Texas preacher leads campaign to let Israel fight
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WASHINGTON -- After Israel sent warplanes into Iraq in 1981 to bomb a nuclear reactor, Texas televangelist John Hagee sent letters to 150 fellow Christian preachers to rally support for the Jewish state.
He got just one positive response. When Mr. Hagee pressed ahead with plans for a pro-Israel gathering in a San Antonio theater, he says he got a death threat on the phone and someone shot out all the windows of his station wagon parked in his driveway.
Last week, as Israel's armed forces pounded Lebanon and worries of a wider conflagration mounted, Mr. Hagee presided over what he called a "miracle of God": a gathering of 3,500 evangelical Christians packed into a Washington hotel to cheer Israel and its current military campaign.
Standing on a stage bedecked with a huge Israeli flag, Mr. Hagee drew rapturous applause and shouts of "amen" as he hailed Israel for doing God's work in a "war of good versus evil." Calls for Israel to show restraint violate "God's foreign-policy statement" toward Jews, he said, citing a verse from the Old Testament that promises to "bless those who bless you" and curse "the one who curses you."
The gathering was sponsored by Christians United for Israel, a national organization the 66-year-old preacher set up this year. The group lobbies politicians in Washington, rallies grassroots support for Israel and aims to educate Christians on what it calls the "biblical imperative" of supporting the Jewish state.
Mr. Hagee is a leading figure in the so-called Christian-Zionist movement. This evangelical political philosophy is rooted in biblical prophecies and a belief that Israel's struggles signal a prelude to Armageddon. Its followers staunchly support the Bush administration's unequivocal backing of Israel in its current battle with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
President Bush sent a message to the gathering praising Mr. Hagee and his supporters for "spreading the hope of God's love and the universal gift of freedom." The Israeli prime minister also sent words of thanks. Israel's ambassador, its former military chief and a host of U.S. political heavyweights, mostly Republican, attended.
At a time when Islamist groups are displacing secular nationalists as the main vehicle for political revolt across the Middle East, Mr. Hagee and like-minded evangelicals are injecting greater religious fervor into American attitudes and policy toward the region. They see, and even sometimes seem to embrace, the notion of a global conflict between Islam and the Judeo-Christian West, just as do many zealous Muslims.
"This is a religious war that Islam cannot -- and must not -- win," Mr. Hagee wrote in a recent book, "Jerusalem Countdown," which focuses on what he says is a coming nuclear showdown with Iran. "The end of the world as we know it is rapidly approaching. ... Rejoice and be exceeding glad -- the best is yet to be." The book has sold nearly 700,000 copies since it was released in January, according to his Florida-based religious publisher, Strang Communications.
Christian Zionism has been around for years but is now gaining greater prominence as it gets turbocharged by the marketing flair of Mr. Hagee and other religious entrepreneurs. Mr. Hagee has deployed massive resources to galvanize support for Israel. He heads a San Antonio megachurch, which claims 19,000 members, runs a television company and has close ties to Republican Party power brokers. His Washington banquet last week cost about $500,000, according to an organizer. A big Christian broadcasting network, Daystar, carried the event live.
The following day, he mobilized evangelicals representing all 50 states in a lobbying blitz through the Capitol. Armed with talking points scripted by Mr. Hagee and his staff, they peppered senators and congressmen with arguments for Israel and against its enemies, particularly Iran.
While Mr. Bush is clearly close to evangelicals, he has never fully embraced their agenda or rhetoric. But their views are generally in sync with the aims of his national-security strategists, who reach similar conclusions through a different logic. They have long blasted what they've termed the "false stability" of a region mostly ruled by autocrats and that has tolerated terrorist organizations committed to Israel's destruction. The influential "neo-conservative" school of foreign-policy advisers has also buttressed this line, arguing that the U.S. must push more aggressively for democracy in the Middle East.
Christian evangelicals, who first found political traction under President Reagan in the 1980s, now number about 50 million and form a bedrock constituency for President Bush. Best known for their lobbying against abortion and same-sex marriage and on other domestic issues, they have also taken a keen interest in foreign policy, especially since the attacks of 9/11.
"Leave Israel alone. Let them do the job," Mr. Hagee told his supporters last week at the banquet. Israel's enemies, said New York Congressman Eliot Engel, one of the few Democratic speakers, "do the work of Satan."
This melding of realpolitik and religion, say former and current U.S. officials, has produced a potent force. Israel's evangelical supporters "were out there before, but didn't really appear on the radar screen," says Dennis Ross, a Middle East envoy in the administrations of both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. "Now they are an important part of the landscape." More than any prior White House, the Bush administration has established formal, regular contacts with American evangelical leaders.
The White House says it isn't overly influenced by any one group. "The president makes decisions about policies for our country based on what is right for our citizens," says Dana Perino, deputy press secretary. "The United States has been an ally of Israel since its founding, and President Bush has worked to strengthen that alliance."
