Going Undercover at Mad Pastor Hagee's Christians United for Israel Summit
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For Christians United for Israel and its founder, John Hagee, this year's Washington-Israel Summit was supposed to serve as a rallying call for Christians to stand up for Israel. The controversies surrounding Hagee's teachings that inspire his politics, particularly his End Times theology and its implications for the Jews he purports to love and protect and his religious interpretations of the Catholic Church and Hitler, were meant to take a backseat to the conference's aims of demonstrating political support for Israel and actions against its enemies.
Hagee did not want the events at this year's summit to be brought to the wider public. All but one event in the two-day session at the cavernous Washington Convention Center were closed to the press. Press passes were issued to Tuesday's Night to Honor Israel -- a bizarre fete attended by an announced crowd of 5,000 -- but access to participants and speakers by journalists was strictly monitored and restricted. The reasons became abundantly clear in the question-and-answer session after the first panel, when a woman asked how she would know if it was time to start up a "Christian militia" to return the country to conservative values. "Let's not use the term militia," Hagee responded, firmly establishing a thread that could be observed over both days of meetings: Control the message.
Armed with a full-fledged participant's pass and a Christians United for Israel (CUFI) notepad included in my registration pack, I attended both full days of the summit undercover and spoke freely with participants and speakers. The picture that emerged was very different from the one put on for the world on Tuesday night. Message control was constantly stressed to participants to conceal some of the more controversial themes of Hagee's teachings and theology. But in candid interviews, conducted both as a fellow participant and as a member of the press, Hagee's fervent following stayed on message with the full spectrum of his teachings, not just those slices made available publicly.
Away from the watchful eye of Hagee's Manhattan PR firm (many interviews with participants were broken up), some summit attendees, despite specific and repeated instructions not to talk to the press, were eager to discuss the End Times -- a belief in final judgment and the end of the World -- and what it meant for Jews.
Attendee Dean "Vernon" Melvin of New Mexico told me about Jesus' second coming and the subsequent end of the world. "When Jesus returns in the sky above us," he said, "those of us who are already saved and have died will come up out of our graves and go into the sky with him."
Randy Driskill divided Jews into only two categories: "The Orthodox believe that their messiah hasn't come yet. The messianic think Jesus is their savior."
The "Orthodox Jews," said Driskill, had "scales over their eyes. They're blinded by scales right now," he told me with a deadly serious look on his face. "That's why they don't accept Christ." Ironically, a Google search of "scales," "eyes" and "Jews" quickly turned up a passage from Hitler's Mein Kampf in which he declares that when he saw that Jews headed up Vienna's Social Democrats, "the scales dropped from (his) eyes."
Hagee teaches that during the "End of Days" leading up to the end of the world, many Jews will accept Jesus, presumably after the scales fall off their eyes. Melvin was more explicit about just what would happen to the Jews who didn't: "Some of the Jews will perish and be going to hell."
While Hagee tries to distance his eschatology from his support for Israel, it bears mentioning that the two are actually inexorably linked. In early 2007, Hagee participated in a conference call with bloggers and denied that eschatology plays any part in his support for Israel. But as Bruce Wilson, who monitors the religious right on the blog Talk2Action, pointed out in April:
Pastor Hagee's words were directly contradicted by literature from Hagee's San Antonio Cornerstone Church magazine, which exhorts readers to "Become a Part of the Fulfillment of Prophecy" by sending money to help Jews resettle in Israel. It is standard to Christian Apocalyptic Premillennial Dispensationalist eschatology that Jews must be encouraged to return to Israel where, according to the prophetic tradition, most of them will be killed in the Tribulation, Apocalypse and battle of Armageddon except for a "remnant," generally held to number 144,000 Jews who have converted to Christianity, who will survive and serve as evangelical "super-Billy Grahams" who will convert all of humanity, surviving the expected (nuclear) end-times conflict, to Christianity.
