? [among non-evangelicals and non-born-agains]

Overall, the drop among young evangelicals who want the U.S. to lean toward Israel from 2015 to 2018 was striking and unusual in magnitude. I have not conducted oversamples or separate polls of evangelicals since 2018, so the new 2021 poll commissioned by researchers at the University of North Carolina on related issues gives us a sense of possible change since, as their previous poll was also conducted in 2018. Their questions are not identical to the ones we asked — and they define younger as 18-29, while in our poll it’s 18-34 — so one cannot compare directly. Still, they are probing the same general question regarding evangelical support for Israel. Their findings suggest a continued and substantial shift of young evangelicals away from supporting Israel.

As I have alluded to above, this shift cannot be explained by reference to typical differences among younger and older Americans alone; it is more substantial than shifts among non-evangelicals. This requires a different kind of analysis of trends among evangelicals that go beyond this brief outline of the change and pointing out that the drivers are likely broader. It is possible that the Trump factor magnified the generational divide among evangelicals; there is some evidence suggesting young evangelicals may have been more appalled by Trump and wanted their leaders to be more distant from him; whether or not Trump’s embrace of Israel could have impacted their views could be further probed. In our polls, we have found that evangelicals, most of whom supported Israel, still said Trump leaned toward Israel more than they did.

The University of North Carolina researchers also suggest that young evangelicals are less interested/know less about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that only 38% of them say their religious beliefs led them to support Israel, while 17% say their beliefs led them to back the Palestinians. Another factor that could be probed is whether the work of progressive evangelical organizations, which focus on social justice, has been more effective among young evangelicals. A 2018, article in The New Yorker suggests that the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border, climate change, and various progressive causes have galvanized young evangelicals. For those interested in social justice, the plight of Palestinians has been increasingly viewed through that prism with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Finally, there is evidence that younger evangelicals are increasingly more diverse than older evangelicals and less white, the group that tends to be most supportive of Israel. For example, in our 2015 poll, the percentage of whites among younger evangelicals was 64% compared to 76% of older evangelicals; and the gap grew further in 2018 as whites constituted 47% of younger evangelicals compared with 65% of older evangelicals. But a fuller analysis of what may be behind this dramatic shift is beyond the scope of this short article.

The bottom line is that there is evidence of a substantial and unusual shift. If the Israeli right is pinning its hopes on solid support from evangelicals as the backbone of U.S. patronage of the Jewish state, anchored in a biblical narrative that sidesteps international law and norms — as witnessed during the Trump administration — the trends among young evangelicals raise questions about the trajectory of strong religiously-driven evangelical support for Israel.

The University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll is carried out by Nielsen Scarborough from their online probability-based panel, originally recruited by mail and telephone using a random sample of adults provided by Survey Sampling International. The 2015 poll included 1074 evangelicals/born-again Christians, while the 2018 poll included 659 evangelicals/evangelical born-again Christians.