When John McCain hastily rejected the endorsement of televangelist John Hagee last week, he wanted America to believe that he didn’t really know Hagee very well. But the truth is that despite McCain’s profession of ignorance (hard enough to fathom given that Hagee is on television every day of the week and has written a couple of dozen books), the Republican Party has long made its bed with Hagee. Even as he has longed for the Rapture and Armageddon, the televangelist has long been close with many members of Congress and even penned a book in 2000, God’s Candidate for America. (I’ll give you a hint: that candidate was Hagee’s fellow Texan, who unlike McCain, was politically savvy enough not to shout it from the rooftop of the Governor’s mansion.)
Although McCain cleared himself, Hagee’s alliance with politicians and leaders of major Jewish organizations appears, for the moment at least, to have emerged with only minor bruising. For the uninitiated, it seems impossible to reconcile how a man who called the Holocaust part of God’s plan could continue to be taken seriously as a great ally of Israel. Or how his Christians United for Israel’s (CUFI) executive director, David Brog, who is Jewish and defends Hagee, spoke at this week’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference (Hagee spoke to the 2007 conference). Or how Joe Lieberman, who found the Holocaust statement “unacceptable” and “hurtful,” will still go a speak at the CUFI Summit in July, rejecting calls by J Street, the new political organization advocating for negotiated peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, not to attend.
Hagee’s bizarre marriage of convenience with American and Israeli Jews would be impossible without his formidable evangelical following, which provides the shock troops his Jewish allies believe they lack. In terms of his political reach, Hagee is no James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, or Pat Robertson (although his friend, Rod Parsley, also a spurned McCain endorser, fancies his Center for Moral Clarity a successor to Falwell’s Moral Majority). But Hagee’s world, while it surely does not represent all of American evangelicalism, comprises a significant segment of the charismatic movement that outsiders too readily dismiss as too weird to be mainstream. They underestimate it as a cultural and political force at their peril.
At the center of Hagee’s (and Parsley’s) coercive hold on their followers is the Word of Faith, or prosperity gospel doctrine, a theology many of their fellow evangelicals deem heretical. They use it to convince their followers to “sow a seed” (tithe to them) promising them a “supernatural” harvest in return. The power of the Word of Faith movement lies in its authoritarianism: the pastor is God’s anointed, not to be questioned or criticized. The tithe is God’s money; hold it back and you’re stealing from God. Pay the tithe, Hagee tells his congregation, before you pay the rent, lest you live under a financial curse. Three former members of Hagee’s church told me they lived in fear of his commands. One told me that when the local San Antonio paper published an exposé of Hagee’s million-dollar salary, she refused to look at the evidence out of deference to him.
All that money, in addition to funding the televangelists’ salaries and luxuries like private jets, keeps their television programming on the air, further fueling their money-making apparatus. Current tax law relieves churches from the requirement of filing tax returns, thus the amount of tax-exempt money flowing in and out of these televangelism ministries is a well-kept secret. The Senate Finance Committee is investigating six other Word of Faith televangelists over questions about whether they diverted non-profit funds to a for-profit purpose. The mighty resistance of one of them, Hagee’s good friend and CUFI ally Kenneth Copeland, is a testament to his popularity and political clout.
McCain may have taken a campaign trail albatross off his neck, but Hagee’s and Parsley’s popularity and political alliances march on.
Read an excerpt from Sarah Sarah Posner’s new book about the Word of Faith movement, God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters (PoliPoint Press 2008).
Sarah Posner writes The FundamentaList, a weekly roundup of news about the religious right for The American Prospect Online and has covered religion and politics for the Prospect, The Nation, Salon, The Huffington Post, and other publications.