Book Excerpt - Pastor Hagee and Christians United for Israel Push for Armageddon
This article is excerpted from God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters (Sausalito, CA: PoliPoint Press, 2008).
By Sarah Posner
The carnival at Cornerstone Church in San Antonio looks, at first glance, like any other church festival, with rides, games, food, and children playing in the waning sunshine of a warm October afternoon. But look again and you’ll see some unusual twists. The festivities are ringed with twelve booths selling food, each booth meant to signify one of the tribes of Israel. The booths, visitors are told, are in celebration of the Jewish holiday of Sukkoth. Under the tent, there’s no preacher, no laying on of hands, no casting out devils. This tent houses a very different kind of revival, one in which Christians are buying challah covers, tallith, kiddush cups, mezuzahs, and other Judaic items, all made in Israel. They are buying products even though, as one woman remarked about the Hebrew writing, “I don’t know what it says.” Here on John Hagee’s sprawling church property, on the weekend of Hagee’s annual Night to Honor Israel, Hagee’s followers from all over the country have come to celebrate what they call their “Hebraic roots” and to claim ownership of the world’s most hotly contested piece of real estate: not for the Jews but for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
Inside the building, the entertainment is the stuff of biblical prophecy: stories of blood, gore, conflagrations, and apocalyptic showdowns between good and evil. Hagee’s injection of the charged rhetoric of biblical prophecy into contemporary foreign policy has catapulted him to the forefront of an American Christian Zionist movement that has become the darling of conservative Israel hawks in Washington and neoconservatives yearning for regional war in the Middle East. This weekend former CIA director James Woolsey is a featured speaker, and Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres of Israel will speak by video link. National and local Jewish leaders are on hand to pay homage to Hagee’s alleged support for the Jewish people and the state of Israel. The Jews have no greater friend, the audience is told, than John Hagee, even though the book he wrote, prominently advertised on the church’s parking lot marquee, predicts they will perish in a lake of brimstone at Armageddon.
The line for the Night to Honor Israel started forming outside the church even before the doors were scheduled to open. The atmosphere is festive, and people are filled with anticipation. But the party they are looking forward to is not taking place inside the church, where the Cornerstone Choir sings “Hava Nagila Texas Style!” and where, in a video montage of Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock magically disappears. Rather, the anticipation is for the Second Coming, when, Hagee has said, Jesus will sit “right there on that Temple Mount” and rule the world.
In its short history, Hagee’s grassroots movement, Christians United for Israel (CUFI), has become the most visible organization of American Christian Zionists. Hagee launched the organization in February 2006, just a month after the release of his book Jerusalem Countdown, which became a best seller. In the book Hagee asserts that an American and Israeli war on Iran is not only biblically prophesied but necessary to bring about Armageddon and the Second Coming, a theme that drew four hundred pastors and Christian leaders to San Antonio to the inaugural meeting of his Christian Zionist organization.
Many of the attendees were televangelists well-known for their Word of Faith preaching on TBN. Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Joyce Meyer, Jesse Duplantis, and Mac Hammond were there, as was Stephen Strang, president of Strang Communications. (Strang Communications is publisher of Charisma magazine, the leading magazine in Word of Faith and charismatic circles, and the umbrella organization for numerous publishing imprints, one of which published Hagee’s book.) A strong supporter of Bush and the Iraq War, Strang has said that many times when a pastor launches a new organization, “second-tier” figures show up in support, “because everyone’s busy, and everybody’s busy with their own agenda, . . . but this, in my opinion [was] pretty top level.” Others, like Parsley and Hagin, did not attend the launch but signed on later for leadership roles in the organization. Many of them, including Strang, Hammond, and Duplantis, were on hand for the Night to Honor Israel weekend festivities in 2006; Parsley and Jakes agreed to speak at the 2007 event.
CUFI shows how Word of Faith melds with conservative evangelicalism, movement conservatism, and the GOP. Janet Parshall, the popular conservative talk radio host, was at the launch and signed on to the board of advisers. Gary Bauer, the former Bush Sr. White House aide and Republican presidential candidate, and George Morrison, the former chairman of the man-centered Promise Keepers, are on CUFI’s executive committee, as was Jerry Falwell before his death. The organization’s executive director, David Brog (who is Jewish), is a former chief of staff to Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA).
