Just days after U.S. President Donald Trump is scheduled to inaugurate America’s embassy to Israel in Jerusalem on May 14, a former president with a less than stellar record on supporting Israel will address commencement at Liberty University, America’s premier evangelical college.
The speech by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter to future evangelical leaders is noteworthy due to his controversial accusations that Israel is an apartheid state, coupled with a longstanding feud between Carter and the late Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., Liberty University’s founder and first president. The school is now run by Falwell’s son, Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr.
“This invitation is a slap in the face to Reverend Jerry Falwell Sr. and to all the evangelical Christians who support Israel,” said Laurie Cardoza-Moore, host of the Focus on Israel television program on Daystar, and founder and president of Proclaiming Justice to the Nations, an organization that urges Christians “to stand with their Jewish brethren and all Israel against the rise of anti-Semitism.”
In a letter sent to Falwell Jr. urging the university to cancel the lecture, Cardoza-Moore wrote: “Over and over, [Carter] has proven himself to be anti-Semitic and anti-Israel, and is not worthy to speak to the distinguished graduates of Liberty University, or their families. What kind of message does this send our future Christian leaders?”
Declining support for Israel among millennials
“With recent polls indicating a plummet among young evangelicals, the last thing we need is someone like Jimmy Carter promoting anti-Israel rhetoric to students at a leading Christian university,” Cardoza-Moore told JNS. “His anti-Israel rhetoric would be more welcome in a university in Tehran. He is promoting an agenda vis-à-vis Israel that is anti-biblical.”
While polls have indicated that support for Israel remains high across the United States as a whole, it’s waning among certain key segments, including millennials. As a group, they tend to be less connected to faith and see Israel only through the lens of the Oslo peace process, which for 25 years has failed to bring a negotiated peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. Millennials think that because of the accords, Israelis were supposed to make peace and create a state for the Palestinians; it didn’t work out that way, and so they perceive Israel as occupier. Their parents remember Israel’s struggle just to survive—the wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973—and view Israel in a very different light.
The declining support among millennials is equally prevalent among evangelical Christians, a segment in American society whose adult members exhibit the greatest support for the Jewish state nationwide, raising concern for the support of Israel in years to come.
“Some recent surveys have shown what we have known for some time—namely, that many millennials are less supportive of Israel than prior generations. This is even true among some Christian millennials,” said Cindy Matthews, director of External Affairs of Covenant Journey, an experiential trip to Israel for Christian college students that teaches participants how to advocate for Israel.
“We have found that the millennial generation is less grounded in worldview and Christian faith. The more they move away from their Christian faith, the more they disconnect with Israel,” Matthews told JNS.
According to Cardoza-Moore, students at an evangelical Christian university should be fully connected to their faith and be receiving a fully pro-Israel education. “Why should Christian parents send their children to a Christian university when they can get the same anti-Israel rhetoric at universities like Berkeley?” posed Cardoza-Moore. “We are now seeing Christian colleges following the dangerous trends of secular universities.”
Cardoza-Moore suggests that support for Israel among evangelicals benefits Christians as much as Jews. “Yes, Israel needs the support of the evangelical community, but the Church needs it even more,” she said. “As scripture writes in the book of Genesis, ‘Those who bless you will be blessed, and those who curse you will be cursed.’”
Politics or poverty?
In a statement announcing Carter’s upcoming address, Falwell Jr. wrote: “While Christians may disagree about what role government should play in serving those in need, the Liberty University community, along with all Christians worldwide, are united in the belief that we, as individuals, should provide food and shelter to the poor.” He commended Carter for “serving the poor and loving his neighbors,” and said “I am thrilled that he will be sharing the story of his life of faith in action to our graduates and their families.”
According to Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews—an organization that works to promote understanding between Christians and Jews, and build broad support for Israel, as well as provides humanitarian aid to Jews around the world—the invitation of Carter to Liberty University is “not as crazy as it may seem, or offensive.”
In addition to hosting Trump in 2017 and former U.S. President George H. W. Bush in 1991, Eckstein acknowledged that “they’ve invited former presidents, and given that Carter is a past president and identifiably evangelical, and his commitment to helping the poor which is the common ground of their evangelicalism, it’s a reasonable choice.”
“They are not choosing him because of his views on Israel, so I think it’s a non-issue regarding the impact on the next generation,” Eckstein told JNS. “Now if Carter makes outrageous anti-Israel comments in his speech—which I seriously doubt—then it would be an issue.”