Home Religion Mainline Protestant clergy are increasingly pro-Palestinian. Their congregants may not follow.

Mainline Protestant clergy are increasingly pro-Palestinian. Their congregants may not follow.


(RNS) — Mainline Protestant churches are often linked in the media to support for the progressive agenda — same-sex marriage, for instance, and abortion access — and their clergy are increasingly active on racial inequality, civil rights and environmental issues. But over the past few decades, they have also become significantly more pro-Palestinian than the average American when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

With the collapse of the Oslo peace process in 2000, mainline criticism of Israel exploded. Since 2004, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has made a significant breakthrough among mainline churches, with 10 resolutions supporting divestment passed by clergy and their most involved lay leaders at their denominational conventions. The United Methodists at their General Conference just last month passed such a vote, following the lead of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Church of Christ, which did so in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Pastors and their parishioners are typically assumed to be aligned on these types of issues, but our most recent national survey examining American Christian opinions about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reveals that 80% of mainline attendees have never even heard of the BDS movement and only 7% support it. The views of the clergy on these issues, in other words, are often out of sync with the views of the congregants.

Since 2018, we have surveyed the public opinion of different U.S. Christian movements to understand their views of Jews, Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For this most recent survey we reached 2,000 self-identifying Christians in the United States in March 2024, months after the start of the war in Gaza. The survey polled evangelical and born-again Christians (such as Baptists and Pentecostals), mainline Protestants and Catholics.

Despite their lack of knowledge about BDS, mainline Protestants tend to be the best informed about the conflict, with a larger percentage of them correctly identifying the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea as the ones in the chant “Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea” (49% versus 44% for evangelicals and 39% for Catholics).

We were both surprised and encouraged that this group had not been swayed by the prevailing anti-Israel media narrative. In fact, 22% of mainline respondents said their support for Israel increased as a result of the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, while 47% said their support remained the same. A majority of this group — 54% — blame “mostly Hamas” for the current war in Gaza, the highest percentage among the three groups that we surveyed.

"In relation to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, where do you place your support?" (Courtesy graphic)

“In relation to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, where do you place your support?” (Courtesy graphic)

Half said the Israeli response had been mostly justified, almost 7% higher than the evangelicals who said so. 

As these numbers show, the congregants of this important Christian movement clearly support Israel over the Palestinians, as most Americans do, and see greater justification for the Israeli, rather than Palestinian, actions in the current war in Gaza.

As mainline denominations continue to respond to the war, it is certain to generate heated discussions. The calls for more resolutions condemning Israel, more boycotts of Israeli businesses and more divestment of funds will likely follow.

Will the mainline leaders be swayed by the vocal minority of their pro-Palestinian members, or heed to the significant but silent pro-Israel majority?

(Motti Inbari is a professor of Jewish studies at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Kirill Bumin is associate dean of the Metropolitan College and director of summer term at Boston University. They are the authors of “Christian Zionism in the Twenty-First Century: American Evangelical Public Opinion on Israel.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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