All three Republican presidential candidates spoke before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) this week, but not necessarily because they were seeking Jewish votes. An appearance before the group may have been even more important to the candidates' evangelical Christian supporters.
"Evangelicals have been remarkably pro-Israel, both theologically and in terms of the modern State of Israel," says David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta.
The extent and depth of support for Israel among evangelical Christian is evident in a recent survey carried out by the Brookings Institution and the University of Maryland. The poll suggested that the strong identification with Israel among Republicans stems mainly from the evangelical sector within the party.
While 64 percent of evangelical Republicans said a candidate's position on Israel matters "a lot," just 33 percent of non-evangelical Republicans felt that way. "If one sets aside the evangelical Republicans," wrote Shibley Telhami, the poll director, "many of the differences between Republicans and the rest of the country disappear."
The commitment to Israel among evangelicals is evident in the growing number of evangelical leaders who lead trips to Israel and by the attention being given to Jewish history in evangelical circles.
Laurie Cardoza-Moore, a deacon in the World Council of Independent Christian Churches, has produced a series of television programs called Focus on Israel, dedicated, in her words, to "educating Christians about their Biblical responsibility to the Jewish people." Her organization, Proclaiming Justice to the Nations, also produces documentary films, including one due to be released shortly that criticizes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to force Israel to end its occupation of the Palestinian territories.
"We were grafted into the commonwealth of Israel," Cardoza-Moore says. "The Jewish people are our brethren in the faith. And of course Jesus was Jewish. And Christians are not taught that perspective."
For Cardoza-Moore and other evangelical Christians, a special bond with Jews is important for theological and even scriptural reasons. "God had a plan for mankind, and Israel was to be that example of how to live," she says. "And that's why the Torah was given to them. And unfortunately, Christianity has moved away from that Hebraic understanding, that Hebraic teaching."
David Gushee, director of Mercer University's Center for Theology and Public Life, notes that the Hebrew Bible constitutes three-fourths of Christian Scripture and that evangelicals are familiar with it. Some Christians, he says, nevertheless have a problem with the story of the Jewish people, their prophets and Israel as the "promised land."
"If Jesus has come and Jesus is the Messiah, and the church is the new primary or even the new exclusive community that God is now working with, what's the role of the Jewish people?" he says. This question, Gushee says, partly explains the origin of Christian anti-Semitism over the centuries.
It is that legacy that Cardoza-Moore and other pro-Israel evangelicals are now working to overcome. Indeed, some are so determined to show solidarity with the Jewish state that they may overlook the views of the actual Christians who live in Israel, most of whom are Arabs.
A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that the vast majority of Israeli Christians do not believe that Israel can be both a democracy and a Jewish state and oppose the building of Jewish settlements on the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Cardoza-Moore, however, questions whether Arabs with such attitudes are genuinely "Christ-followers" in their attitudes and beliefs. "It's not going to be someone who hates their Jewish brethren," she argues. "Are they more Arab in their culture and background, or are they followers? Do they read their Bible? Because I have read the Bible. [And] God made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their descendants forever, and part of the covenant was the land."
David Gushee, however, worries that such a perspective may be overly simplistic in the Middle East. "It's the problem of overlaying a theological scheme on an actual geopolitical reality. Sometimes the details of the geopolitical reality and actual territory, with real people and peoples of different kinds of situations facing them, gets kind of washed away in a more mythic, kind of theological framing."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Yesterday, the candidates were focused on Israel. Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, John Kasich and Ted Cruz all appeared at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee - or AIPAC. They all declared their steadfast support for in the Israeli state. Some candidates may be seeking Jewish votes, but as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, a strong pro-Israel stand may be just as important to evangelical Christians.
TOM GJELTEN: One candidate at the AIPAC meeting referred to an upcoming Jewish holiday. Ted Cruz noted that tomorrow night, Jews will review the story of Purim.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TED CRUZ: The miraculous rescue of the Jewish people from the hands of the wicked Persian King.
GJELTEN: In his campaign, Cruz relies heavily on support from evangelical Christians, and for that, a firm position on Israel is key. A recent poll suggested the strong identification with Israel among Republicans stems largely from the evangelical sector within that party - nearly two-thirds of evangelical Republicans said a candidate's position on Israel matters a lot; just a third of non-evangelical Republicans felt that way. Many conservative evangelical leaders lead trips to Israel, and Jewish history is getting a lot of attention in evangelical circles.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LAURIE CARDOZA-MOORE: Hi, I'm Laurie Cardoza-Moore, and welcome to Focus on Israel.
GJELTEN: Laurie Cardoza-Moore, a deacon in the World Council of Independent Christian Churches, has produced as series of TV shows and films dedicated, in her words, to educating Christians about their biblical responsibility to the Jewish people.
CARDOZA-MOORE: The Jewish people are our brethren in the faith. And of course Jesus was Jewish, and Christians are not taught that perspective.
GJELTEN: For Cardoza-Moore and other Christians evangelicals, a special bond with Jews is important for theological, even Scriptural reasons.
CARDOZA-MOORE: God had a plan for mankind. And Israel was to be that example of how to live, and that's why the Torah was given to them. And unfortunately, Christianity has moved away from that Hebraic understanding, that Hebraic teaching.
GJELTEN: The Old Testament is two-thirds of the Christian Bible, so Bible-reading Christians learn the story of the Jewish people, their prophets and Israel as the promised land. But then there's the New Testament and the development of the Christian church. David Gushee is a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta.
DAVID GUSHEE: If Jesus has come and Jesus is the Messiah and the church is the new primary or even the new exclusive community that God is now working with, you know, what's the role of the Jewish people?
GJELTEN: This, in fact, is one of the origins of Christian anti-Semitism. It's a legacy Laurie Cardoza-Moore and other pro-Israel evangelicals are now determined to overcome. In fact, they may be so eager to show solidarity with the Jewish state that they neglect the Christians who live in Israel or in the Palestinian territories, many of whom are Arabs.
A new poll from the Pew Research Center shows that a large majority of those Christians oppose the building of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories. Cardoza-Moore says she'd like to know whether those Christians actually follow Christ and believe in the Bible.
CARDOZA-MOORE: Are they more Arab in their culture and background or are they followers? Do they read their Bible? Because I have read the Bible and that land - God made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their descendents forever. And part of the covenant was the land.
GJELTEN: But Professor David Gushee worries about subordinating a geopolitical reality to a theological scheme.
GUSHEE: Sometimes the details of the geopolitical reality in actual territory with real people and peoples of different kinds of situations facing them gets kind of washed away in a more mythic kind of theological framing.
GJELTEN: And in the Middle East, mixing theology, history and politics can be dangerous. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.