Praised by Faint Damnation
Why American Evangelical Responses to October 7 are Dangerous
Bruce N. Fisk
In the aftermath of October 7, many American evangelicals are displaying unwavering support for the state of Israel. Pro-Israel zeal finds expression in statements of outrage over Hamas’ slaughter and abduction of Jewish civilians and in declarations of solidarity affirming Israel’s right and duty to eliminate Hamas.
I see three troubling patterns in pro-Israel statements posted by influential Evangelicals. Let’s call them maneuvers. All three are dangerous. Let me explain.
The first maneuver is binary reductionism.
That’s fancy talk for me making you pick a side. The side you pick reveals whether your moral compass is defective or points True North. No recognition of complexity (legal, historical, political, theological). No patience with contrary voices. One actor bears all moral culpability.
Russell Moore, editor and chief at Christianity Today, declares the need for “moral clarity about this war.” Likewise for Ivan Mesa, editorial director of The Gospel Coalition, and Bernard Howard, the moral fog has lifted. Richard Land, President Emeritus of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and executive editor of The Christian Post, doubles down on Samuel Huntingdon’s provocative thesis: “We’ve heard people talking about the clash of civilizations between Islam and Christianity. This is not a clash of civilizations. This is a clash between civilization and barbarism.” San Antonio pastor John Hagee, as we’ve come to expect, is likewise Manichean: “Choose Israel or Hamas. There is no middle ground in this conflict. You’re either for the Jewish people or you’re not.”
“Moral clarity” was strong with George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 when he announced “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” In Bushspeak, you were on the side of freedom or you were governed by fear. In the same spirit, William Bennett titled his 2002 hymn to patriotism Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism. Bennett reminisced about a time when “the doubts and questions . . . seemed to fade into insignificance. Good was distinguished from evil, truth from falsehood. We were firm, dedicated, unified. It was, in short, a moment of moral clarity.”
Apparently, thanks to Hamas, those days of reductionistic, binary moral clarity have returned. Thus, when Franklin Graham met recently with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister framed his nation’s predicament as “the battle of civilization against barbarism.” Graham’s reply upped the ante: “It’s good versus evil.”
My first visits to the Holy Land, two decades ago, were blessed by such binary clarity. Today, I know too much. I’ve seen too much. Yes, Hamas is committing war crimes. But they do not commit them in a vacuum. Nor is Hamas the only guilty party. We do not diminish Hamas’ moral culpability when we talk about context.
Uncritical pro-Israel binary reductionism over recent decades has provided international cover, financial backing and biblical justification for legalized discrimination, settlement expansion, extra-judicial killings, and the systematic subjugation of Palestinians in daily life. Christian Zionists’ moral opposition to partitioning the Promised Land has excused expropriation of land, demolition of homes and schools, and other forms of legal discrimination.
For many Evangelicals, including John Hagee (but not Russell Moore), binary reductionism pairs nicely with apocalypticism. It turns out that the real battle isn’t between Israel and Hamas. It’s between Light and Darkness. Jews miraculously defeated Arabs in 1948 and captured Jerusalem in 1967 because: Last Days. The Palestinians will never establish a state of their own in the Promised Land because: End Times.
When we reduce a protracted, complex and asymmetric conflict to a tidy moral binary, those who disagree with us become allies of the enemy. In Christians United for Israel’s statement, John Hagee warns us that “anyone who would seek to undermine Israel’s response to this horrific attack is making common cause with terrorists.” Read that again. Hagee is pledging support for whatever Israel does in Gaza, a textbook case of the absolutist worldview and its dangers that Glenn Greenwald warns about:
“Those who have become convinced that they are waging an epic and all-consuming existential war against Evil cannot, by the very premises of their belief system, accept any limitations—moral, pragmatic, or otherwise—on the methods adopted to triumph in this battle. . . . Efforts to impose limits on waging war against Evil will themselves be seen as impediments to Good, if not as an attempt to aid and abet Evil. . . Hence, there are no valid reasons for declaring off-limits any weapons that can be deployed in service of the war against Evil.”
