WASHINGTON - Of the major religious groups in the United States, evangelical
Christians are the biggest backers of Israel and Washington's planned war against
Iraq, says a new survey released here Wednesday by a politically potent group
of fundamentalist Christians and Jews.
Some 69 percent of conservative Christians favor military action against Baghdad;
10 percentage points more than the U.S. adult population as a whole.
And almost two-thirds of evangelical Christians say they support Israeli actions
towards ''Palestinian terrorism'', compared with 54 percent of the general population,
according to the survey, which was released by Stand For Israel, a six-month-old
spin-off of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ).
''The single strongest group for Israel in the United States, apart from Jews,
is conservative Christians,'' declared Ralph Reed, co-chairman of Stand for Israel
and former executive director of the Christian Coalition. He also noted that 80
percent of self-identified Republicans also favor military action against Baghdad.
Reed, who was widely regarded as the wunderkind of the Christian Right during
the 1990s, said the poll results might have important political implications in
upcoming U.S. elections, particularly for the Jewish vote, which has traditionally
gone overwhelmingly to Democrats. In 2000, for example, only 18 percent of Jewish
voters cast ballots for President George W. Bush.
''There is a new openness among Jewish voters to support this president and
other Republicans who strongly support Israel,'' Reed said, adding that he believes
Bush in 2004 may reap close to the 38 percent of the Jewish vote harvested by
Ronald Reagan in 1984, the highest percentage ever received by a Republican presidential
Some 81 percent of Jewish respondents said they see Bush as a strong supporter
of Israel, and 46 percent said they were more likely to vote for him based on
his handling of the ''war on terrorism''. The poll also found that two-thirds
of Republicans said they supported Israel in the current conflict, compared to
46 percent of Democrats.
''The bottom line is that Bush appears to be making some significant inroads
with this heavily Democratic group, something that could have an impact on the
next two election cycles,'' said Ed Goeas, head of the Tarrance Group, which carried
out the poll.
The survey, which included 1,200 respondents contacted last week, tends to
confirm the findings of similar polls over the last several years that have shown
strong support for Israel on the part of evangelical Christians, who together
make up about one third of the U.S. adult population.
Historically apolitical, the group first came to the attention of the political
elite in 1976 when large numbers of them helped elect Jimmy Carter, a ''born-again''
Christian. Disillusioned by Carter's liberal politics and social attitudes, they
became a major recruiting ground for the ''New Right'' that in turn paved the
way for the election in 1980 of former president Ronald Reagan.
At the same time, Christian fundamentalists were also avidly courted by the
right-wing Likud government in Israel, which saw in them a promising new constituency
that, for theological reasons, could be persuaded to oppose the return of Jerusalem
and the West Bank to Arab rule.
In 1979, the government of Israel reportedly gave Jerry Falwell, head of the
''Moral Majority'' and the leading Christian Right figure of the time, his first
The Israeli government has also arranged special tours for evangelical Christian
groups that have contributed tens of millions of dollars to Jewish and Israeli
agencies involved in resettling Jews to Israel and in building Israeli settlements
on the occupied territories.
With offices in Chicago and Jerusalem, the IFCJ has acted as a key forum for
promoting the relationship between conservative U.S. Jews and evangelical Christians
since 1983. As violence between Israelis and Palestinians intensified last spring,
the group created ''Stand for Israel'', which it called ''an effort to strategically
mobilize leadership and grassroots support in the Christian community for the
State of Israel''.
''Jews are only now beginning to understand the depth of support they have
among conservative Christians,'' said IFCJ's founder-director and Stand for Israel
co-chairman, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, at the time.
''Once the potential of this immense reservoir of good will is fully comprehended
by the Jewish people and strategically tapped by the Stand for Israel campaign,
you will see support for Israel in the United States swell dramatically.''
The new survey's results appear to bear out that prediction, at least in part.
Two thirds of conservative Christians queried in the poll said that they believed
they shared the same or similar perspective as Jews when it comes to the issue
of ''Israel and its current struggle against Palestine''.
Reed and Eckstein also claimed that the survey effectively debunked the notion
that evangelical Christian support for Israel was based on New Testament prophecy
that the reconstruction of the ancient Jewish kingdom of David would usher in
the ''end times'' and the second coming of Christ.
Asked which was the most important of four possible reasons why they supported
Israel, 56 percent of fundamentalist Christian respondents chose political reasons,
particularly Israel's democratic values, its alliance with the United States in
the war against terrorism, and its role as a safe haven for persecuted Jews elsewhere.
Thirty-five percent opted for the ''end-times'' option.
But when given a choice of four religious alternatives, only 28 percent cited
the end-times alternative. Almost two thirds said that God had given the Jews
the land of Israel as the main theological reason for backing the Jewish state.
''This survey bears out my view that Christians are trustworthy and vital
allies,'' said Eckstein. ''I've seen more positive changes (in Jewish and conservative
Christian relations) in the past six months than I have for the past 25 years,''
Along with announcing the survey results, Eckstein, who co-chairs Stand for
Israel with Reed, unveiled a one-minute video which will be run in ''tens of thousands''
of churches with combined memberships of 3.2 million people on Sunday, Oct. 20,
exhorting Christians to pray for Israel whose enemies, it says, ''are on the attack
''God has promised that those who bless Israel will themselves be blessed,''
says the video, which is filled with recent images of violence in Israel and the
Reed conceded that not all conservative Christians were as supportive of Israel
as those involved in the ''Stand for Israel'' campaign.
Indeed, some 50 evangelical ministers recently issued a statement opposing
unilateral military action against Iraq, and at least one national evangelical
group has urged a more-balanced policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. But
Reed insisted that his views represented those of a ''very, very large majority''
of evangelical Christians.
Copyright 2002 IPS