When the divisive San Antonio televangelist and megachurch pastor John Hagee endorsed John McCain for president last week, reporters and bloggers fired up the Google, cracked open Hagee’s twenty-two published books, and scoured YouTube. They started compiling a sort of greatest hits of Hagee’s most outrageous statements about Catholics, Jews, Muslims, gay people, feminists, women, secularists, and whoever else he believes stands in the way of God’s plan for Christianizing America and the world.
Such statements are not hard to find in the scores of sermons, rants, and bluster churned out through the pastor’s media empire. His television program, seen twice daily on the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) as well as on other smaller religious broadcasters, is produced from the pulpit of his church and the studio that sits on the church property. His sermons, which include topics as diverse as personal self-help and the Rapture are packaged and sold as books, DVDs, and CDs. (One might wonder why all that self-help matters if the Rapture is coming as soon as Hagee says it is.) He writes roughly a book a year on topics ranging from the coming apocalypse to spousal relationships to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
What gets lost in the cataloging of Hagee’s verbal atrocities, though, is the broader portrait of Hagee, and his friend Rod Parsley, the Ohio televangelist and self-styled “Christocrat” who campaigned with McCain in Cincinnati a couple of days before Hagee blessed the candidate. Parsley stopped short of an outright endorsement, but made his support clear to a reporter with the Columbus Dispatch. A grateful McCain called him a “spiritual guide.” Even following criticism of his embrace of the Hagee endorsement, McCain talked about his admiration for Hagee’s spiritual leadership to his church.
When Hagee and Parsley are trotted out as shining examples of Christian leadership by Republican politicians, their critics often define them by their easily documented diatribes against Satan, the liberal media, other religions, or even witchcraft. Hagee, as founder of the Christian Zionist group Christians United for Israel (CUFI), is associated with his efforts to inject his eschatology into Washington’s foreign policy debate, with his calls for a preemptive military strike against Iran and opposition to any land concessions by the Israelis to the Palestinians. (Parsley also serves as a Regional Director of CUFI.) But to really understand what keeps these figures so popular with their ample followings—and therefore attractive to vote-hungry candidates—one needs to look beyond the outlandish sound bites and straight to the source of their religious, cultural and political power: money.
Both preachers are part of the Word of Faith movement, better known many as the “prosperity gospel” because of its central tenet that, contrary to most conventional interpretations, Jesus, as well as the God of the Old Testament, wants believers to be rich. And, hard as it is for Hagee’s detractors to fathom, for Hagee’s believers he is beyond reproach, anointed by God. His critics are driven by satanic forces at odds with what Word of Faith followers believe to be God’s directive in Psalm 105:15: “Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm.”
With roots in the collision of Pentecostal tent revivals, new age credos like the power of positive thinking, and attainable middle class prosperity of the post-World War II era, the Word of Faith movement took hold in the 1950s followed by a doctrinal merger with televangelist Oral Roberts’ seed-faith theology in the 1960s. With the explosion of religious broadcasting in the 1970s, the result today is seen not only in the preaching of Hagee and Parsley, but also in most of the country’s leading televangelists and their imitators, who can be seen using the airwaves to beg followers for money. “Sow a seed,” they implore their viewers, “and you will reap a harvest.” The harvest in our winner-take-all economy, of course, goes to the televangelists, many of whom live in elaborate mansions, drive luxury cars, and travel the globe in private jets–all evidence, they insist circularly, that God in fact wants His anointed ones to be wealthy. The six televangelists under investigation by McCain’s fellow Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) for possible violation of their church’s tax-exempt status by using donor funds for a non-exempt use all preach the Word of Faith doctrine.
The basic tenets of Word of Faith are the power of the born-again believer to call things into existence, including physical, emotional, and material well-being (positive confession), the authority of the believer to confer such benefits on him or herself (often referred to as the “little gods” complex); the rejection of intellectualism, critical thought, and rationalism in favor of a direct conversation with God (revelation knowledge); and the divine right of believers to health and wealth. In a nutshell, it can be summed up as, “God told me I could have it and that I should have it, and even though there’s no money in my bank account, in the name of Jesus, I declare it’s mine!”
Because Word of Faith is a religious movement and not a denomination, there are no doctrinal or membership requirements. Thousands of independent, non-denominational churches across the country preach a version of the Word of Faith doctrine, and millions of believers have incorporated at least some aspect of it into their spiritual lives. A 2006 study of Pentecostal and Charismatic movements by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that nearly half of all American Christians agreed with the statement that “God will grant material prosperity to all believers who have enough faith,” with even higher numbers of Pentecostals and charismatic Christians agreeing with that statement.
Go to any Word of Faith church, tune in to TBN, or read reams of books written by Word of Faith evangelists, and you will find the movement’s trademark selective literalism of both the Old and New Testaments, picking out verses that seem—regardless of hermeneutics demonstrating otherwise—to reinforce their preconceived belief that every biblical figure from Abraham to Jesus was wealthy, and that God wanted it that way. Combine that with the belief that critics are satanic and that God commands followers to not question His anointed, and you find Word of Faith consumers who are at once receptive to the possibility of God-given prosperity and loath to question the purveyors of that God-given message. As one former Hagee follower told me, when the San Antonio Express-News published an exposé of Hagee’s excessive compensation in 2003, she read the article but “would not look at his tax returns. Out of respect to him. And I wrote the reporter a scathing letter, telling her—I invited her to church—to tell her how wrong she was.”
Because churches are not required by the Internal Revenue Service to file tax returns, and none of the leading Word of Faith preachers voluntarily make financial statements available to the public, donors don’t know exactly how much of their tithes and offerings go to the material abundance of their anointed teachers (at the time of the Express-News piece, Hagee operated both a church and a televangelism nonprofit, which he later subsumed in his church.) Still, congregants are asked every Sunday to turn over their money. The former Hagee congregant who never prospered herself through ten years of tithing to him believed her failures were her own, a lapse of faith. “It’s your fault, it’s not God’s fault, it’s not the preacher’s fault, it’s your fault,” she told me. “That saying that they all use, touch not mine anointed, that’s their big defense. And so I didn’t for the longest time… I didn’t want to say anything and touch God’s anointed… I was scared to say anything.”
Thousands of devoted followers still come to hear Hagee preach every Sunday, and untold more hang on his televised words or receive his weekly missives on Middle East policy from CUFI. Those numbers are big enough that McCain, like George W. Bush before him, will bow down at the altar of money and authoritarianism to praise God for all those votes.
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