investigative journalist and author of God’s Profits: Faith Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters. She writes "The FundamentaList" for the American Prospect online.
Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain has openly embraced the endorsement of controversial televangelist John Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel and the senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas. Hagee has come under criticism for his views on homosexuality, Islam, the Catholic Church and even the victims of Hurricane Katrina. We speak with Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: As we turn now to discussions of high-profile supporters of presidential candidates, many in the media have focused on Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and his endorsement of Barack Obama. During the pivotal Democratic presidential debate in Cleveland last week, MSNBC moderator Tim Russert pressed Obama on the issue.
TIM RUSSERT: On Sunday, the headline in your hometown paper, Chicago Tribune: “Louis Farrakhan Backs Obama for President at Nation of Islam Convention in Chicago.” Do you accept the support of Louis Farrakhan?
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: You know, I have been very clear in my denunciation of Minister Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic comments. I think that they are unacceptable and reprehensible. I did not solicit this support. He expressed pride in an African American who seems to be bringing the country together. I obviously can’t censor him, but it is not support that I sought. And we’re not doing anything, I assure you, formally or informally with Minister Farrakhan.
TIM RUSSERT: Do you reject his support?
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, Tim, you know, I can’t say to somebody that he can’t say that he thinks I’m a good guy. You know, I — you know, I have been very clear in my denunciations of him and his past statements, and I think that indicates to the American people what my stance is on those comments.
TIM RUSSERT: The problem some voters may have is, as you know, Reverend Farrakhan called Judaism “gutter religion.”
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Tim, I think — I am very familiar with his record, as are the American people. That’s why I have consistently denounced it. This is not something new. This is something that — I live in Chicago. He lives in Chicago. I’ve been very clear, in terms of me believing that what he has said is reprehensible and inappropriate. And I have consistently distanced myself from him.
AMY GOODMAN: Senator Obama at last week’s MSNBC debate in Cleveland, Ohio. The day after that debate, Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, received a controversial endorsement of his own.
PASTOR JOHN HAGEE: John McCain will be a strong, courageous and effective leader from the first day he steps into the Oval Office.
AMY GOODMAN: That was televangelist John Hagee. He is the founder of the Christian Zionist group, Christians United for Israel, or CUFI. He is the senior pastor of the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas. Hagee has come under criticism for his controversial statements about homosexuality, Islam, the Catholic Church, women.
In contrast with Obama’s repeated denunciations of Farrakhan, McCain openly embraced Hagee’s endorsement. When confronted about Hagee’s controversial views, McCain said he was "proud" of Hagee and welcomed his support.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, I think it’s important to note that Reverend — Pastor John Hagee, who has supported and endorsed my candidacy, supports what I stand for and believe in. When he endorses me, it does not mean that I embrace everything that he stands for and believes in. And I am very proud of Pastor John Hagee’s spiritual leadership to thousands of people. I am proud of his commitment to the independence and freedom of the state of Israel. That does not mean I support or endorse or agree with some of the things that Pastor John Hagee may have said nor positions that he may have taken on other issues.
AMY GOODMAN: What are some of those positions that John Hagee has taken? Well, here he claims God will send terrorists to create a bloodbath in America for its support of a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine.
PASTOR JOHN HAGEE: [...] to give up more land for peace. Joel 3:2 says, “Any nation that tries to get Israel to divide my land, I will bring it into judgment.” I want those of you in the State Department and in government in Washington to hear this: if America does not stop pressuring Israel to give up land, I believe that God will bring this nation into judgment, because I believe what this book says. And if God brings this nation into judgment, He will very likely release the terrorists that you’ve already let get here through the ridiculous immigration policy you refuse to stop, and this nation is going to go through a bloodbath that you have permitted because of what you have done.
AMY GOODMAN: In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross in September, John Hagee had this to say about Muslims and Islam.
PASTOR JOHN HAGEE: Islam, in general, those who live by the Koran, have a scriptural mandate to kill Christians and Jews.
