Controversial Clerics

A Parade Of Partisan Preachers Roils Presidential Campaign – And Raises Questions About The Relationship Between Religion And Politics

The Rev. John Hagee’s specialty is interpreting Bible passages to explain historical and current events – a practice that often leads the Texas minister to adopt some unusual views.

 In one sermon delivered in 2006, Hagee, pastor of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, told his flock that Adolf Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the Jews was foretold in the writings of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. Hagee cited Jeremiah 16:16, which reads in part, “Behold…will I send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain, and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks.”

According to Hagee, this means God sent Hitler to hunt the Jews who had failed to support Israel by moving to the Middle East.

“Those who came founded Israel; those who did not went through the hell of the Holocaust,” Hagee preached. “Then God sent a hunter. A hunter is someone with a gun and he forces you. Hitler was a hunter….”

Continued Hagee, “And that might be offensive to some people but don’t let your heart be offended. I didn’t write it, Jeremiah wrote it. It was the truth, and it is the truth. How did it happen? Because God allowed it to happen. Why did it happen? Because God said my top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel.”

Hagee, head of a multi-million-dollar TV ministry, might have been written off as just another televangelist with controversial views but for one important fact: Republican presidential candidate John McCain had courted Hagee for months, successfully winning his endorsement earlier this year.

McCain’s arduous labors to win over Hagee spurred some researchers to take a closer look at the Texas evangelist. Several dredged up anti-Catholic comments Hagee had made, but he apologized and he and McCain weathered the storm.

But the drizzle continued, and in May the dam broke. Bruce Wilson, a blogger with www.talk2action.com, publicized portions of a transcript of Hagee’s controversial Hitler sermon. The story was picked up by the mainstream media, and McCain was forced to publicly condemn the remarks and renounce Hagee’s endorsement.

At the same time, McCain distanced himself from another controversial preacher, Ohio’s Rod Parsley, after extreme and intolerant comments Parsley made about Islam came to light.

The flaps were yet another in a string of high-profile incidents involving controversial clerics in the 2008 presidential campaign. Candidates in both parties are increasingly seeking support from religious leaders, but this year the religious outreach has often sparked turmoil. As a result, religion continues to roil the campaign.

Why has religion become so prominent in campaign 2008? Analysts say it’s partly due to a shifting dynamic in American politics and aided and abetted by new technology. For many years, the Republican Party was known for its aggressive outreach to religious voters. Polls showed that more frequent church-goers tended to vote for the GOP. Republican officials often bashed Democrats as too secular and accused the party of being hostile to religion.

A few years ago, Democratic strategists began fighting back. In 2006, a number of Democratic candidates talked more openly about their faith, with several winning elections.

“There are a number of reasons for this development,” said Melissa Rogers, a scholar and observer of the intersection between religion and politics. “One reason is that Democrats believe that some people of faith who may have tended to vote Republican in the past may be open to voting for a Democrat this election. For that and other reasons, we have seen a good bit of Democratic outreach to religious individuals and groups, and that outreach often has been more explicitly religious than it had in the past.

“So, perhaps for the first time, both major political parties are employing specific and sophisticated strategies that reach out to a range of religious communities as such,” continued Rogers, who serves as visiting professor of religion and public policy at Wake Forest University Divinity School. (She blogs on these issues at melissarogers.typepad.com.)

During the 2008 primary season, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were quick to discuss the role of religion in their personal lives. Obama, a member of the United Church of Christ, courted religious groups especially openly and even sponsored a gospel tour in South Carolina.

Web-based technology also plays a role. Many churches now put their pastors’ sermons online, and TV preachers like Hagee have for years made material available on VHS and DVD. Anything controversial can be copied, posted on You Tube and shared with millions within a few hours.

This has created a veritable perpetual motion machine of media cross-pollination. The mainstream media did numerous stories on religion in the campaign, which led to more people examining the issue and posting sermons on You Tube and on blogs. The mainstream media followed up with another round of stories. And so on.

At times, the media appeared to be obsessed with the issue of religion. Quizzing candidates on personal theology became the norm. During debates, candidates were asked what they pray for, what sins they had committed and to name their favorite Bible verse.

But in Obama’s case, the emphasis on religion backfired when conservatives launched a series of attacks on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., the longtime pastor of Obama’s congregation, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

Wright came under scrutiny for sermons in which he had criticized U.S. domestic and foreign policy, including one sermon, which surfaced on You Tube, in which he called on the Almighty to “damn America” for its perceived transgressions.

Wright retired from the church in the midst of the controversy but later resurfaced, appearing in a PBS interview with Bill Moyers and at a media event at the National Press Club. During these appearances, Wright made other controversial statements, including lauding Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam and asserting that the federal government may have introduced AIDS into the black community.

In late April, Obama announced that he’d had enough. At a press conference, a visibly angry Obama broke with the man who had been his pastor for 20 years.

