America's seven mainline protestant churches, theologically and politically liberal institutions, have long been coalition partners with like-minded Jews on social justice and religious issues. Why, then, have so many national Protestant leaders consistently supported the Palestinian cause in the Middle East conflict, some to the point of challenging Israel’s very right to exist? Why is it important for us to maintain strong ties to Protestant churches, and what should we be doing to strengthen our relationships?
The understanding we need begins with history. The mainline Protestant church bodies—the American (Northern) Baptist, United Church of Christ (Congregational), Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, United Methodist, and Presbyterian Church USA—are products of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation in Europe, shaped theologically by the teachings of such Reformers as Martin Luther of Germany and John Calvin of France. Their shared name, “mainline,” harkens back to the 19th century, when their “tall steeple” churches were sited along the Pennsylvania Railroad’s “mainline” tracks near Philadelphia.
While differences do exist among these bodies—liturgically, Lutherans and Episcopalians have more formal worship services than American Baptists, for example—mainline churches generally affirm liberal, moderate religious beliefs that emphasize social justice and accept biblical interpretations based upon critical/academic Scriptural study. Most mainline Protestants do not share three key theological positions that define evangelicals: a belief in the literal truth of the Bible, a personal “born again” experience or encounter with Jesus, and the religious imperative to seek the conversion of all peoples to Christianity.
In short, mainline Protestant perspectives on social justice issues (civil rights, Roe v. Wade, gay rights, gun control, and immigration reform, etc.) and on religious issues (mandated prayers and Bible reading in public schools, legally defining the United States as a “Christian Nation,” etc.) mirror those of the majority of Jews. Indeed, a robust mainline Protestant–Jewish coalition, including the Union for Reform Judaism, is working to uphold church/state separation, religious liberty, and voting rights, as well as to ensure affordable housing and healthcare for all Americans, among other issues.
Moreover, in recent years several mainline churches have publicly acknowledged Christian culpability for the Holocaust and sought a new constructive relationship with Jews and Judaism based upon “mutual respect and knowledge.” In 1987, the United Church of Christ General Synod, the UCC’s highest policy body, adopted a statement affirming: “The Christian Church has throughout much of its history denied God’s continuing covenantal relationship with the Jewish people.…This denial has led to outright rejection of the Jewish people…and intolerable violence…Faced with this history which we as Christians cannot, and must not, disassociate ourselves, we ask for God’s forgiveness.” Similarly, in 1996, the United Methodist General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative authority, passed a resolution stating, “While church tradition has taught that Judaism has been superseded by Christianity as the ‘new Israel,’ we do not believe that earlier covenantal relationships have been invalidated or that God has abandoned Jewish partners in covenant. We believe that just as God is steadfastly faithful to the biblical covenant in Jesus Christ, likewise God is steadfastly faithful to the biblical covenant with the Jewish people….Though Christians and Jews have different understandings of the covenant of faith, we are mysteriously bound to one another through our covenantal relationships with the one God and Creator of us all.”
Given the shared commitment among mainline Protestants and Jews to social justice and religious freedom, and mainline church reevaluation of Judaism as a valid faith, what accounts for the top echelon’s hostility to Israel?
From Missionary Solidarity to Liberation Theology
Long before Israel became a state, the very notion of a Jewish national liberation movement in the Holy Land faced strong opposition from many Protestant leaders in the United States, who were in turn influenced by the American missionaries first sent to the Middle East in the 1840s. U.S. Presbyterians and Congregationalists had spearheaded a conversion campaign directed at Muslims living in Ottoman-controlled Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria. While the actual number of converts to Christianity was negligible—“few baptisms for the buck,” as one Congregationalist minister lamented—mainline Protestant missionaries did establish a foothold in the Arab world with the American University in Beirut (1866); the American University in Cairo (1919); and a series of vocational schools, hospitals, clinics, orphanages, and other institutions in the region.
As a result, American Protestant missionaries developed and maintained close personal and professional ties with Arab Christian and Muslim communities in the Middle East. Some of the missionaries even “went native,” over-identifying with Arabs and Islam and embracing the Arab anti-Zionist narrative of the conflict. Comfortable with this longstanding missionary-Arab relationship, American mainline churches—unlike their European Protestant counterparts—never established an ecumenical liaison with Jewish religious leaders in Israel, which would have allowed for a more balanced perspective of the conflict. Instead, national mainline church leaders have continued to rely on missionaries with anti-Israel views as their Middle East “experts.”
A second factor contributing to this overt hostility is theological anti-Judaism.