AMY GOODMAN: Hagee’s criticism doesn’t stop at Islam. He has called the Catholic Church “the Great Whore,” a “false cult system” and linked it to Hitler’s Nazi movement. Hagee has even gone so far as to criticize the victims of Hurricane Katrina. In that same interview on NPR, he said the disaster was God’s punishment for the sins of the people of New Orleans.
PASTOR JOHN HAGEE: All hurricanes are acts of God, because God controls the heavens. I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they are — were recipients of the judgment of God for that.
AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Posner is an investigative journalist who has chronicled John Hagee’s career in her book, God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters. She joins us now from Washington, D.C.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Sarah.
SARAH POSNER: Thanks, Amy. Thanks for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: Give us the background of John Hagee. When did he create this huge church in San Antonio, Texas? Tell us about CUFI.
SARAH POSNER: Well, his church has been around since the early 1970s. He actually started it after a previous church went out of business, so to speak, after he divorced his first wife. And he has built this church that he has now, Cornerstone Church, to 19,000 members.
Hagee preaches the Prosperity Gospel, which essentially says that God wants believers to be rich, that you — believers can call riches into existence for themselves through their faith, and that you get rich by tithing to your pastor ten percent of your income, what Hagee calls your “first fruits,” meaning pay him your tithe before you pay the rent, before you make the car payment.
Hagee also, as you alluded to in the opening, is a Christian Zionist. He b believes that God foretells — or the Bible foretells events in the Middle East that will lead to the Second Coming of Jesus. And he believes that all Middle East policy is dictated by this prophecy in the Bible. And so, he thinks all of these events are inevitable. He thinks that the United States should militarily attack Iran to preempt its nuclear ambitions and that this is all part of God’s plan to bring about Armageddon and the Second Coming.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about his attitude to Iran, Sarah Posner?
SARAH POSNER: He believes that Ahmadinejad is the next Hitler, the Hitler of the twenty-first century. He believes that Ahmadinejad’s goal is to wipe out Israel and the Jewish people and that by not confronting Ahmadinejad militarily, we are enabling him like Chamberlain enabled Hitler. So they make a lot of historical allusions to World War II. He often talks about World War III coming to pass. And he believes all of this —- he finds all of this in his Bible. He believes that everything in the world, be it a financial transaction or foreign policy issues, are all animated by spiritual warfare, meaning war, spiritual war and actual war, between forces backed by God and forces backed by Satan.
AMY GOODMAN: I was in San Antonio in 2006. It was the time of the Night to Honor Israel at the Cornerstone Church. Can you talk -—
SARAH POSNER: I was there, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Sorry?
SARAH POSNER: I was there, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about who was there and this combination of politics and religion? Just describe the scene for us.
SARAH POSNER: Well, there were obviously a lot of members of Hagee’s church there, but also members of the Jewish community in San Antonio, former and present Israeli government officials, prominent members of national Jewish organizations, and they all converged on the stage at Cornerstone Church to, what Hagee believed was, quote-unquote, "honor" Israel. And this included speeches, songs sung by Hagee’s Cornerstone Church Choir. They sang “Hava Nagila” Texas-style. They showed videos of Jerusalem, where the Dome of the Rock was omitted from the scenery, because, of course, for Hagee, that would be part of the Second Coming, that the Temple Mount in Jerusalem would be controlled by Jesus and not — this is one of the reasons why he’s opposed to a two-state solution or the sharing of Jerusalem between Jews and Muslims, because he believes that God gave it to the Jews and that that presages the Second Coming of Christ.
So it was a remarkable combination of his eschatology and wrapped into the realpolitiks of the Middle East. And this is a big reason why McCain does not want to back away from Hagee, because all of this Middle East politics is very, very charged, and Hagee, even though he’s very controversial within the Jewish community, there are many within the Jewish community who openly embrace him and welcome his, quote-unquote, "support" of Israel.
AMY GOODMAN: The whole issue of the neoconservatives and Hagee’s church and John Hagee himself, like former CIA Director James Woolsey, a featured speaker —-
SARAH POSNER: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Douglas Feith, Woolsey, where they fit into John Hagee’s politics and religion.