An evangelical pastor from Colorado, Morrison is a long-time ally of Hagee’s in the Christian Zionist movement. Speaking just two months after the 2006 CUFI launch, Morrison predicted that although prior efforts to create a unified grassroots Christian Zionist movement had stumbled, CUFI would gain steam because of the escalating tensions with Iran and the recent election of the Hamas-led Palestinian government. Morrison said that “almost every evangelical organization that I know of ” was present at the CUFI launch, “a tremendous turnout.” Hagee, said Morrison, “has the platform, his TV ministry, . . . he has the great respect of a lot of other leaders, so certainly, he’s in that position . . . of spiritual leadership and authority to lead the evangelical churches and help unite them” around CUFI. Hagee has claimed that he has a mailing list of two million people, and the twenty thousand “spiritual leaders” on his list all forward his e-mails to their own supporters, who in some cases have their own lists of a million people.
The launch of CUFI around the time of the release of Hagee’s book undoubtedly propelled sales and helped hype a case for war against Iran. By April 2006, two months after CUFI’s launch and three months after its release, the book had sold over 620,000 copies. Some of the sales are accounted for by the fact that ministries like Hagee’s will buy books in bulk, then give them as “gifts” as part of fund-raising campaigns. But even apart from sales directly to ministries and churches, the book ranked twenty-first on USA Today’s best-seller list and topped the Publishers Weekly’s religion best-seller list, Wal-Mart’s inspirational best-seller list, and the Christian Bookseller’s Association (CBA’s) best-seller list.
Hagee’s long-standing view that “Jerusalem must remain undivided as the eternal capital of the Jewish people” (meaning no portion of it should be turned over to the Palestinians) has made him popular with neoconservative hawks. One Jerusalem, an organization committed to that principle, has embraced Hagee’s CUFI effort. One Jerusalem was founded by, among others, Douglas Feith, who became Bush’s undersecretary of defense for policy and notoriously peddled in cherry-picked intelligence to push the case for the war against Iraq, and Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and Israeli government official. Bush admires Sharansky’s writings and awarded him a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006.
On the Saturday before his Night to Honor Israel, with his audience dotted with Christians wearing tallith and yarmulkes, Hagee hosted his Middle East Intelligence Briefing, billed as insider information not available anywhere else. James Woolsey, the former CIA director, thrilled the crowd when he pronounced Israel an essential ally in the war against Islamic fanaticism. But he bewildered it with his suggestion that to see who might be aiding terrorists they should look in their rearview mirrors when they fill their cars up with gas. (The parking lot outside was filled with gas-guzzling SUVs.) Other speakers lent a distinctly anti-Muslim shrillness to the afternoon, less a diatribe against terrorism and more an indictment of Islam. Brigitte Gabriel, a Lebanese Christian who survived the turmoil of the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s, gave a fevered, vindictive speech about why she supports Israel. (No Muslim was ever nice to her, and Israeli soldiers saved her from starvation.)
Gabriel, author of the book Because They Hate: A Survivor of Islamic Terror Warns America, attempts to draw parallels between her experience in Lebanon and an Islamic threat to American democracy. When Muslims became a majority in Lebanon (“they multiply much more quickly than we do”), Christians were “attacked for tolerance, open-mindedness, and multiculturalism.” (At the same time, Gabriel derides “political correctness” as ignorant and dangerous.) Gabriel added that “because we are Christians, Muslims want to kill us.” In contrast, she went on (conveniently not noting Israeli-led atrocities against civilians during the same period), “Jews showed compassion in a way that Muslims didn’t.”
