Report

Apocalypse Later: Millennial Evangelicals, Israel-Palestine, and the Kingdom of God

By | January 3, 2017

(AP/Paul M. Walsh/The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram)

(AP/Paul M. Walsh/The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram)

White evangelical Christians voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in the recent presidential election, reaffirming the apparently unbreakable bond that has united conservative Christians and the GOP since Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980. Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence promised voters that they would oppose abortion and select a socially conservative Supreme Court justice. They also signaled their strong support for the state of Israel—another key issue for many evangelicals within the Republican coalition. But beneath the headlines that suggest that the past is prologue in this presidential contest, demographic and theological shifts among younger evangelicals may complicate the story.

In the past two years, I have spent time reporting in churches filled with millennials, many of them evangelicals of color. In August of 2014, I first visited New City Church, an evangelical congregation that makes its home in a rented theater in downtown Los Angeles. New City is a remarkably accurate mirror of the surrounding neighborhood—not just ethnically diverse but also drawing members across the full range of downtown’s socioeconomic spectrum, from loft-dwelling hipsters to barely-scraping-by addicts living on Skid Row. That month, news of protesters clashing with police in Ferguson, Missouri, along with images of Israel’s devastating bombardment of Gaza, topped newsfeeds. Both stories were topics of conversation as 300 worshipers gathered on Sunday morning.

Just before the senior pastor’s sermon that Sunday, a pastoral intern named Delonte Gholston delivered a riveting prayer in which he connected racial injustice and abuses of power in Ferguson with tensions between LAPD officers and Skid Row’s enormous homeless population, and with the cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Gholston, then 34, concluded his prayer by asking God to bestow mercy and grace on the stakeholders in each of those conflicts.

Gholston’s social justice focus is one shared by a rising generation of young city-dwelling evangelicals, who want to combat poverty, racism, and violence. They’re trying to forge better lives here on earth and not just look to the afterlife. And their concern for all parties in the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict represents a dramatic departure from the worldview that characterized the previous generation of evangelicals, who saw unstinting American support for Israel as essential to fulfilling biblical prophecies about the Apocalypse and Jesus’ subsequent return to earth.

“I struggle with a stream of evangelical thought that suggests that we should speed up the day when the end comes,” Gholston, who had recently received a Master of Divinity degree from the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, said later. “Or that says, right or wrong, it doesn’t matter what they do, we support Israel.”

According to a recent Pew survey, sympathy for the Palestinians is on the rise among all millennials in the United States. That development, coupled with the growing generational shift reflected in Gholston’s prayer, has profound implications not just for evangelicalism but also for the future of American politics and foreign policy.

Paul D. Miller is associate director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas and a former National Security Council staff member. He has closely studied the relationship between evangelicalism and American policy toward Israel-Palestine. He said, “Something like 80 or 90 percent of the older generation of evangelicals still believes in dispensational theology”—the tradition of biblical interpretation that regards Jews as God’s chosen people and anticipates the return of Jesus after an apocalyptic war that will begin in Israel. “It has become sort of a marker of tribal identity,” Miller added. “They think, ‘We’re against all those secular pagans who hate Israel and hate America.’”

According to Miller, since the 1970s, mainstream American evangelicals have reflexively supported the state of Israel, usually at the expense of Palestinians. That decade saw the release of Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth, which popularized the dispensationalist strand of biblical interpretation at the same time conservative Cold War geopolitical agendas found reliable support in the emergent Religious Right.

But Miller said that evangelicals who came of age since the end of the Cold War have become less interested in mapping end-times theology onto geopolitics and more engaged with social justice issues like homelessness and economic inequality. “The younger generation doesn’t buy into dispensational theology,” Miller said. “And it doesn’t want to be beholden to the GOP. It generally wants to be a prophetic voice on problems at the local level.”

Specifically, this group is shifting its theological focus away from future-oriented biblical prophecy toward a concern for ways to apply some of the Bible’s key themes—hope, justice, redemption and love, for example—to solve problems in the here-and-now.

“My dad is huge on End Times prophetic stuff,” said Ephraim Gatdula, a 27-year-old member of The Branch, an evangelical church in a working-class neighborhood on the east side of Long Beach. “I’m a believer that God didn’t tell us specifically what’s going to happen and when he’s going to do it, so why bother looking through the scripture for it? Why bother spending even an ounce of effort trying to do that?” Gatdula said he wants to focus instead on addressing the needs of homeless people and the “working poor” in the neighborhood that the Branch calls home. “It’s just about service,” he said. “It’s about being God’s hands and feet in the community.”

