Israel's U.S. Defense Team

The alliance between evangelical Christians and Israel goes back to 1967, when Israel fought and won the Six-Day War. Evangelicals were thrilled by Jerusalem's reunification. Some of them saw that as a sign that the return of Christ was near.

Some observers suggest that the main reason evangelical Christians support Israel is for its role in the end-of-history events that they believe will lead to Christ's complete victory in the world. The Rev. Jerry Falwell declared in 1998, "I love and support Israel and have for these last four decades, primarily because I believe the Bible to be the literal word of God and I accept the Abrahamic covenant as literal."

Other Christians simply appreciate Israel's policy of religious access. "It's really because of the Israeli government and the creation of modern Israel that Christians around the world can go and visit these holy sites," former Christian Coalition Director Ralph Reed said recently. Falwell asked his supporters this month to sign a petition urging President Bush to "Keep Jerusalem Free."

In Reed's view, "It's a bit of a caricature to suggest that the reason why evangelicals are strongly for Israel is because of their notions of the end-times." Political beliefs—conservative ones—have drawn many evangelical Christians to Israel's side.

The Six-Day War realigned Israel's political support. Before 1967, Israel was a country of the Left. The Israeli kibbutz was a model of socialist idealism. The Soviet Union was friendly with the country. Beginning in 1967, Israel came under attack from communists and Third World countries as an imperialist power occupying Arab territory. The same realignment occurred in U.S. politics. Liberals began to criticize Israeli policies.

The Right, meanwhile, began to lionize Israel as a valiant defender of freedom, and U.S. conservatives became Israel's most ardent supporters. Andrew Young, President Carter's United Nations ambassador, was forced to resign in 1979 after it became known that he had met with a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization. In 1983, President Reagan said, "Israel shares our democratic values, and it is a formidable force an invader of the Middle East would have to reckon with."

Fifteen years later, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich told Israel's Knesset, "We are bound together morally. Our two countries are committed to freedom, democracy, the rule of law, and individual rights."

Israeli leaders haven't asked too many questions about U.S. evangelicals' support. In 1998, Benjamin Netanyahu, then prime minister of Israel, had no problem with being introduced by Falwell as "the Ronald Reagan of Israel."

U.S. conservatives remain Israel's most stalwart defenders today. An survey this month shows 64 percent of Republicans sympathizing with Israel, compared with 38 percent of Democrats and 32 percent of independents. In fact, Democrats and independents are far more likely to say they do not side with either Israel or the Palestinians.

On April 3, in a lecture at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said, "America has a clear duty to stand beside a democratic ally that is besieged by terrorists. I believe that most Americans feel the pull of kinship with the men and women of Israel."

That's the same DeLay who, one week later, told evangelical Christians in Texas, "Only Christianity offers a way to live in response to the realities that we find in this world. Only Christianity." Does that mean his support for Israel is phony? No, it means his view of Israel is not derived from his religious convictions.

This month's USA Today-CNN-Gallup poll has direct evidence pointing to that conclusion: Americans who identify with the Religious Right are no more sympathetic to Israel than other Americans. Forty-seven percent among adherents of the Religious Right are sympathetic as are 53 percent of other Americans.

But there's a big difference between Protestants who go to church every week and those who don't. Regular churchgoers are more likely to take Israel's side (63 percent) than non-churchgoers (44 percent).

The implication? It's religious Americans' behavior, not their beliefs, that draws them to Israel's side. Many Protestant churches preach support for Israel, and churchgoers hear it. In an April 12 e-mail to supporters, Falwell criticized "the confusing Bush administration Israeli policy" and wrote: "It seems to us that Secretary [of State Colin L.] Powell's current peacemaking trip is sending a dangerous message. The focus of the trip appears to be more pressure on Israel to withdraw, without any commitment by Arab nations to control the terrorists dedicated to Israel's destruction."

William Bennett appeared at the Israel solidarity rally in Washington on April 15 and offered this implicit criticism of the president: "Moral clarity means nothing less than seeing things for what they truly are. It requires the understanding of distinctions, such as the distinction between a democracy and a dictatorship."

Bennett is a Catholic. Regular church attendance does not make a difference in Catholics' attitudes toward Israel for a simple reason: The Catholic Church does not preach a position on Israel. But Bennett is also a conservative, and that's what matters in this case.

President Bush has a problem. When he pressures Israel to withdraw, he risks antagonizing his base. For U.S. conservatives, including the Religious Right, Israel has become a cherished cause.