For those blessed with binary certitude and moral clarity, there are two types of victims: worthy (“those we are allowed to pity”) and unworthy (“those whose suffering is minimized, dismissed, or ignored”), as Chris Hedges, following Noam Chomsky, observes. One side’s intentional, low-tech, mass killing is barbaric terrorism; the other side’s intentional, high-tech, mass killing is collateral damage. Reports from Israel about beheaded babies are repeated notwithstanding serious challenges of verification. Reports from Gaza about the killing of thousands of children and the targeting of aid workers and journalists are unserious propaganda, perhaps the work of crisis actors. Certainly not evidence of war crimes. As Bob Dylan taught us: “you don’t count the dead when God’s on your side.”
Let’s call the second maneuver selective ambiguity.
This is where we obscure or evade hard truths by deploying euphemisms and convoluted diction.
Ronald Reagan, describing the Iran-Contra scandal, famously told Congress in 1987 that “mistakes were made.” When we want to tip-toe past wartime carnage, when we want to avoid ascribing agency, the passive voice serves us well, as it does for Russell Moore who says that Israel faced existential threats “after . . . the state of Israel was established.” Similarly opaque is the Southern Baptist reference to “the inception of the modern state of Israel.”
In the months before and after Israel “was established,” three-quarters of a million Palestinians fled or were forced out of their homes, and were subsequently blocked from returning. A lesser exodus of a quarter million followed when Israel defeated its neighbors in June, 1967. What animates resistance for most residents of Gaza today is this dispossession—of parents and grandparents—not just from Jaffa and Ramla but also from villages within easy walking distance from the Strip. Gazans want to go home.
Selective ambiguity obscures important details of historical context, context we desperately need in order to understand what is happening around us.
Ambiguity and underspecification are also in play when the World Evangelical Alliance says Hamas’ attack on Israel “has resulted in escalating violence and loss of innocent civilian lives in Israel and in Palestine.” Violence escalates. Lives are lost. No human agency in sight. The WEA rightly singles out Hamas for killing Israeli civilians, but mysteriously leaves unspecified the agents responsible for killing innocents in Palestine. Violence is simply a result, an unintended outcome that “will further spread” and needs “de-escalation.” Obscurity through ambiguity.
Another example: the National Association of Evangelicals worries about “actions by Israel that go beyond self-defense by taking revenge on those living in Gaza.” These actions “risk inflicting further suffering on innocent civilians while undermining the long-term security of the Israeli people.” Stripped of clutter, the NAE is claiming that “actions . . . beyond self-defense . . . risk inflicting suffering.” George Orwell would file such convoluted diction under cloudy vagueness. Clarity compels us to say that Israeli forces are killing Gazan civilians, and at a rate unprecedented in modern warfare. It’s a calculated rage playing out in real time.
Then there is Franklin Graham, whose affection for Israel, like his father’s, is evident. Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse is among the largest U.S. faith-based non-profits. A recent press release laments that “innocent families are suffering in Israel and Gaza as a result of the war, and many lives have been lost because they haven’t been able to reach medical care fast enough.”
Setting aside the ambiguous passive (lives have been lost), context makes clear that the folks Graham thinks need urgent medical care are Israelis, which explains SP’s plan to replace the Magen David Adom ambulances that Hamas destroyed. Elsewhere Graham explains his inaction on the other side of the fence, using ambiguity and, yup, a passive verb: “humanitarian access to Gaza is not possible, and the border is sealed.” I’m pretty sure the border didn’t seal itself.
“We pray steps will be taken to eliminate the lethal presence of Hamas terrorists, the hostages be freed, Israel’s borders be secured and noncombatant Palestinians in Gaza and other parts of Israel be spared from the evils of these and other Islamic terrorists.”
The writers have impressively deployed four passive verbs (be taken, be freed, be secured, be spared), and the antiseptic “eliminate the lethal presence of” in place of, say, “kill” or “destroy.”
CPM’s prayer also seeks protection for Palestinians “in Gaza and other parts of Israel. . . from the evils of these and other Islamic terrorists.” Quite apart from implying that the West Bank lies within Israel, CPM suggests that the principal threat Palestinians face is “these and other Islamic terrorists.” Israeli forces in the first seven weeks since October 7 have killed 239 West Bank Palestinians. Perhaps we should pray about that too.