It was, in fact, part of this form of eschatology that got Hagee in hot water earlier this year and caused the presumptive Republican nominee for president, John McCain, to publicly repudiate Hagee and renounce his long-sought endorsement. In audio of a sermon released on the Internet by Wilson, Hagee expressed a view that Hitler had been a tool of God to fulfill a prophecy from the Book of Jeremiah in which God sends "hunters" after the Jews to drive them into the Holy Land. Hagee said the passage of scripture "describe(s) what Hitler did in the Holocaust."
In a poignant example of the obfuscation of Hagee's theology and how it relates to Jews and Israel, when I asked CUFI's PR team for an interview about eschatology, I was told that the topic would not be discussed in connection with CUFI and that no one would be made available for interviews about End Times.
In one of the sessions closed to the media, David Brog, the executive director of CUFI, was giving notes on how attendees should act when they visited Capitol Hill on Wednesday to beseech members of Congress to support Israel. Among his instructions was how conference participants should deal with accusations about Hagee, should they come up at the meetings. His response was simple -- don't: "We're not there to talk about allegations about Pastor Hagee." But Brog did speak to the issue of "Hitler as God's will." Brog suggested that Hagee's explanations were the simple result of a man searching for an answer to age-old question of an all-powerful God allowing suffering.
"Pastor Hagee was looking for that answer. That had plagued him because he loves the Jewish people," he told the crowd in the large meeting hall. He further suggested telling members and their staff, "You don't know our pastor like we know our pastor." Brog didn't speculate as to whether the non-answer followed by that explanation would call the credibility of the participants themselves into question.
During his speech at the Night to Honor Israel event, Hagee even went so far as to make light of the phrase "Never again!" -- commonly used to engender vigilance in face of any impending Jewish holocaust -- by using it to make a joke about his troubles of late in the realm of national politics: "What will I say next time I'm asked to endorse a presidential candidate? Never again!"
Irrespective of this insensitivity to modern Jewish history, many Jews also showed up over the last several days to give their support to Hagee and CUFI. I asked many of them about their support for Hagee in light of his apocalyptic views, and the answers were somewhat predictable. Rabbi Etan Tokayer of New York City told me that he hadn't heard Hagee's controversial comments, but even when I paraphrased them for him, he was dismissive.
"I can't speak intelligently about what he said because I haven't heard the context," he told me, "but I do know that he's a supporter of a free Israel."
Even those Jews who were familiar with Hagee's comments seemed willing to overlook them because of Hagee's unwavering support for Israel. Sagie Harel of Jerusalem told me that he could look past Hagee's religious beliefs and take his support for its own value.
"Pastor Hagee has his own way of thinking about things, but we find him as truly wishing from his heart to support Israel," he told me at his conference sponsorship booth for a Web site that gives virtual tours of Jerusalem. "I was truly excited to find a friend here in the good times and the bad."
Among the Jewish supporters of Hagee at the conference were two Democratic members of Congress: Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., who still ardently support McCain for president. Both have put aside their differences with Hagee on social issues and theology in favor of an alliance on Israel. Speaking on the dais called the Middle East Briefing, Engel garnered applause by speaking in favor of the now-discredited George W. Bush unilateralism and for speaking out against evenhandedness in Middle East affairs.
"I don't want the U.S. to be evenhanded in the Middle East," Engel told the crowd after advocating going solo in military enterprises. "I want the U.S. to stand squarely and behind our only true ally, Israel." That sort of un-evenhandedness is, perhaps, behind what seemed to be a disregard for the fate of Palestinians who were kicked off their land and now live in refugee camps in neighboring countries. It's not unreasonable to say that those refugees remain in camps because of the inaction of Arab governments, but to say that they're there "not because of anything Israel did," as Engel said, seems to miss a bit of the history.
Another Jewish conference attendee, Helen Freedman, was more specific in giving her reasons for supporting Hagee and CUFI. Freedman and Hagee both share a right-wing opposition to a negotiated settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that would include a Palestinian state.
"We're here because we appreciate the support the evangelical Christians give to Israel and their support of an undivided Jerusalem and a whole Israel which includes Judea and Samaria -- no giveaway of land," she told me. Judea and Samaria are the names that right-wing Israel supporters use to refer to the occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank. When I asked a follow-up question and referred to the area by the latter name, Freedman quickly corrected me, saying, "We don't call it the West Bank."