“His comments,” said Obama, “were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate, and I believe that they do not portray accurately the perspective of the black church. They certainly don’t portray accurately my values and beliefs. And if Reverend Wright thinks that that’s political posturing, as he put it, then he doesn’t know me very well. And based on his remarks yesterday, well, I might not know him as well as I thought, either.”

Obama may have thought he put Wright behind him, but controversy flared anew in May after Trinity invited a Roman Catholic priest, the Rev. Michael Pfleger, to speak.

During the May 25 appearance, Pfleger attacked Clinton for crying after the New Hampshire primary.

“While Hillary was crying and people said that was a put-on, I really don’t believe it was put on,” Pfleger said. “I really believe that she just always thought, ‘This [presidential nomination] is mine. I’m Bill’s wife, I’m white and this is mine.’”

Obama criticized the remarks, and Pfleger apologized. Less than a week later, Obama and his wife Michelle announced they were resigning from Trinity.

“We make this decision with sadness,” Obama wrote in a letter to the Rev. Otis Moss III, the church’s current pastor. “Trinity was where I found Christ, where we were married and where our children were baptized. But as you know, our relations with Trinity have been strained by the divisive statements of Reverend Wright, which sharply conflict with our own view.”

Conservatives gleefully piled on to Obama’s problems with Wright. Most were much less vocal when McCain’s problems with political pastors surfaced.

McCain sought to draw a distinction between his relationship with Hagee and Obama’s ties to Wright. McCain noted, for example, that he did not attend Hagee’s church nor had a 20-year relationship with him.

McCain, however, had avidly sought Hagee’s support, perhaps to mollify his critics on the Religious Right. Seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, McCain infuriated many Religious Right foot soldiers when he gave a major speech labeling TV preachers Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance.”

Although McCain sought to mend fences in advance of his run this year, old wounds remained unhealed. McCain was not the first choice of many Religious Right leaders, and on-the-ground activists seemed uninspired by him. In October, McCain spoke at the Family Research Council’s “Values Voter Summit,” where he was received politely but with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm.

McCain may have thought the Hagee endorsement would be a balm for some of those old wounds, but he quickly learned there was a downside to courting Religious Right pastors. Bloggers and reporters began digging into Hagee’s past, pulling up old sermons and books.

Controversial comments that Hagee made about the Roman Catholic Church soon came to light, along with his assertion that Hurricane Katrina was divine punishment on New Orleans for tolerating homosexuality.

Even after McCain dumped Hagee, damaging material continued to find daylight. Writer Max Blumenthal reported in The Nation that in a March 2003 sermon, Hagee warned of the coming of the Antichrist, a figure he described as “a blasphemer and a homosexual” – and Jewish.

 Hagee added, “There’s a phrase in Scripture used solely to identify the Jewish people. It suggests that this man [the Antichrist] is at least going to be partially Jewish, as was Adolf Hitler, as was Karl Marx.”

McCain’s decision to sever his ties with Hagee sparked some discontent among Religious Right activists.

“He wants us to support him, but as soon as his back was against the wall, he overreacted,” grumbled Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., a Maryland mega-church minister who works with the Family Research Council. “He is now less likely to get the evangelical vote and will have a difficult time getting strong endorsements from other ministers.”

McCain is also getting flak for not moving far enough to the right. In late May, Tony Perkins, writing under the auspices of Family Research Council Action, the group’s more overtly political arm, criticized the Arizona senator for failing to speak out against same-sex marriage.

The FRC and other Religious Right groups are furious over the recent California Supreme Court ruling striking down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage and are prodding McCain to speak more forcefully on the issue.

Perkins scored McCain for not addressing the topic during a recent campaign swing in California. What’s worse, Perkins wrote, McCain later appeared on the “Ellen DeGeneres Show,” chatting amicably with the woman Perkins described as “one of America’ most popular comedians, who has talked repeatedly about being a lesbian.”

Now that the race is down to McCain vs. Obama, the religious issue could resurface. Obama has had to combat a widespread Web-based campaign that he is secretly a Muslim, and McCain, who was raised an Episcopalian but now says he’s a Baptist, has been accused by some in the Religious Right of being too reticent about his faith.

Is this shotgun wedding between religion and politics good for American democracy? Scholar Rogers thinks not.

“There is certainly nothing unconstitutional, un-American or otherwise wrong with the fact that Americans will bring their values into the political process, including values that are based at least in part in religious teachings,” said Rogers. “But religious people need to remember that, when the government acts, it must do so in ways that promote the common good rather than any narrow religious end.  Religious and nonreligious people can and should work together to advance that common good.

 “At the same time, we need to recognize that there is a difference between the interaction of religion and politics and the interaction of religion and partisan politics,” Rogers continued. “Partisan politics poses many more risks for the integrity of religion. 

“For example,” she continued, “political parties and candidates will often try to command, control or co-opt religion. Religious leaders are often tempted to act not as spiritual guides but as political kingmakers. 

“Religion must resist these temptations and reject partisan takeovers,” Rogers concluded. “If it is to be a spiritual force, religion must always transcend partisan politics.”