I’m calling the third maneuver praise by faint damnation.
This is when we gesture at Israel’s imperfections but never follow up with substantive critique. When we nod at unspecified misdeeds so as to appear neutral and fair-minded, our “faint damnation” of Israel can actually function as praise.
Two recent examples. On the day of Hamas’ attacks, Russell Moore, who himself paid a price for criticizing Donald Trump, aligned with those prepared to criticize Israel: “Many of us are quite willing to call out Israel when we believe it is acting wrongly. We don’t believe the Israeli Knesset is somehow inerrant or infallible.” One wonders what unnamed wrongdoings Moore has in mind, and whether some of them might provide relevant context for what is unfolding in and around Gaza.
“We accept that the state of Israel hasn’t always acted blamelessly in its conduct toward the Palestinian people. To be pro-Israel in this situation, as we the authors are, isn’t to whitewash every action Israel’s government or military have taken, from its founding to today.”
What Mesa and Howard “accept” is an obvious truism—that “the state of Israel hasn’t always acted blamelessly.” Which actions of Israel should we not “whitewash”? Might some of this misbehavior merit specific mention during the present crisis?
Mesa and Howard do go on to acknowledge “the frustration, pain, and grief experienced by Palestinians” and affirm the impulse to weep with those who weep, which for them includes “Palestinians mourning their dead, both past and present.” But note again the passive voice and non-ascription of moral agency. Pain is “experienced,” not caused. They mourn Palestinian deaths but don’t name the killer.
Praise by faint damnation is popular among Christian Zionists. Malcolm Hedding of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem rejects “blind support of Israel.” Barry Horner in Future Israel does not recommend justifying “every military initiative of the State of Israel” (pp.102-03). Craig Blaising of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in a recent defense of Christian Zionism, likewise says Gentile nations are not obliged to “extend to Israel blind moral approval” (p. 102). But in each case the corollary—specific offenses that merit critique—is ever elusive.
Gerald McDermott of Beeson Divinity School seems poised to go further:
“We do not mean that the state of Israel is a perfect country. Or that it should not be criticized for its failures.” “We . . . disagree with dispensationalism at the popular level . . . that the present state of Israel is never to be criticized . . .” “It certainly does not mean that Israel is always right or that it has never been unjust in its dealings with other nations” (pp.12, 14, 328).
Darrell Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary, concluding the same volume, likewise claims not to give Israel a pass:
“To endorse Israel and a national place for the nation is not to give her carte blanche for everything she does. Christian Zionism is not a blind endorsement of Israel. It does not give the nation a pass on issues of justice or moral obligations” (p.309).
But again, McDermott and Bock are silent about concrete acts of injustice. Until Israel’s Evangelical partisans name specific laws, policies and practices to which they object, their vague declarations of Israel’s imperfection, their faint damnations, will continue to ring hollow.
To be sure, Palestinian sympathizers are likewise reluctant to criticize the Palestinian Authority and even Hamas for specific human rights abuses, torture, hostility toward internal criticism, infringements on journalistic freedom, militant ideology, fiscal corruption, monetary payments to families of fallen fighters, and intentional targetting of non-combatants. Let’s talk about it.
But let’s also talk about the impact on Palestinians families of the separation barrier and expanding Israeli settlements, Israel’s de facto annexation of the Jordan Valley, the 16-year blockade of Gaza; about the indiscriminate use of tear gas, imprisoning minors, snipers shooting journalists, settlers rampaging through villages with the tacit blessing of the IDF; about Netanyahu’s coalition of right-wingers bent on demolishing homes, raiding camps, and stoking violence on the Temple Mount. Inside Israel, such topics are hotly debated. From American Evangelicals we hear mostly silence.
So, three bleats. Binary reductionism blinds us to moral complexity. Selective ambiguity distorts history. Faint damnation is feigned neutrality. We may disagree sharply over how to respond to the present crisis, but let’s not weaponize language. Innocent people are dying. Partisans of Israel, conservative Evangelicals, Christian Zionists—you can do better. We all can.