On May 15, 2008 I posted a short video on YouTube of Pastor John Hagee, assembled with the free iMovie software that came with my three-year-old MacBook [view the video at the end of this article—ed.]. In just a few days, Americans began to absorb the reality that Republican presidential candidate John McCain had sought and accepted an endorsement from a religious leader who’d asserted a divine mandate for the Holocaust and claimed that Jews themselves were responsible for the tragedy, cursed by God for the ancient Hebrew worship of idols. I hardly expected the product to go “viral”—and so to possibly alter the dynamics of an American presidential election.
What I inadvertently touched on with my 4-minute, no-budget video was the growing divide in American culture, religion and politics that (according to some well-respected observers) threatens the viability of American Democracy. Beneath the most obvious and salacious details of the scandal lies a Christian subculture that, like a vast chunk of Antarctic ice, had years before begun to diverge from the mainstream mass of secular culture; some, like Hagee’s church, have even diverged significantly from classical American fundamentalism.
At John Hagee’s neo-Pentecostalist church, according to Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, one can attend retreats to be guided through the process of vomiting up one’s personal demons: demons of the intellect, of handwriting analysis, of “anal fissures.” Those are the florid expressions of his unorthodox theology; Hagee’s statements concerning Jews and the Holocaust actually constitute the more orthodox component. Pastor Hagee has participated, with Word-Faith evangelist Kenneth Copeland and sent out via Hagee’s broadcasting network, a co-sermon in which Copeland declared divine power to be a technology humans could learn and wield. It was a classic form of Christian heresy and yet, as with many aspects of the evolving Christian right culture, such views have generally been ignored as marginal by the American mainstream.
So why did Senator McCain pursue John Hagee’s endorsement for over a year, seven years after calling Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell “agents of intolerance” and after affirming that had he been invited, like George W. Bush, to speak at Bob Jones University, he would have told Bob Jones to “get out of the 16th Century and into the 21st Century—what you’re doing is racist and cruel”? By some accounts, McCain might have prevailed over George W. Bush in that 2000 primary had the Arizona Senator sought the favor of Christian fundamentalist king-makers rather than denouncing them with such rhetoric.
Presumably, McCain had access to the results of a landmark 2002 academic study (updating an earlier 1994 study) on the influence of the Christian right in American state-level GOP party structures. Kimberly Conger and John C. Green’s study, entitled “Spreading Out and Digging In: Christian Conservatives and State Republican Parties,” demonstrated that the votes of Christian conservatives had become nearly indispensable to Republican electoral success:
“On balance, the perceived influence of Christian conservatives in state Republican parties has expanded since 1994, with gains in 15 states and declines in eight. However, the net effect has been an increase in the number of states in the moderate category. In this sense, the Christian Right has been ‘spreading out’ across the states, especially in the South, Midwest, and West. Thus, Christian conservatives have become a staple of politics nearly everywhere.”
In short, John McCain’s personal preferences were irrelevant: his route to the presidency was only viable with the help of Christian right leaders he’d all too recently attacked.
So, McCain was politically compelled to mend fences, first with Jerry Falwell, then with John Hagee, whose early endorsement of George W. Bush had played an important role in gaining Christian right support for Bush in 2000. But McCain has never been much at ease with American fundamentalism; this may explain McCain’s failure to cultivate less polarizing evangelical leaders who might have escaped the sort of critical media scrutiny that John Hagee (who was selling books as late as 2003 that claimed an epidemic of satanic child sacrifice to be sweeping America) has recently gained.
Neither a documentary nor a work of interpretation, my video began with footage of a February 28, 2008, nationally-televised press event at which Senator John McCain officially received the political endorsement of a rising new lion of the American Christian right, pastor John Hagee. McCain sought his support, it is fair to assume, as Hagee had constructed a national political lobbying group, Christians United For Israel [CUFI], (which in its own way approximates the vote-getting heft of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority of the late 1970s and 1980s and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition of the late 1980s and 1990s)—except that CUFI is based around one closely-related raft of goals which, as journalist Max Blumenthal has crisply put it, called for “an expansion of Israel and a unilateral military attack on Iran.”
The video, which was more of a collage than a documentary, featured no narrative voice at all. After the endorsement footage, it presented an audio clip from a sermon given by Pastor John Hagee sometime, as I conservatively assessed, “in the late 1990s.” In the audio excerpt, which I downloaded from a Christian “digital library,” John Hagee explained the meaning of the “fishers and hunters” theme found in Jeremiah 16, verse 15: “Behold I will send for many fishers and after will I send for many hunters. And they the hunters shall hunt them—that will be the Jews—from every mountain and from every hill and from out of the holes of the rocks.” Pastor Hagee then explained the meaning: “God sent a hunter. A hunter is someone who comes with a gun and he forces you. Hitler was a hunter. And the Bible says—Jeremiah righty?—they shall hunt them from every mountain and from every hill and out of the holes of the rocks, meaning: there’s no place to hide. And that will be offensive to some people.”
Pastor Hagee was correct that his biblical exegesis presented, as with all his biblical interpretation, as the literal and transparently clear word of God, would “be offensive to some people.”
Initially I posted the video on the religion and politics Web site I cofounded, with journalist Frederick Clarkson in late 2005: Talk To Action. There it languished, along with my accompanying write-up, in relative obscurity, for a week until Sam Stein (political reporter for the Huffington Post) picked it up. A day later, the issue had burst into national prominence with a speed and vehemence that astounded veteran observers of the Christian Right who have long wondered at the pass customarily given to leaders of the Christian Right who routinely emit what in a secular context would be, as a matter of course, condemned as hate speech. Two standards seemed in place, and that apparent reality had long been accepted, even by critics, as established and customary.
In Steve D. Martin’s 2007 documentary Theologians Under Hitler: The Jews and Baptism During The Third Reich, Dartmouth Jewish Studies Professor Susannah Heschel identified a theological core to racism, a mode of thought which sees alleged physical and behavioral pathology as spiritually based: “What was of concern to racists was… a degenerate spirit that was dangerous for society, and it was a moral degeneracy that wasn’t visible.” The core of Heschel’s critique is that racists assert that demonized groups have different, diseased spirits or souls. Pastor John Hagee has ingratiated himself to some Jews and made a career of claiming that Jews occupy a blessed, privileged role in the divine scheme, though he has also promoted, in his sermons and literature, theological themes derived from classic Christian tropes identified by many writers, such as James Carroll in Constantine’s Sword, as forming the core of historical Christian anti-Semitism. Hagee adds some contemporary touches—such as his variation on a classical conspiracy theory alleging that “international financial power brokers based in Europe” seek to control the world. That class of conspiricism derives from the Protocols of The Elders of Zion and also from Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic tract, deeply influential in Germany in the years preceding the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich, “The International Jew”—a document that, by one account, was for a period placed in every Model T Ford to roll out of Ford’s factories.
But American politicians, especially in the GOP, have increasingly come to rely on the votes Christian evangelical pastors such as John Hagee can deliver; and up until now public speech from such religious leaders has rarely posed problems for politicians they endorse. On May 22, 2008, that veil of immunity appeared to have lifted, though there’s no telling whether it’ll remain that way. In the end, the relative media blitz that forced John McCain to renounce the endorsement of John Hagee might never have happened; progressive bloggers and a host of new progressive political messaging organizations had in fact been pounding at the McCain-Hagee association for weeks before the late-May media breakout, and the effort quite clearly paved the way for the May 22 straw that broke the valuable alliance between a giant of the Christian right and the presumptive Republican nominee for president, John McCain.