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Evangelicals Retain Neocon Credentials

While it's been widely reported that support for Israel is strong among American Evangelicals, a new study conducted by three political scientists at East Carolina University suggests that support extends to a generally hawkish stance on the Mideast -- even as the news from there turned sour.

Presumably, this bulwark from his base has allowed the Bush Administration not to blink in the war in Iraq, and helps explain why a hawkish John McCain is pursuing détente with a demographic he once seemed to spurn.

Hoping to redress what they saw as "shortcomings" in the political science canon linking religious attitudes to foreign affairs, professors Jody C. Baumgartner, Peter L. Francis and Jonathan S. Morris investigated whether "there might be distinct religious differences among Americans on issues such as the Iraq War or Middle East foreign policy issues more generally.

On first glance, this may not seem like much of a, forgive us, revelation.

But the trio note that their study uses Pew Research Center data taken after the overall public support for the Iraq War started to crater. Other studies in line with this, such as Corwin E. Smidt's assessment of attitudes, looked at data taken after 9/11 but before "quagmire" re-entered the everyday lexicon.

One of the reasons for the hawkishness, the authors posit, is that Evangelicals, more so than Christians in general or even Protestants in general, have staked out a "clash of civilizations" motif already in thinking about Islam. Buttressing that is a existing apocalyptic frame of reference ("premillennial dispensationalism," if you want its $2 name) in which a very real state of Israel and a modern (and not necessarily figurative) Babylon are players.

Which is not to say that evangelicals' views about the war have remained unassailable. "...Our findings confirm that Evangelical support for the Bush administration's hawkish approach to foreign policy has not waned in the years following the 2003 invasion in Iraq even though American military deaths and Iraqi casualties have been much greater in number than most anticipated," the trio write in the June issue of Political Research Quarterly. "It is important to note, however, that since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, support for the war among Evangelicals has declined overall, but at a much slower rate than that of the general public. Aggregate data from the Pew Research Center demonstrate that at the outset of the invasion, Evangelical support for President Bush's handling of the conflict was only 5 points higher than the general public's. By late 2005, this gap had grown to 13 percent."

The authors found that American Jewish opinion, while clearly sympathetic to Israel, diverged from Evangelical thought on the war both before and during the conflict.

Evangelical support also makes a nice 60th birthday present for Israel.

The trio note a recent Pew survey in which 69 percent of Evangelicals believe that God gave Israel to the Jews, versus 27 percent of mainline Protestants and Catholics. This Mosaic belief colors opinions about today's events, such as the 2006 hot war between Israel and Hezbollah. Three fifths of Evangelicals took the Jewish state's side in that spat, compared to a third of mainline Protestants and a quarter of seculars.

That ancient gift carries only so much weight with other Christians. "Black Protestants were much closer to white Evangelicals, with 60 percent reporting that they believe God gave Israel to the Jews. Yet despite their religious beliefs, black Protestants are typically among the least sympathetic toward Israel."