Freedman's support of a one-state solution that leaves a Jewish state controlling all of what is currently Israel was reiterated often at the conference. But in this case, like others, the public face of CUFI was very different from the one expressed in private. At the Night to Honor Israel, with the press wrapped attentively around every word Hagee uttered, he declared that CUFI does not intend to dictate instructions to the state of Israel.
"CUFI policy has been clear and consistent from day one: When it comes to the difficult existential questions of whether to trade land for peace, we do not decide," Hagee said, spacing the last words with his Southern preacher's drawl to add emphasis. "The Israelis decide, and they alone have the right to make that decision." Which makes perfect sense because, frankly, Hagee never had a say in Israeli affairs in the first place -- that is, aside from the influence that can be bought for the scores of millions of dollars that he raises and sends to Israel.
But Hagee wasn't the only one who was late to read the memo reinforcing Israeli sovereignty. At one of the off-the-record breakout sessions to give marching orders for Capitol Hill, CUFI's state director for New Jersey, Pastor Walter Healy, implied that his support for Israel comes from his desire for a strong American outpost in the Middle East.
Speaking about Israel as a base for the U.S. military, Healy said that in enlisting support he asks his friends and congregants, "How much does it cost you to have an aircraft carrier on the Mediterranean that's protecting the Middle East, and it's the size of New Jersey? It's nothing." The American "aircraft carrier," of course, is Israel. But Healy does forget to mention that with reports of U.S. military aid to Israel growing soon to nearly $3 billion, and with the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs estimating the total aid to Israel from 1949 to 1997 at $84 billion, the cost can hardly be stated as nothing.
What is most troubling is that the morning before Hagee's declaration of Israel's decision-making power, at the opening session of the conference closed to the press, Hagee declared unequivocally, with the same booming voice, "Those who divide (the land of Israel) will have a day in judgment." So in short, Israelis can decide for themselves about a two-state solution, but if they choose wrong by Hagee, they will go to hell. In Hagee's view, there seems to be the potential for an awful lot of the Jews that he loves so to go to hell.
I asked a member of the PR team from 5W Public Relations about the apparent contradictions of the public and private statements, and they were explained as "a difference between core theological belief and pragmatic political considerations." But in Hagee's comments directed at the media during his Night to Honor Israel speech, he stated simply that the media did not understand the depth of his belief. "For us," Hagee said, "there are only two ways to live: The Bible way and the wrong way. Christians United for Israel is a Bible-based organization now, tomorrow and forever, without apology to anyone for anything."
In Hagee's world of religious exclusiveness, though, the Jews get off relatively lightly. The real scorn is reserved for the Muslim enemies of Israel, including, predictably, Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. With the door slammed shut on the two-state solution, most of the attention at the CUFI conference was focused on Iran and the threat posed by an alleged Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons. But many incendiary statements were also made about Muslims in general.
Vernon Melvin, after confirming "it was God's will to drive the Jews into Israel by using the evil of Hitler," went on to say that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were also God's will. "After you kill 50 million children in abortion," Melvin told me, "I don't see how God can be as merciless to us as he is today. It was certainly God's will." Of the perpetrators of the attack, Melvin was at least a little less sure of their ideologies: "It was carried out by terrorist Islamofascists, which I guess are the same things as Muslims. According to them, we are sinners and should be killed. And one can hardly argue about that, but, by God's grace, we're still here."
The statement that Muslims have a religious mandate to kill non-Muslims is not new to Hagee's followers. In a 2006 interview with National Public Radio's Terry Gross, Hagee had no problem walking back a qualifier of "radical" Islam and making generalizations about the violence of Islam at large:
Terry Gross: If you use the Bible as the basis for policy, is there any room for compromise? And if you use the Bible as the basis for policy, should Muslims use the Quran as the basis for their policy, and then again, what possible basis is there for compromise at that point?
John Hagee: There is really no room for compromise between radical Islam --
Gross: I'm not talking about radical Islam. I'm just talking about Islam in general.
