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Half of evangelicals support Israel because they believe it is important for fulfilling end-times prophecy

Southern Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress spoke at the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem May 14. Here's a look at some of his controversial statements. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

Well before he was asked to offer a prayer at Monday’s ceremony marking the U.S. Embassy’s move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, earning the enmity of Mitt Romney, Pastor Robert Jeffress offered tangential insight into why he and many evangelicals think the move was so important.

“Jerusalem has been the object of the affection of both Jews and Christians down through history and the touchstone of prophecy,” Jeffress told CNN last year. “But, most importantly, God gave Jerusalem — and the rest of the Holy Land — to the Jewish people.”

The latter half of that quote hints at the deep religious meaning of the existence of Israel for Jeffress and other Christians. As University of North Texas professor Elizabeth Oldmixon told Vox last year, the issue of recognizing Jerusalem is inextricable from that belief.

“The tenet of Christian Zionism is that God’s promise of the Holy Land to the Jews is eternal. It’s not just something in antiquity,” Oldmixon said. “When we talk about the Holy Land, God’s promise of the Holy Land, we’re talking about real estate on both sides of the Jordan River. So the sense of a greater Israel and expansionism is really important to this community. Jerusalem is just central to that. It’s viewed as a historical and biblical capital.”

Polling bolsters Oldmixon’s explanation. In December, LifeWay Research conducted a poll evaluating the views of evangelical Americans on issues related to Israel and the politics of the Middle East. (The definition used to identify evangelicals, we’ll note, was more specific than most polls necessitate.) Among the questions was one about the biblical promise of the Holy Land to Abraham and his descendants. Two-thirds of respondents strongly agreed that the promise was an eternal one from God.

But it’s also worth picking out another part of what Jeffress said to CNN. Jerusalem, he said, is “the touchstone of prophecy.” That prophecy is the biblical prophecy of the return of Jesus Christ and the beginning of the Rapture — the end times.

“What kick-starts the end times into motion is Israel’s political boundaries being reestablished to what God promised the Israelites according to the Bible,” Pastor Nate Pyle told Newsweek in January.

This is not an uncommon view.

The LifeWay poll found that 80 percent of evangelicals believed that the creation of Israel in 1948 was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy that would bring about Christ’s return.

That meshes with a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2003. Pew asked respondents whether the existence of Israel fulfilled biblical prophecy. About a third of Americans said it did — while more than 6 in 10 evangelicals agreed. (So did more than half of black respondents.)

The LifeWay poll also asked evangelical respondents what factors contribute to their support for the state of Israel. More than 6 in 10 cited God’s pledge to Abraham. The third-most-cited reason was that the existence of Israel was necessary for fulfilling prophecy. More than half of evangelicals said that was a reason they supported Israel’s existence.

Sixty percent of those age 65 and older said the fulfillment of prophecy was an important factor in their support for Israel. In a follow-up question, 12 percent of respondents said the fulfillment of prophecy was the most important reason they supported the state of Israel. A third pointed to the promise made to Abraham. (Forty-five percent of poll respondents said the Bible was the biggest influence on their views about Israel — 11 times as many people as those who said that their church was the biggest influence.)

A great deal of attention has understandably been paid to the fact that evangelical support for President Trump has been robust despite Trump apparently not always meeting the personal moral standards one might expect from someone with strong religious support. The LifeWay poll makes clear that part of it is simply that evangelicals skew so heavily conservative.

(In September 2016, Pew found that more than a third of evangelicals said their support for Trump in the 2016 election was based mostly on his not being Hillary Clinton.)

While Trump’s conservative politics (and deeply religious vice president) have led to concrete gains in other areas of importance to evangelicals, his support for Israel and for the move of the embassy has been an important factor as well.

“At this point, Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is the only concrete thing that his evangelical supporters can point to as part of fulfilling biblical prophecy to bring about the second coming of Christ,” religion historian Neil Young told Newsweek in January.

That reads like an indictment, but it’s safe to say that for those eagerly anticipating the Second Coming, any progress is welcome. And the move on Monday is apparently seen by many evangelicals as precisely such a step.