SARAH POSNER: Well, they -— someone like Woolsey came and spoke at what was called the Middle East intelligence briefing that was part of that same weekend in San Antonio for the Night to Honor Israel. And Hagee will bring in people like Woolsey to speak about Middle East politics, about terrorism, about counterterrorism, and it adds sort of this patina of authenticity or reliability to Hagee’s really outlandish view of the Bible dictating current events.
And so, when he had his event, CUFI event, here in Washington last summer, even more people within the foreign policy community and Congress, were there to basically bless what he was saying, including John McCain. Joe Lieberman compared Hagee — at that event, compared Hagee to Moses. Roy Blunt, the House Minority Whip, said that CUFI was part of God’s plan. And so, he’s gotten a stamp of approval by people inside the Beltway, in Congress.
During that same trip, or I think maybe it was the CUFI event the year before, in 2006, Hagee and some other officials with CUFI had a meeting with Elliott Abrams, who is the head of Middle East policy for Bush’s national security team. So they’re very connected within the foreign policy community and particularly the neoconservative foreign policy community, because their eschatology fits so nicely with the neocon foreign policy agenda.
AMY GOODMAN: You write about the 2000 film, Left Behind, based on the blockbuster novel by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, that has Hagee and his wife there.
SARAH POSNER: Right. You know, in those books, when the Rapture happens, believers are whisked away to Heaven, and everybody else is left here to struggle through the Tribulation period before Jesus defeats the Antichrist. And so, there’s a scene in that movie where — on an airplane, where all of a sudden the people left on the airplane realize that everyone else has been whisked away to Heaven. And so, in one shot, you see Hagee and his wife sitting together on the airplane reading a book or enjoying some conversation, or what have you, and then the next moment they’re gone.
AMY GOODMAN: What about [Sen. Charles] Grassley’s investigation of televangelists — not Hagee — but that include Kenneth Copeland, who supported Mike Huckabee?
SARAH POSNER: Right. Senator Grassley is investigating whether six televangelists, who preach a similar prosperity message to Hagee, wrongly used tax-exempt donor funds for a non-exempt use. So, looking at luxury cars, huge mansions, private jets that these televangelists have, Grassley is asking questions, in his capacity to oversee the IRS and tax-exempt organizations, whether they were misusing or exploiting their tax-exempt status for their own personal gain.
Now, many of the televangelists under investigation have denounced Grassley’s investigation as an unwarranted intrusion into Church affairs, including Copeland. He was quite explicit about that. And Grassley has actually also been denounced by — even by Christians who do not necessarily embrace the Prosperity Gospel, but who also believe that it’s a slippery slope of the government intruding into Church affairs. But Grassley has been very clear that he’s not investigating Church doctrine, that he’s just looking into whether the tax-exempt policy is operating correctly in this circumstance.
AMY GOODMAN: I meant to say “Senator Chuck Grassley.” What do you see as Mike Huckabee’s future now? I mean, he has said he supports John McCain. Do you see him leading the evangelist movement, bringing in the conservatives that it’s hard for Senator McCain to get?
SARAH POSNER: Right. I think that he’s definitely going to play a role there. You know, many people have talked about him as a potential running mate for McCain. And while I think that Huckabee has been clear over the past couple of days that he would definitely like that, it’s not clear that McCain would choose him. But I think that even if McCain doesn’t choose him as a running mate, he’s going to play a role in harnessing the evangelical vote for McCain in order to set the stage for a possible presidential run for himself in 2012 or beyond, because he’s still quite young — he’s in his early fifties — or to emerge potentially as the next big leader of the conservative evangelical movement, in light of Jerry Falwell’s death, James Kennedy’s death and through the waning influence of the old guard, like Pat Robertson and James Dobson.
AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Posner, as we talk about the role of religion in the presidential race, I want to turn to an excerpt of a segment of 60 Minutes last Sunday. Correspondent Steve Croft was in Ohio ahead of the state’s primary and interviewed both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
STEVE CROFT: One of the things that we found in southern Ohio, not widespread, but something that popped up on our radar screen all the time, people talking about it, this idea that you’re a Muslim.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Right. Did you correct them, Steve?