Hagee: Well Islam in general -- those who live by the Quran have a scriptural mandate to kill Christians and Jews.
On the official panels, some of the speakers took more moderate views than that. Neoconservative and noted Islamophobe Daniel Pipes said he estimates that 10 to 15 percent of Muslims espouse a "radical utopian ideology" that is commonly called Islamofascism by the right. But not to be outdone, former Sen. Rick Santorum dissented from Pipes' view. A favorite of the religious right for his attacks on gay marriage and abortion in such famous exchanges as his comparison of gay marriage to "man on dog" marriage in an AP interview and his questioning of Sen. Barbara Boxer on the Senate floor on whether or not it is OK to kill a baby if its toe is still inside the mother's "vaginal orifice," Santorum argued that radical Muslim ideology is not outside of mainstream Islam.
"It's not a small number. OK? It's not a fringe. It's a sizable group of people that hold these views," he told an audience that gave him several standing ovations during the "Radical Islam: In Their Own Words" breakout session. "(Pipes' notion of 'moderate' Islam) is the exception, I would argue, of what traditional Islam is doing."
Santorum, whose ability to study Islam in its "own words" is highly dubious (Pipes and the other panelist, Walid Phares, both speak Arabic), went on to question whether Muslims are even capable of moral decisions: "You have to do five things to be a good Muslim. You have to fast, you have to do the Hajj, you have to give alms to the poor, you have to say the Shahaadah -- which is your proclamation of faith -- and you have to pray five times a day. Anything about good and evil in there? Anything about sin? Right or wrong?"
The most entertaining moments, and veering perhaps the most off message, came in the Middle East briefing. It was basically an ass-smoke-blowing-circle between Brog, Bill Kristol (the editor of the neoconservative Weekly Standard ), religious right leader Gary Bauer, Rep. Engel, and evangelical Congressman Mike Pence, R-Ind. Kristol, after being introduced as the great arguer of conservative causes, spent the first 10 minutes of his speech telling the crowd how he advised Dan Quayle to attack the show "Murphy Brown" in 1992 and how he voted for a Communist in Cambridge, Mass., and talking about his annual beach trips with Bauer. When asked by the panel chair, Brog, Kristol wouldn't confirm that Bauer wears swimming trunks in the ocean, only offering, "What happens at the beach stays at the beach."
But as far off-message as the panelists got during their tirades about Muslims, Iran, the special relationship between the United States and Israel, and even beach vacations, CUFI was sure to keep the messages of its followers on point as they ventured to Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Every participant was issued a 15-page packet that outlined support for sustained military aid to Israel, increased sanctions on Iran, support for the divestment campaign against Iran, and exactly where each member of Congress stood on each issue. The directions were as simple as Ikea's: 1) stick to the talking points, 2) don't answer any questions beyond them, 3) don't talk to the press, and 4) don't engage any opposition views.
The first two points were rather simply explained by Joel James, a development manager for Eagles' Wings Ministries, in the regional breakout sessions. "Two years ago," he told the Region 10 (Mid-Atlantic and North East states) attendees, "something happened (on Capitol Hill) that was embarrassing to CUFI and the body of Christ." Hagee's PR people have only been with him for the 2007 and 2008 summits and were unaware of the incident, as were participants I asked about it. But considering my interviews with conference attendees, it's not hard to imagine that some of the "core theological beliefs" that Hagee followers are so eager to discuss were unsettling to some of the politicians in Congress and their staffs.
In addition to telling attendees to disregard criticisms of and accusations about Hagee, Brog also told the participants to avoid the media because "some in the media have disrespect for people of faith," and that discussing issues with protesters was useless because "they hate us and everything we stand for." This hardly seems like the modus operandi of an organization that is constantly on the defense and begs for absolution by its ideas to be made available to the public. Instead, it comes off like CUFI and Hagee have something to hide. From observing both the public and private faces of CUFI at the Washington-Israel Summit, I would venture to say that what they're hiding is a fundamentalist, apocalyptic, Christian right ideology that does not have high regard for most of the world's people and instead condemns most of them -- even those it claims to love and defend -- to hell.