Religiously conservative Christians, including some mainline Protestant church members, believe that the covenant enacted between God and the Jewish people was superseded with the rise of Christianity; in other words, the “New Israel” replaced the “Old Israel” as the true “People of God.” This double-barreled assault upon both Judaism and the modern State of Israel asserts that Judaism is not a valid faith and, as a result, the Jewish people’s claim to their biblical homeland is null and void, no longer part of God’s covenantal relationship. The United Church of Christ, United Methodist, and other Protestant denominations have issued statements and/or resolutions refuting “supersessionism,” but religiously conservative factions within each denomination continue to uphold this triumphalist theology. The Rev. Dr. William H. Harter, a pastor in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania who co-leads Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, believes such deep-seated anti-Jewish attitudes explain why some mainline Protestant leaders cannot bring themselves to acknowledge the uninterrupted physical presence of Jews in the land of Israel since antiquity.
The Rev. Dr. Peter A. Pettit, a Lutheran professor at Muhlenberg College who serves as director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding, points to yet a third reason national church leaders express animosity toward Israel: their embrace of a simplistic “liberation theology” which has led to the perception that the Middle East conflict is essentially a struggle between the oppressed Palestinians and the oppressing Israelis.
“Liberation theology” began in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s as a Catholic-led movement which presented Christianity as a radical force to alleviate the political, social, economic, and cultural injustices plaguing that region. Critics accused “liberation theology” of being Marxism with a Christian accent and, in time, the Vatican reprimanded both the movement and the priests who led it. Yet even as the Vatican condemned the theology, it became popular within mainline churches; their leadership applied it to the civil rights struggle and the anti-Vietnam war movement.
Today, some Protestant leaders use “liberation theology” in their propaganda campaigns against Israel. While the theology has never attracted a large number of mainline church members, it remains a key religious component in anti-Israel circles throughout the world. Adherents employ religious language and imagery—Palestinians as the crucified Jesus suffering at the hands of the Israelis—to avoid being labeled “antisemitic.”
Among the theology’s propagators is the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, led by the Palestinian Episcopal priest Naim Ateek. Sabeel conducts workshops, vigils, and marches; issues sermons, books, and articles; and sends representatives to mainline churches in the U.S.—all using theological arguments to question and ultimately undermine the legitimacy of the Jewish state. “Canon Ateek has likened Israeli rule to ancient Roman occupation as a ‘crucifixion machine,’ seeks to understand suicide bombers through the paradigm of Samson, and—with a number of cartoonists around the world—invokes imagery portraying Israel as the new Nazis,” Rev. Pettit says.
Mainline Protestant Dissenters
Such Anti-Zionist stances have not gone unchallenged among some leading Protestant scholars. The ethicist and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), for example, founded the journal Christianity and Crisis (1941–1993), in part to protest the anti-Zionist editorial policy of the Christian Century, to which he had been a contributing editor. And the Protestant scholar W. D. Davies (1911–2001) challenged the notion that Judaism is solely a confessional faith devoid of physical linkage to ancient Israel, insisting instead that Judaism is a “theology of the land (Israel)” which combines religion, peoplehood, a book, and a state—all four components of which are required to reach its full expression.
Although Davies’ position may be unpopular today among the mainline church leaders who set Middle East policy for their denominations, it resonates with many mainline pastors and laity who are often at odds with officials on the national level. According to a 2009 Presbyterian Church poll, both those in the pews (76%) and “specialized clergy” (66%)—a term referring to the national leadership—support positive relations with American Jews. But there is sharp division regarding the importance of maintaining close U.S.-Israel diplomatic and military relationships: 74% in the pews said yes, compared to only 54% of specialized clergy. And when Presbyterians were asked if Hamas should be included in peace talks, 61% of specialized clergy concurred, as opposed to only 35% of church clergy and members.
The Divestment Campaign
A heated controversy between mainline Protestant leaders and the Jewish community erupted during the second Palestinian intifada. In 2004, the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly (the body which sets Church policies and priorities, composed equally of lay and clergy delegates from the entire denomination) voted 413–62 to “initiate a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations doing business in Israel.” While many Presbyterian clergy and local lay leaders (including former CIA Director James Woolsey) voiced strong opposition, stressing that singling out Israel for economic punishment was unfair and would send the “wrong message” to both Jews and Arabs, the leadership not only persisted, but influenced the United Methodist and Episcopal denominations to adopt similar divestment campaigns. Thus far, these efforts have been turned back, mainly as a result of strong opposition by pro-Israel forces within the denominations themselves.
Although some Jewish leaders maintain that an anti-Israel boycott/divestment/sanctions campaign should be an internal matter for the churches to resolve or should be addressed with behind-the-scenes diplomacy, I believe that the Jewish community needs to cooperate closely with groups and individuals within mainline Protestant churches who strongly support the State of Israel, and not sit on the sidelines.
Influence of Mainline Churches
It would be a mistake to minimize or dismiss the influence of mainline Protestants in America just because their numbers are declining. While mainline church members now constitute fewer than 10% of American citizens (part of a broader trend in which, for the first time in history, fewer than 80% of Americans identify as Christians), they continue to have an outsized influence in the political sphere. They constitute more than one third of the membership of the U.S. Congress. Former senator and current Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says she learned “the connection between my personal faith and the obligations I face as a Christian” from a line in a song she sang as a child at the First United Methodist Church in Park Ridge, Illinois—“Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight”—words that have stayed with her more “than any earnest lecture on racism…Despite the problems of poverty and illiteracy and violence, there are solutions being born…in churches and communities throughout the world.”