The main vehicle for Mr. Hagee's pro-Israel activities over the years has been San Antonio's Cornerstone Church, which he first joined as pastor back in 1975 when it was called Church of Castle Hill, a moribund parish with only a few dozen worshippers and heavy debts. He had quit his previous church the same year during a messy divorce that was quickly followed by his remarriage to a young churchgoer. Attracted by Mr. Hagee's mix of thundering oratory and folksy humor, the congregation mushroomed.
The son of a puritanical preacher, Mr. Hagee first visited Israel in 1978. He says he went there "as a tourist and came back home a Zionist." While in Israel, Mr. Hagee visited Jerusalem's Western Wall and says he felt a "nearness to God like no other place on Earth." At that moment, he recalls, "The Lord required of me to do everything I could to bring Christians and Jews together."
After returning to Texas, Mr. Hagee says he plunged into a "three-year study binge to discover the Jewish roots of Christianity." This coincided with a surge of contacts between American evangelicals and the Israeli government of Menachem Begin, a devout biblical scholar and hardline defender of Israel's right to territories won in 1967. Mr. Begin worked hard to cultivate American evangelicals, with whom he shared a belief that Israel's birth in 1948 and subsequent struggles were a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
Mr. Hagee says he met with Mr. Begin three times.
When Mr. Begin ordered Israel's air force to bomb Saddam Hussein's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, Mr. Hagee was horrified by widespread criticism that followed. After reading a San Antonio newspaper that described the attack as an act of "gunboat diplomacy," he decided to organize a pro-Israel gathering.
Local Christians initially showed little enthusiasm for the idea. San Antonio's Jewish community was even more wary. "There was a lot of skepticism," recalls Aryeh Scheinberg, an Orthodox rabbi who took part in meetings among Jewish leaders to decide how to respond to Mr. Hagee's proposal. "Everyone wanted to know: 'What does he really want?' I said, 'Let's give the man a chance and take the risk.'"
The pro-Israel gathering went ahead with both Jews and Christians present. As Mr. Scheinberg mounted the podium to deliver a final prayer, security told Mr. Hagee of a bomb threat. Mr. Hagee, a stocky man who got to college on a football scholarship, says he asked God to make the rabbi pray "not like Moses but like a Presbyterian late for lunch." The threat was a hoax.
The event has been held every year since, though some Jewish leaders refuse to attend and reject any alliance with Mr. Hagee. "Many of his views are hateful," says Barry Block, a prominent reform rabbi in San Antonio, who accuses Mr. Hagee of demonizing Muslims and propounding a divisive right-wing agenda that erodes the barrier between church and state.
When addressing Jewish audiences, Mr. Hagee generally avoids talking about Armageddon. But his books, whose titles include "Beginning of the End" and "From Daniel to Doomsday," are filled with death and mayhem. "The battlefield will cover the nation of Israel!" he writes in "Jerusalem Countdown," his recent work, describing a "sea of human blood drained from the veins of those who have followed Satan."
Some fellow evangelicals accuse Mr. Hagee of ignoring Arab Christians. Donald Wagner of North Park University, an evangelical Christian college in Chicago, first traveled to Israel at around the same time as Mr. Hagee but reached the opposite conclusion. "I was very pro-Israel until I went there," says Mr. Wagner, who heads a research group that challenges the theology of Christian Zionists.
Little known outside of Texas when he first embraced Zionism, Mr. Hagee turned to television to promote Jesus, Israel and his own name. His main platform for this was Global Evangelism Television Inc., a nonprofit organization. First set up in 1978, GETV initially relayed the programming of others to local cable operators. In the 1980s it began pumping out its own shows featuring Mr. Hagee for broadcast on national Christian networks. His sermons and chat shows now appear on 120 stations and, he says, reach more than 90 million homes.
By the mid-1980s his flock had outgrown his church in central San Antonio. In 1987, Cornerstone moved to a 35-acre suburban campus with a 5,000-person assembly hall and a new television and radio studio.
As his exposure grew, so did controversy. He ran into flak for inviting former White House aide Oliver North, a pardoned felon, and disgraced televangelist Jimmy Swaggart to speak at Cornerstone. He also feuded with the U.S. Postal Service over nonprofit rates for church mailings that contained ads for his books and videos. (He sued and, he says, got a refund of around $40,000.)
Mr. Hagee also upset black leaders. To help students seeking odd jobs, his church newsletter, The Cluster, advertised a "slave" sale. "Slavery in America is returning to Cornerstone," it said. "Make plans to come and go home with a slave." Mr. Hagee apologized but, in a radio interview, protested about pressure to be "politically correct" and joked that perhaps his pet dog should be called a "canine American."
The quarrels didn't stop the steady growth of his congregation, which is multiracial. His "nights to honor Israel" got bigger, too, as did his clout as a fund-raiser for Israeli causes. He says he has raised over $12 million so far.
Increasingly prominent, the preacher attracted the eye and, initially, the ire of Jerry Falwell, the dean of the Christian right and another enthusiastic supporter of Israel.
In 1994, The National Liberty Journal, a conservative monthly run by Mr. Falwell, labeled Mr. Hagee a "heretic" for championing so-called dual-covenant theory -- a belief that Jews and Christians have separate deals with God that allow each to get into heaven. The traditional Christian view is that Jews and other non-Christians must convert -- or end up on the wrong side of the battle of Armageddon.
Soon after the article appeared, Mr. Falwell arranged to meet the Texan at a Christian conference in Memphis. Mr. Hagee, says Mr. Falwell, convinced him that he didn't believe in the "dual covenant." Mr. Falwell now sits on the board of Christians United for Israel.
Mr. Hagee, citing a New Testament verse, says a "remnant of Jewish people ... have favor with God right now" but he is vague on which Jews will get to heaven without conversion, saying that only God knows this. He dismisses the dual-covenant issue as "something to start coffee-table debate."
Mr. Bush's 2000 election victory and the Republican Party's control of both houses of Congress brought evangelical Christians closer to power than ever before. Mr. Hagee had met Mr. Bush several times while he was Texas governor and solidly supported his push for the White House. Mr. Hagee was closer, though, to another powerful Texan, Congressman Tom DeLay. Soon after becoming majority leader in the House of Representatives, Mr. DeLay gave the keynote speech at Mr. Hagee's 2002 pro-Israel gathering in San Antonio. Mr. DeLay, since embroiled in a corruption scandal, also spoke last week in Washington.
In 2003, The San Antonio Express-News dug into Mr. Hagee's filings with the Internal Revenue Service. The article alleged no wrongdoing, but reported that Mr. Hagee received more than $1.25 million in 2001 for his church and TV work and had a trust that includes a nearly 8,000-acre, $2.1 million Texas ranch.
Mr. Hagee says that the bulk of his earnings comes from royalty payments from his 21 books, not from churchgoers' donations. He says he'll earn much the same this year if book sales hold up.
His finances under the spotlight, Mr. Hagee reorganized his holdings in a way that allowed him to avoid having to make public filings. In September 2004, Global Evangelism Television re-registered as a church under the name Grace Church of San Antonio. Churches, unlike religious TV companies and other nonprofit outfits, are exempt from filing detailed returns with the IRS. A further reorganization in recent weeks moved all assets into Cornerstone Church. None of the Church's financial records are publicly available. Mr. Hagee said his lawyers had recommended the changes for "greater clarity."
President Bush abandoned President Clinton's efforts to secure a big-bang peace settlement to the Israel-Palestine conflict but, under prodding from Britain and others, did back a slow-paced plan known as the Roadmap for Peace.
In May 2003, Mr. Hagee and other evangelical leaders sent a letter to President Bush applauding the invasion of Iraq but complaining about the Israel-Palestine peace plan. They said it would be "morally reprehensible" for the U.S. to be "evenhanded" between Israel and "the terrorist-infested Palestinian infrastructure."
Last fall, he took his annual "night to honor Israel," to Israel, holding the event in the hangar of an Israeli air-force base. He spoke at the Israeli Parliament and organized a visit for his U.S. followers to Megiddo, an Israeli hilltop that he believes will be the site of the battle of Armageddon.
Mr. Hagee also started laying plans for Christians United for Israel, hoping to meld a plethora of mostly small pro-Israel Christian groups into a national network. He contacted Mr. Falwell, who says he immediately offered support. He hired David Brog, a lawyer who had worked in both Israel and on Capitol Hill and who is a distant cousin of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, as the new organization's executive director.
As Mr. Hagee's plans took shape last fall, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, set up an "outreach" unit to work with Christians and others. Appointed to head the unit was a San Antonio native who had previously worshipped at the synagogue of Mr. Scheinberg, the Orthodox rabbi who has been one of Mr. Hagee's keenest supporters.
Christians United for Israel held its first meeting in San Antonio in February and immediately began organizing last week's Washington event. To galvanize support and allay suspicions in some quarters of his motives, Mr. Hagee traveled around the country, meeting with Christian and Jewish leaders. Some Jews worry that Christian-Zionists want to convert Jews to Christianity, something Mr. Hagee has always denied.
The current eruption of violence, says Mr. Hagee, shows that Israel should not surrender land in search of peace and that Christians and Jews are on the same side.
"If God opposes giving away the land, if it has never worked, let's come up with another plan," he thundered last week. "Do not give the land away. It belongs to you. It is God's heritage to you."
First Published July 27, 2006 12:00 am