Why John McCain Should Reject the Reverend John Hagee

Daniel Benjamin
Daniel Benjamin
Daniel Benjamin Former Brookings Expert

May 23, 2008

John McCain had plenty of good reasons to unload the Rev. John C. Hagee from his bandwagon Thursday. At the top of the list were quotations from the Texas preacher expressing his belief that the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust were part of God’s plan to hasten the creation of Israel. “Obviously, I find these remarks and others deeply offensive and indefensible, and I repudiate them. I did not know of them before Rev. Hagee’s endorsement, and I feel I must reject his endorsement as well,” McCain said in a statement. But of the beliefs that McCain could take issue with, Hagee’s views on the Shoah are probably among the less disturbing.

The press played the Hagee sermon as an expression of anti-Semitism, and that may account for McCain’s disavowal of him. But Hagee cannot easily be tarred as a classic Jew hater—on the contrary, he is one of the country’s leading Christian Zionists, has raised millions of dollars for Israel, and has been slathered with praise by Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn. When Hagee endorsed McCain in April, the Arizonan expressed his great gratitude to the spiritual leader of the San Antonio, Texas, megachurch Cornerstone for his “commitments around the world, including to the independence and freedom of the state of Israel.” Hagee may have a strange relationship with the Jews, but he is more philo-Semite than anti-Semite.

So, why the uproar? In the videotaped sermon from the 1990s that sparked the controversy, Hagee argues that God caused the slaughter of the Jews to prompt the creation of the state of Israel. Citing Jeremiah, who was speaking of the restoration of the Jews to Israel after their defeat and exile to Babylonia in 586 B.C., Hagee focuses on the sentence, “Behold, I will send for many fishers, and after will I send for many hunters and they the hunters shall hunt them.” Hagee interprets this as suggesting that these hunters are the Nazis, driving the Jews forward to the death camps but also to a new historical era.

One can understand McCain’s response—”Well, I just think that the statement is crazy and unacceptable.” Indeed, for most people, it is hard not to cringe at the idea of a God who would visit unspeakable suffering on his people, even as a means to an end that has something redemptive about it. McCain takes Hagee’s remarks to mean that God had a good reason for presiding over the murder of 6 million people, an implication that he finds repellent.

But if you believe in a personal God who directs history—and you’re sure that plan can be discerned by human beings, a touchstone of religious fundamentalism—that is probably the least appalling explanation of the Holocaust you can come up with. McCain could not have given us a better demonstration of how out of sync he is with the evangelicals he courts. (When asked by CNN about how the offloading of Hagee would play among conservative Christians, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council lowballed, saying, “Anderson, this doesn’t help.”)

This is not just a problem for Christians. The paradoxical—the word hardly suffices—connection between the Holocaust and the establishment of the Jewish state, which in many synagogues is referred to in Saturday prayers as “the first sign of our redemption,” is not lost on anyone who has thought about it. There are countless discussions in Jewish scripture about the reasons why God allowed the destruction of two Temples and two long exiles, one 2,000 years long. Understandably, though, most Jewish authorities, including many Orthodox ones, have thrown up their hands on the notion of a reason for the Holocaust, taking the position that God does have a historical plan but that it is beyond the ability of our reason to comprehend the Shoah.

Unappealing as Hagee’s view of the Holocaust is, other parts of his dogma ought to be more troubling. Catholics are justifiably angry about his depiction of their church as the Whore of Babylon. The preacher’s view of Hurricane Katrina being a divine judgment on the gays of New Orleans is more appalling.

Unsettling as these statements are, they express relatively familiar, low-impact bigotries. The best reason to dislike Hagee is not how he interprets the past but what he wants for the future. As a believer in dispensationalism, Hagee embraces a very specific theodicy: the 1,000-year reign of Christ on earth. Those who share this theology see the establishment of the modern state of Israel as a key milestone. Future ones include the ingathering of the Jews within Israel, the expansion of the nation’s borders to the Nile and the Euphrates, and the re-establishment of the Temple in its original site, which—small problem—will require the removal of the Dome of the Rock.

After that, things really get moving: Different sects have different sequences, but these often include a Rapture, when the dead whom God wishes to redeem are resurrected and the living who are chosen for salvation are brought to heaven; the Second Coming; and the Antichrist’s annihilation in Armageddon. For some dispensationalists, the Jews will also have to die in the process. According to some who have studied Hagee’s works, he has a special exception clause for the Jews, who can accept Jesus as their messiah. In case you think these views are not very widespread, consider the 60 million or so volumes of the Left Behind series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins that have been sold, probably the foremost conduit of dispensationalim into the American public.

Perhaps one should not get too exercised about the religious beliefs of others. But Hagee, like many who share his faith, works hard to turn his beliefs into reality. Not all Christian Zionists are dispensationalists—there may be 20 million or so of the former—but lots of them share the conviction that Israel should not give up an inch of land for peace, lest history’s railway go off track.

They also have exercised significant influence over the administration’s Middle East policy. Though George W. Bush has been pursuing a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians for the last year, the influence of Christian Zionists had something to do with the inanition of American diplomacy for the first six years of the Bush administration—not as much as the White House’s aversion to Yasser Arafat or obsession with Iraq, but not, as they say in the trade, bupkes. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, point man for the Christian Zionists until his resignation, was reportedly asked by the White House to OK Bush’s 2002 speech outlining U.S. policy and declaring support for a Palestinian state—the follow-up to which verged on nil.

Would others of John Hagee’s persuasion have as much influence in the McCain White House? Political candidates often court people whose worldviews and goals they don’t actually embrace. Given how broadly Hagee’s views are shared among Christian Zionists, it would be helpful to know whether the pastor’s view of the Holocaust is the only thing John McCain finds unacceptable.