How Will Pro-Israel Evangelicals Shape U.S. Policy?
In Trump-era Washington, pro-Israel and Jewish conferences can be divided into roughly three categories: those on the left who gather to lament, centrist groups that do their best to avoid any mention of the president, and groups on the conservative end of the spectrum for which the Trump presidency is nothing short of a dream come true.
And no one feels this way more than Christians United for Israel, the 4.2 million member Christian evangelical group whose leaders convened in Washington earlier this week.
“One hundred years from now [Trump] will be remembered in Israel and he will be remembered by the evangelicals. He made a promise, and he kept that promise,” the group’s founder Pastor John Hagee told i24 News on the sidelines of the group’s Washington conference, promising the president that he entered “political immortality” thanks to his decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
It was a wonderful year for the San Antonio based group, commonly referred to by its acronym CUFI. After decades of building support in the evangelical community and gradually establishing its role as a force to reckon with in the pro-Israel camp, the stars have finally aligned: In Washington, the White House is occupied by a president who welcomes their presence and is open to the Christian evangelicals’ requests, and in Jerusalem a friendly prime minister is entering his tenth year in office as head of a right-wing coalition which views the conservative supporters from overseas as welcome allies.
CUFI and other pro-Israel evangelicals, commonly known as Christian Zionists, have the deliverables to prove they did not let this opportunity slip by. The battle over relocating the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem had CUFI and its allies at the lead, and much of the credit for getting Trump to take the step other presidents had avoided goes to evangelicals who raised the issue consistently during the presidential campaign and after he took office. (Credit also goes to Jewish mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, who listed Jerusalem as one of the issues he wants Trump to deliver on, in return for providing him much needed campaign finance. Adelson is also a large donor to CUFI.) Sure, all mainstream Jewish groups supported moving the embassy and many had the issue on their platform, but none of them pursued it actively like CUFI. The group was also the driving force behind the Taylor Force Act, a recently passed piece of legislation named after an American student murdered by a Palestinian terrorist in Israel. The law halts U.S. funding to the Palestinian Authority until it ends its practice of compensating prisoners jailed for terrorist activity and their families. In both cases, CUFI, with its small lobbying shop and minimal experience on the Hill, showed it can overshadow bigger and older pro-Israel advocacy groups, especially on issues that lack a bipartisan consensus.
So what’s the secret to CUFI’s success?
That’s easy. It’s all in the numbers.
CUFI states that it has more than 4 million members—a huge amount in terms of pro-Israel constituencies and only the tip of the iceberg of an evangelical community that measures an estimated 100 million believers in America.
Speaking at a “Night to Honor Israel” organized by CUFI in a predominantly African American church in Charlotte, North Carolina, last month, pastor Victor Styrsky, the group’s eastern regional director, colorfully explained how the organization became so powerful in the corridors of power. He described Hagee’s meeting with Trump last year, in which, according to Styrsky, Hagee told Trump that he is destined to go down in history as the leader who recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. “Mr. President, you were placed in your mother’s womb for this,” Hagee told Trump, at least according to Styrsky’s account. And how did the evangelical pastor find himself in the White House, telling Trump it is time to act on Jerusalem? “He got there because we’re 4.2 million. That’s how he got there.”
Trump is well aware of these numbers, and he knows that evangelicals make up an estimated three quarters of the Republican base. And since Trump is not one to keep his thoughts or views to himself, the president made clear in a June 18 interview, exactly who he had in mind when he took the step of moving the embassy. And no, it wasn’t the Jewish community. “You know who really likes it the most: the evangelicals. I’ll tell you what—I get more calls of thank you from evangelicals and I see it in the audience and everything else, than I do from Jewish people. The evangelicals appreciate it more than the Jews.”
Eighty percent of evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016, a huge percentage for any demographic and especially for a group that cares about family values and personal morals. Behind this vote stands an unwritten mutual understanding, according to which Trump will deliver for the evangelicals on the key issues they care about: judiciary nominees who can set back progress made on abortions and LGBT rights, and siding with Israel on issues of Jerusalem, Iran and the future of its conflict with the Palestinians. In return, evangelical voters will turn a blind eye to Trump’s personal conduct and embrace an individual who is in his third marriage, has reportedly had multiple extramarital affairs (including with a Playboy model and with a porn star) and is very far from the preferred model of a pious, churchgoing leader they’d like to see.
A September 2017 photo op in the Oval Office made this acceptance visible: Trump, sitting at his desk, was surrounded by evangelical leaders praying with their eyes shut as their arms stretch out to touch the president’s back and shoulders. “This country has been literally divided for decades upon decades, and now you have given us a gift: President Trump,” Pastor Robert Jeffers said as he prayed to the Lord, standing next to the president. “We want America to be great again, and we know that America can only be great if America is good, and we know we have a president who wants America to be good.” In a recent interview, I asked Jeffers about the gap between his moral beliefs and Trump’s personal behavior. “The fact is all of us, the bible says, all of us have sinned and we have fallen short of the way of God,” Jeffress responded. “We are all sinners and we need a savior and that is what we Christians believe Jesus came to do: to provide forgiveness for our sins.”
How long can this alliance survive?
So far, both sides have kept up their end of the deal, and there is no reason to believe that Trump will not enjoy just as much support from Christian evangelicals when he runs again in 2020. One possible moment of truth could come if Trump decides to go ahead with his grand peace deal for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A Trump plan that includes the removal of Jewish settlements and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel is likely to trigger significant pushback from the evangelical community. But, at least for now, this moment is not imminent. Any talk of a Trump “deal of the century” to end the Middle East conflict has been put on hold, and a peace plan which was once seen imminent is nowhere in sight. And as long as that is the case, this odd friendship between Trump and his evangelical supporters can continue to thrive.