STEVE CROFT: I did correct them.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: There you go.
STEVE CROFT: Where is it coming from?
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: You know, this has been a systematic email smear campaign that’s been going on since actually very early in this campaign. Clearly, it’s a deliberate effort by some group or somebody to generate this rumor. I have never been a Muslim, and I’m not a Muslim. These emails are obviously not just offensive to me, somebody who’s a devout Christian, who’s been going to the same church for the last twenty years, but it’s also offensive to Muslims, because it plays into obviously a certain fear mongering there.
STEVE CROFT: It happened again last week, when this photo of Obama in ceremonial African tribal dress during a visit to Kenya was featured prominently on the internet and attributed to people in the Clinton campaign. Senator Clinton disavowed any knowledge of it.
I mean, you don’t believe that Senator Obama is a Muslim.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Of course not. I mean, that’s, you know —- there is no basis for that. You know, I take him on the basis of what he says. And, you know, there isn’t any reason to doubt that.
STEVE CROFT: You said you take Senator Obama at his word that he’s not a Muslim.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Right, right.
STEVE CROFT: You don’t believe he’s a Muslim.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: No, no. Why would I? There’s no -—
STEVE CROFT: Or imply, right?
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: No, there is nothing to base that on, as far as I know.
STEVE CROFT: It’s just scurillous —
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Look, I have been the target of so many ridiculous rumors that I have a great deal of sympathy for anybody who gets, you know, smeared with the kind of rumors that go on all the time.
AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Posner, that was a clip from 60 Minutes. Your response?
SARAH POSNER: Well, you know, it’s obvious that what’s going on with these smears of Obama being a Muslim is that it’s unacceptable to be a Muslim, there’s something wrong with being a Muslim. And there’s all this talk about wanting to hear more about faith from the candidates. But it’s clear that people want to hear more about the candidates’ Christian faith. I mean, the fact that Obama has to defend himself from being a Muslim is crazy, I mean, because, you know, first of all, he’s not a Muslim, so it’s a lie, but the fact that it would besmirch his reputation if he were a Muslim just shows how Christian-centered the desire to hear about candidates’ faith is.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Sarah Posner, investigative journalist, is author of the new book God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters. Ultimately, where do you see religion fitting into the 2008 race, where it’s going?
SARAH POSNER: Well, I think what you’re going to see in the general election is you’re going to see somebody like Huckabee, or possibly other people in combination with Huckabee, trying to rally the conservative evangelical vote around McCain, despite his dodgy history with the Christian right. You’re also going to see an emergence of a more centrist evangelical movement that may back the Republican and may back the Democrat. And you’re going to see whoever the Democratic nominee is talking about their faith on the campaign trail. And you will also see the Christian right questioning the Christian credentials of whoever the Democratic candidate is, whether it’s Barack Obama and the fact that they consider his UCC congregation to be liberal and out there and out of the mainstream of Christianity, or whether, you know, Hillary Clinton’s Christian credentials measure up to their evangelical — conservative evangelical standards. You will hear a lot of talk of religion on the campaign trail.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Sarah Posner, John McCain continuing to embrace John Hagee, not only around some of these issues that we’ve discussed, but his comments about homosexuals, about why Hurricane Katrina happened, that it was punishment for the people of New Orleans, his comments about Catholicism.
SARAH POSNER: Yeah, I think that McCain realizes that despite the outrageousness of these comments, that Hagee has a huge following, and there are a lot of Americans who think nothing of comments like that, who also, like Hagee, see the world through the prism of spiritual warfare and believe that there are godly forces battling Satanic forces in every human transaction.
Now, a lot of people who still believe those things might not be comfortable with some of the extreme statements Hagee has made about any of the groups that you’ve mentioned, but the fact that McCain has not stepped away from Hagee and has not, in Tim Russert’s words, “rejected” and denounced his endorsement shows that McCain really knows that someone like Hagee can help bring him votes in the general election and was hoping that he would bring him votes in the Texas primary, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us. Sarah Posner is author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters.