Controversial Clerics: A Parade of Partisan Preachers Roils Presidential Campaign-And Raises Questions about the Relationship between Religion and Politics

Article excerpt

The Rev. John Hagee's specialty is interpreting Bible passages to explain historical and current events--a practice that often leads the Texas minister to adopt some unusual views.

In one sermon delivered in 2006, Hagee, pastor of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, told his flock that Adolf Hitler's attempt to exterminate the Jews was foretold in the writings of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. Hagee cited Jeremiah 16:16, which reads in part, "Behold ... will I send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain, and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks."

According to Hagee, this means God sent Hitler to hunt the Jews who had failed to support Israel by moving to the Middle East.

"Those who came founded Israel; those who did not went through the hell of the Holocaust," Hagee preached. "Then God sent a hunter. A hunter is someone with a gun and he forces you. Hitler was a hunter...."

Continued Hagee, "And that might be offensive to some people but don't let your heart be offended. I didn't write it, Jeremiah wrote it. It was the truth, and it is the truth. How did it happen? Because God allowed it to happen. Why did it happen? Because God said my top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel."

Hagee, head of a multi-million-dollar TV ministry, might have been written off as just another televangelist with controversial views but for one important fact: Republican presidential candidate John McCain had courted Hagee for months, successfully winning his endorsement earlier this year.

McCain's arduous labors to win over Hagee spurred some researchers to take a closer look at the Texas evangelist. Several dredged up anti-Catholic comments Hagee had made, but he apologized and he and McCain weathered the storm.

But the drizzle continued, and in May the dam broke. Bruce Wilson, a blogger with www.talk2action.com, publicized portions of a transcript of Hagee's controversial Hitler sermon. The story was picked up by the mainstream media, and McCain was forced to publicly condemn the remarks and renounce Hagee's endorsement.

At the same time, McCain distanced himself from another controversial preacher, Ohio's Rod Parsley, after extreme and intolerant comments Parsley made about Islam came to light.

The flaps were yet another in a string of high-profile incidents involving controversial clerics in the 2008 presidential campaign. Candidates in both parties are increasingly seeking support from religious leaders, but this year the religious outreach has often sparked turmoil. As a result, religion continues to roll the campaign.

Why has religion become so prominent in campaign 2008? Analysts say it's partly due to a shifting dynamic in American politics and aided and abetted by new technology. For many years, the Republican Party was known for its aggressive outreach to religious voters. Polls showed that more frequent church-goers tended to vote for the GOE Republican officials often bashed Democrats as too secular and accused the party of being hostile to religion.

A few years ago, Democratic strategists began fighting back. In 2006, a number of Democratic candidates talked more openly about their faith, with several winning elections.

"There are a number of reasons for this development," said Melissa Rogers, a scholar and observer of the intersection between religion and politics. "One reason is that Democrats believe that some people of faith who may have tended to vote Republican in the past may be open to voting for a Democrat this election. For that and other reasons, we have seen a good bit of Democratic outreach to religious individuals and groups, and that outreach often has been more explicitly religious than it had in the past.

"So, perhaps for the first time, both major political parties are employing specific and sophisticated strategies that reach out to a range of religious communities as such," continued Rogers, who serves as visiting professor of religion and public policy at Wake Forest University Divinity School. …