Gabriel also runs the Virginia Beachbased American Congress for Truth (ACT), whose board of advisers is stacked with inside-the-Beltway neoconservative hawks often featured in print and broadcast conservative media outlets: Kenneth Timmerman, founder of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran and author of the book Countdown to Crisis: The Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran; Harvey Kushner, author of Home Front: The Secret Islamic Terror Network in the United States;Walid Phares, senior fellow at the neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a critic of withdrawal from Iraq; as well as Woolsey himself. The founding principles of ACT sound like a Rush Limbaugh playbook, as the organization aims to “give Americans their voice back. That unique American voice, full of joy and anticipation of better days and infinite aspirations . . . muted by the scourge of political correctness. We are now a society neutered by this scourge, . . . unable to act or speak for fear of offending, or of lawsuits, or of accusations of one-sided political views. Millions either do not realize, or deny the threat of militant Islam to America, Israel and all of Western civilization.”
To Hagee’s audience, Gabriel, a regular on the conservative talk radio circuit, claims that Hamas has cells in all major American cities and that Hezbollah has eleven cells in the country, one with a general who was smuggled over the U.S.- Mexico border. She tells heartbreaking tales of her family’s dire brushes with starvation and death during the bloody civil war, but her disdain for all things Muslim and her deification of all things Jewish is hysterical and bizarre. Nevertheless, the more she implores Hagee’s audience to love the Jews because a group of Israeli soldiers rescued her from Muslim fanatics, the more they adore her. She gets a huge standing ovation (and a hug from Woolsey) after imploring the receptive audience to “throw political correctness in the garbage where it belongs!” Gabriel, an immigrant who became a U.S. citizen, once told Hagee that America’s “immigration problem” mirrors the problem Lebanon had that led to its “fall to radical Islamic forces.” Gabriel further claimed that al Qaeda and Hezbollah are working with the Salvadoran MS-13 gang in the United States. “Not only are we inviting our enemy in, but this enemy is coming into the United States, marrying American citizens who are Muslims who are sympathizers of Hezbollah terrorists, and producing more children... There is going to be a severe crisis in the near future because America has allowed a policy of open borders.”
Jerusalem Countdown, Hagee’s manifesto for war with Iran, provides a peculiar mix of biblical prophecy, purported inside information from Israeli government officials, and a mixed-up, pared-down lesson in nuclear physics. “I wrote this book in April 2005, and when people read it, they will think I wrote it late last night after the Fox News report,” Hagee has said, without a trace of irony. “It’s that close to where we are and beyond.” But the particulars of Iran’s nuclear program do not seem to interest Hagee. In many of his television and radio appearances in early 2006, he glossed over the obstacles faced by Tehran in creating a viable nuclear weapon, arguing that “once you have enriched uranium, the genie is out of the bottle.” In March 2006 he claimed that within a month, “Iran will have the nuclear — the enriched uranium to make the — have the nuclear capability to make a bomb, a suitcase bomb, a missile head, or anything they want to do with it.” So when the Iranian president announced the following month that Tehran had enriched uranium (although not enough to make a bomb), Hagee claimed — despite prevailing scientific opinion to the contrary — that the Iranians “now have enriched uranium that will lead to the production of nuclear suitcase bombs designed to destroy American cities with one blast. These nuclear weapons will also be used against Israel.” To fully emphasize the need for war, Hagee added, “the question is not if there will be a military preemptive strike against Iran. . . . The question is when.” To prime his followers for such a possibility, Hagee has argued that Iran’s development of nuclear weapons must be stopped to protect America and Israel from a nuclear attack. He has also warned of a supposed Iranian-led plan to simultaneously explode nuclear suitcase bombs in seven American cities, or to use an electromagnetic pulse device to create “an American Hiroshima.”
His rhetoric is directed not only at his audience of believers but also at a broader audience, whose justifiable nervousness about terrorism he seeks to exploit. Hagee was for months comparing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler — still a favorite rhetorical device — before Seymour Hersh informed the reality-based world that the Bush administration, too, was talking up the confrontational, Holocaust-denying Iranian president as the next führer. In early April 2006, Hersh reported that “Bush and others in the White House view him as a potential Adolf Hitler, a former senior intelligence official said. ‘That’s the name they’re using. They say, ‘Will Iran get a strategic weapon and threaten another world war?’”
