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In New Letter, US Evangelical Leaders Support Israel’s Right to Self-Defense

Southern Baptists and other evangelical leaders call on policymakers to protect the lives of innocents and say Hamas is the enemy, not Palestinians.

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(RNS) — Addressing policymakers at home and abroad, American evangelical Christian leaders responded Wednesday (Oct. 11) to the attacks on Israel by Hamas by issuing a letter calling for moral clarity, both supporting Israel’s right to defend itself and proclaiming the need to protect the lives of innocent civilians.

“In the wake of the evil and indefensible atrocities now committed against the people of Israel by Hamas, we, the undersigned, unequivocally condemn the violence against the vulnerable, fully support Israel’s right and duty to defend itself against further attack, and urgently call all Christians to pray for the salvation and peace of the people of Israel and Palestine,” the letter reads.

The letter, signed by 60 institutional leaders, will be delivered to the White House, Congress and leaders at the United Nations, said Brent Leatherwood, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which helped organize the letter.

In a phone interview, Leatherwood said the letter was prompted by what he said were responses to attacks on Israel that drew “false equivalence” between the attacks by Hamas, a group identified by the United States as a terrorist group, and the actions of Israel’s military.

“It is time for clear-eyed thinking and moral certainty,” he said.

SBC officials are strongly represented among the signers, including the denomination’s president, Texas pastor Bart Barber, as well as SBC seminary presidents Al Mohler, Danny Akin, Jason Allen and David Dockery, and several SBC state convention leaders. Other signers are the president of Awana, a popular children’s ministry, and several Christian college presidents.

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Two former ERLC presidents — Russell Moore, now editor of Christianity Today, and Richard Land, now executive editor of the Christian Post website, also signed the letter.

The letter draws on the Christian justification for war known as just war theory to support Israel’s right to defend itself from attacks.

The letter also ties the current violence to past attacks on Jews and Israel.

“Since the inception of the modern state of Israel in 1948, Israel has faced numerous attacks, incursions, and violations of its national sovereignty,” the letter reads. “The Jewish people have long endured genocidal attempts to eradicate them and to destroy the Jewish state. These antisemitic, deadly ideologies and terrorist actions must be opposed.”

Leatherwood said that just war theory clarifies Israel’s right to defend itself against attacks but also puts limits on the response to those attacks. Leatherwood said the letter’s signers are concerned about civilians who will be harmed in the current war in Israel.

“Our concern [is] first and foremost for innocent, vulnerable individuals in Israel and throughout the region that are caught in the middle of this,” he said. “It is a war that is not of their choosing.”

Leatherwood said organizing the letter is part of the ERLC’s broader mission of “protecting the vulnerable.” That mission, he said, has become even more important to him in recent months — earlier this year, the school in Nashville, Tennessee, that his children attend was the site of a mass shooting in which three students and three adults were killed. That shooting led Leatherman to push for gun violence reforms.

“The Lord has taught me to continually have an eye out for vulnerable individuals in a number of different contexts,” he said.

Evangelical Christians are among the staunchest supporters of the state of Israel. The ERLC cited a 2017 study of evangelical attitudes toward Israel from Lifeway Research that found that 73% of those polled supported Israel’s right to defend itself from attacks.

Dan Darling, director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and one of the letter’s signers, was encouraged to see evangelical leaders speak out for Israel. He also said that evangelicals are concerned about Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who will be harmed by the war.

He said there is no justification for the “atrocities inflicted on innocent Jewish people by Hamas.”

“The geopolitics of the region are complex,” he said. “Condemning what we are seeing from Hamas is not complex.”

Leatherwood drew a distinction between Palestinians, who include a number of his fellow Christians, and the actions of Hamas.

“Hamas is the enemy, not innocent civilians,” he said.

Main photo: An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires a shell from southern Israel toward the Gaza Strip, in a position near the border, Oct. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Erik Marmor)

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Bob Smietana

Bob has served as a senior writer for Facts & Trends, senior editor of Christianity Today, religion writer at The Tennessean, correspondent for RNS and contributor to OnFaith, USA Today and The Washington Post.