Given the importance of mainline Protestants in public life, it is not surprising that Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Eric Yoffie has called for intensifying Christian-Jewish dialogue. “Most Christian denominations have changed their theology on Judaism so as to atone for an inglorious past,” he says. “They are eager for a true dialogue with Jews. And Reform Jews are the appropriate partners, because we bring to the table a readiness for theological discussion and an ethic of self-criticism, both of which are essential for success.”
What Congregations Can Do
The most important arena for improving mainline Protestant-Jewish relations is at the local level. Joint synagogue-church and rabbi-pastor programs that include discussion of Israel and related issues are especially helpful in encouraging mainline Protestants to more fully understand and appreciate Israel. If your congregation isn’t yet engaging in such an initiative, the Commission on Interreligious Affairs of Reform Judaism can help. In collaboration with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church USA, the National Council of Churches, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Commission created Open Doors, Open Minds, two interreligious programs specifically designed for members of Jewish and Christian congregations. Open Doors, Open Minds I is a seven-session curriculum covering both common aspects and critical distinctions of interfaith history; engaging in joint study of sacred texts; and participating in a structured conversation concerning Israel and the Middle East conflict. Expanding upon the relationships established in the first program, Open Doors, Open Minds II addresses social justice issues from a religious perspective, focusing on the shared values and commitment to making the world a better place. A separate section reflects on the meaning of Israel for both faith communities. You can download the program free of charge (see link above). For additional information, including complimentary consultation with Reform Movement interfaith experts about issues arising from the congregational dialogue process, call 202-387-2800 or email email@example.com.
To help your interreligious dialogue on Israel succeed, follow my proven "10 Commandments of Interreligious Dialogue."
The reemergence of an independent Jewish state onto the world stage has forced both faith communities to examine themselves, and each other, in a new light. Programs with mainline Protestants that center on Israel are certain to be complex and often emotional, but well worth the effort. Our relationship with our Protestant neighbors and Israel’s wellbeing depend on it.
Rabbi James Rudin is senior interreligious advisor at the American Jewish Committee and author of Christians and Jews—Faith to Faith: Tragic History, Promising Present, Fragile Future (Jewish Lights Publishing).
TEN COMMANDMENTS of INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE on ISRAEL
I. Be there at every meeting. Woody Allen reminds us that showing up is 80% of life.
II. Don’t try to defendthe indefensible regarding a specific Israeli action or policy. Criticizing Israel when appropriate can be an asset because it shows a confidence in the Jewish state’s ability to take necessary corrective actions. At the same time, Jews should demand that Christians hold the Palestinians to the same high moral standards and behavior as they do Israelis.
III. Listen. Sometimes, in their eagerness, supporters of Israel find it difficult to hold back during a contentious discussion. But often it can be advantageous to wait until everyone else has spoken before countering with your most compelling points.
IV. Focus. Everything that has happened during the past 3,000 years cannot be covered. Zero in on a couple of key points:
- Israel is a democracy with a Declaration of Independence that guarantees the rights of all its citizens: Jews, Muslims, Christians, and others;
- Israel is inextricably bound to American Christians by a set of shared values, including a common reverence for the Bible, a commitment to religious pluralism in the Middle East, and a longing for peace in the Middle East.
V. Describe Israel in terms of its accomplishments—cultural, scientific, medical, etc.—to counter perceptions of Israel being a militaristic nation. Recitations relying too heavily on biblical texts, United Nations resolutions, and/or international law can cause a listener’s eyes to glaze over.
VI. Think dialogue, not competition. Advocating for Israel does not have to be approached as a zero-sum game. Appealing to democratic values and the right of self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians can make for a more open, nuanced, and productive conversation.
VII. Know your audience. A presentation about the unfairness and dangers of an anti-Israel boycott/divestment/sanctions campaign may not be appropriate for young Sunday school students, but on the mark for clergy or a men’s or women’s church club.
VIII. Don’t assume that inadequately informed dialogue partners are hostile toward Israel. Clergy and church members generally know little about the conflict, but they care about both Israelis and Palestinians; and, as the Presbyterian Church poll indicates, they are committed to maintaining positive relations with American Jews and Israel. Often they are eager to learn why their Jewish neighbors are so passionate about Israel’s security and survival.
IX. Seek solidarity. Find areas of mutual agreement, such as opposition to sectarian violence, terrorism, and antisemitism; support of religious diversity and pluralism in the Middle East; and advocacy of human rights.
X. Don’t aim for “victory.” Rather, concentrate on enlightenment, explanation, clarification, and a sense of shared humanity.
- Rabbi James Rudin