Gatdula’s pastor and the founder of the Branch is 39-year-old Derrick Engoy. He said that the commitment to service that he promotes in his congregation also includes cultivating good relationships with religious “others” whom earlier generations of evangelicals tended to regard with suspicion or even hostility. “In many ways, even in my early upbringing in Christianity, it was very exclusive,” Engoy said. “It was, ‘Here’s this club that if you’re not a part of you’re going to hell.’” But growing up in a diverse community in Long Beach made him question these beliefs. “I was exposed to different religions,” he said. “Because I had a little bit of understanding from some of my Muslim friends, I’m able to have a decent conversation with a Muslim about God without wanting to rip each other’s throats.”

Engoy said he sees the goal of working for the Kingdom of God not as the establishment of a religiously purified future but rather as an ongoing commitment to the flourishing of present-day Long Beach. He and his flock of about 100 members have developed projects like a food pantry, feeding programs for the local homeless population, and monthly laundry service for the working poor, leveraging networks beyond their association with evangelical fellow-travelers. “We’re looking for ways to partner with what’s already going on,” Engoy said. “Because the reality is we’re not bringing God to people; God’s already there.”

He added, “As headed to Hell as some people would paint Long Beach as, God’s doing work there. So it’s us saying, ‘God, how are you working in the city both within the faith movements and outside the faith movements, to bring life to people?’”

Authorities on American Christianity say this tendency to see complexity and possibility where earlier generations of evangelicals saw only stark distinctions between believers and nonbelievers has definitely taken root among millennials. “Younger evangelicals are experiencing a world that among older evangelicals tends to be more black and white,” said David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, an evangelical Christian research firm that specializes in religious trends and demographics. For instance, he said, “They’re pro-Israel, but not pro-Israel in the same way as their more conservative parents and grandparents.” Instead, they may see Israel as a natural ally, but they do not think of the state as a means to the end-times.

This evolution in evangelical culture and politics is often overlooked by news organizations that view religious groups as unchanging over time, and that prioritize stories about conflict over developments that are equally important but less sensationalistic. “Mainstream media have a hard time believing that younger evangelical are different from older evangelicals,” Kinnamon said. “But there’s been an attitude shift about Kingdom theology, along with a shift in the view of culture. Where older evangelicals tend to think of the country as a Christian nation, the younger generation sees a post-Christian context.”

That shift in what evangelicals mean when they talk about working for the Kingdom of God is the key to understanding how these movements will likely influence American politics and foreign policy. “The rhetoric about the imminent return of Jesus has changed in various ways,” said Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Dartmouth College and author of The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond. “And that in turn changes the way the Kingdom language is used.”

Balmer said that evangelicals who came of age during the Cold War saw godlessness abroad and the stirrings of sexual liberation at home as heralds of the apocalypse, after which Jesus would return to Israel and establish the Kingdom of God on earth. “In the 1950s, the attitude was, ‘Come, Lord Jesus,’” Balmer said.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, even as older stalwarts like James Dobson and Chuck Colson argued that opposition to legal abortion and same-sex marriage should be the primary driver of evangelicals’ engagement in politics, Balmer started noticing a different set of priorities from young evangelicals on college campuses. “I kept hearing about war, hunger, disease, torture, and climate change,” he said. “They would also say, ‘We think abortion is wrong and homosexuality is wrong,’ but there was very little passion behind that statement.” He added, “It’s a return not just to the Social Gospel but earlier in the nineteenth century, when evangelicals were advocating for people at the margins of society.”

The Kingdom of God for these young evangelicals is on earth right now. The implications of this seemingly subtle shift within evangelicalism are in fact profound, especially as evangelicalism itself grows more racially diverse. From one generation to the next, the idea of the Kingdom of God has moved from religiously pure (read: conservatively Christian) and established after a period of apocalyptic upheaval to a vision of communities of mutual concern that support diverse forms of human flourishing in the here-and-now. That vision for the United States doesn’t mean that believers like Delonte Gholston and Derrick Engoy have abandoned their engagement with politics and culture—far from it. Rather, they are promoting a different vision of what it means to spread the Christian gospel, coupled with some healthy wariness of the efforts of previous generations of evangelicals to bring about the Kingdom of God (the post-apocalyptic Israel) through politics.

If the Promised Land is no longer identified exclusively with the state of Israel, evangelicals like Gholston and Engoy—along with many of their religiously unaffiliated fellow millennials—are engaging their communities in ways that will upend the usual narratives about their generation. That, in turn, may eventually alter coalitions that have shaped American politics since the 1980s.

Asked what it means to work for the Kingdom of God, Engoy said, “Israel is wherever I am.”

Nick Street is the senior writer with the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.

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