Hagee seems to delight in a coming confrontation. He argues that a strike against Iran will cause Arab nations to unite under Russia’s leadership, as outlined in chapters 38 and 39 of the book of Ezekiel, leading to an “inferno [that] will explode across the Middle East, plunging the world toward Armageddon.” During Hagee’s appearance on Benny Hinn’s program, Hinn, who frequently predicts the end is imminent, enthused, “We are living in the last days. These are the most exciting days in church history.” The master of signs and wonders then went on to add, “We are facing now [the] most dangerous moment for America.” At one point, Hinn clapped his hands in delight and shouted, “Yes! Glory!” and then urged his viewers to donate money faster because he is running out of time to preach the gospel.
Hagee’s book, and his discussion of it in Christian media outlets, is absolutist. He speaks not only of good against evil, believer against nonbeliever, Judeo-Christian civilization against Islamic civilization, but also of an American-Israeli alliance against the rest of the world. He plays on conservative disdain for anything European while promoting the Bush unilateralist mentality that has had catastrophic results in Iraq. He expresses contempt for diplomacy, calling the UN Security Council “a joke.” Rabbi Daniel Lapin, the Orthodox rabbi who once worked with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, said after a Purim appearance on TBN with Hagee that “Pastor Hagee has a very realistic understanding of the United Nations . . . and recognizes it as unlikely to be any more helpful in this looming tension than it has been in any other in the past.” He paints Russia and China as America’s enemies, claiming, without basis, that Russia has helped Iran build long-range missiles that could reach New York City.
In Hagee’s telling, Israel has no choice but to strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities, with or without America’s help. The strike will provoke Russia — which wants Persian Gulf oil — to lead an army of Arab nations against Israel. Then God will wipe out all but one-sixth of the Russian-led army, as the world watches “with shock and awe,” he says, lending either a divine quality to the Bush administration phrase or a Bush-like quality to God’s wrath.
But Hagee doesn’t stop there. He adds that Ezekiel predicts fire “upon those who live in security in the coastlands.” From this sentence he concludes that there will be judgment upon all who stood by while the Russian- led force invaded Israel, and he issues a stark warning to the United States to intervene: “Could it be that America, who refuses to defend Israel from the Russian invasion, will experience nuclear warfare on our east and west coasts?” He says yes, citing Genesis 12:3, in which God said to Israel: “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you.”
To fill the power vacuum left by God’s decimation of the Russian army, the Antichrist—identified by Hagee as the head of the European Union—will rule “a one-world government, a one-world currency and a one-world religion” for three and a half years. (He adds that “one need only be a casual observer of current events to see that all three of these things are coming into reality.”) The “demonic world leader” will then be confronted by a false prophet, identified by Hagee as China, at Armageddon, the Mount of Megiddo in Israel. As they prepare for the final battle, Jesus will return on a white horse and cast both villains— and presumably any nonbelievers— into a “lake of fire burning with brimstone,” thus marking the beginning of his millennial reign.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, televangelist and CUFI founder Hagee was thrust into the spotlight after he endorsed John McCain and the presumptive Republican nominee proclaimed he was “proud” to have the pastor’s support. The extremist right-wing Catholic League, headed by provocateur and media hound Bill Donohue, seized the moment to excoriate Hagee for his allegedly anti-Catholic views. (Donohue claimed that Hagee sermonizing that “the apostate church” was the “great whore” depicted in the Book of Revelation proved that Hagee was anti- Catholic.) The media leapt on the story – which broke around the same time as the explosive sermons of Barack Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, surfaced. But by focusing on Hagee’s supposed anti- Catholicism, the media largely ignored Hagee’s dispensationalist ideology and his deep connections to the neoconservative foreign policy establishment.
Hagee later apologized for any perception that his statements were anti- Catholic, and Donohue issued a statement that the Catholic League considered the matter closed. After that controversy died down, Hagee continued business as usual—preaching about the end-times, endearing himself to Israel’s most hard-line right-wingers, stoking fears of a nuclear Iran, and planning CUFI’s next summer summit in Washington, which will feature leading neoconservative pundits and elected officials.
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