As Sen. John McCain sought the presidency in 2008, he tried an unusual strategy for a Republican candidate. He decided to denounce a conservative Christian preacher. Controversy had swirled for weeks after John Hagee had endorsed McCain. Media attention highlighted Hagee’s past comments arguing Adolf Hitler had fulfilled God’s will to bring about the creation of the modern nation of Israel.
“Obviously, I find these remarks and others deeply offensive and indefensible, and I repudiate them,” McCain said about Hagee’s comments. “I did not know of them before Rev. Hagee’s endorsement, and I feel I must reject his endorsement as well.”
“Let me also be clear, Rev. Hagee was not and is not my pastor or spiritual advisor,” McCain added. “I have denounced statements he made immediately upon learning of them, as I do again today.”
With you-can’t-fire-me-I-quit vibes, Hagee minutes later announced he would withdraw his endorsement that McCain had just rejected. He didn’t attack McCain, though, but the media for what he claimed amounted to “grossly misrepresenting my position on issues most near and dear to my heart.”
“I am tired of these baseless attacks and fear that they have become a distraction in what should be a national debate about important issues,” Hagee added. “I have therefore decided to withdraw my endorsement of Sen. McCain for president effective today, and to remove myself from any active role in the 2008 campaign.”
Hagee, the pastor of a 22,000-member nondenominational megachurch in San Antonio, Texas, also had founded a Christian Zionist group, Christians United For Israel. With a focus on supporting the nation of Israel, he had campaigned for numerous candidates in previous elections. But he also had built a record of antisemitic, anti-Catholic, and other controversial comments as he uses his preaching and political advocacy to push a bloody end-times scenario he believes is coming soon because of the establishment of the modern state of Israel.
Despite Hagee’s extremism, it was still remarkable to see a presidential candidate denounce one of his own supporters, especially a prominent figure with a sizable base of support and record of political organizing. As has been quipped, there’s a reason why Profiles in Courage is a thin book. Few are willing to condemn the extremism of their own side.
McCain’s criticism of Hagee put him in a rare category, like when Michigan Gov. George Romney denounced “extremists” in his own party during the 1964 Republican National Convention or when future Vice President Hubert Humphrey criticized those in his own party who opposed civil rights during the 1948 Democratic National Convention. And McCain had previously condemned Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as “agents of intolerance” during his 2000 presidential run as he lost the nomination to George W. Bush, who had the support of Robertson, Falwell, and Hagee.
Fifteen years after McCain’s attack on Hagee, those seeking to lead the Republican Party today are making pilgrimages to the Texas preacher as they seek political salvation in the ballot box. Hagee didn’t change. He’s as extreme as ever. But on Monday (July 17), presidential hopefuls Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence, and Nikki Haley spoke at a Hagee event and heaped praise upon him. And it’s not the first Hagee event this campaign for Pence and Haley. So this issue of A Public Witness takes a look at the Hagee primary and what it means for faith and politics today.
After McCain’s criticisms, Hagee didn’t stay in the political wilderness very long. Newt Gingrich courted Hagee in 2012 and Hagee joined other Christian Right leaders in trying to find an alternative to eventual nominee Mitt Romney. In the meantime, he repeatedly attacked President Barack Obama, even calling him “one of the most antisemitic presidents in the history of the United States of America” (though Hagee later insisted he meant to say “anti-Israel” instead of “antisemitic,” even though the two are not synonymous).
But then Hagee’s political fortunes changed. He found a politician who would back his Christian Zionist agenda in the form of a profane, thrice-married casino magnate who made potentially illegal hush money payments to women with whom he had affairs.
Barely two months into Trump’s presidency, the new president welcomed Hagee into the Oval Office for a meeting to talk about Israel. Later that year, Trump changed seven decades of U.S. foreign policy — and bucked the nearly unanimous international position — to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announced he would move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv. When the new embassy opened in May of 2018, Hagee was there to offer a prayer as part of the official governmental ceremony.
“Jerusalem is where Messiah will come and establish a kingdom that will never end. We thank you, O Lord, for President Donald Trump’s courage in acknowledging to the world a truth established 3,000 years ago – that Jerusalem is and always shall be the eternal capital of the Jewish people,” Hagee prayed from a podium with the U.S. seal. “And because of that courage of our president, we gather here today to consecrate the ground upon which the United States Embassy will stand, reminding the dictators of the world that America and Israel are forever united.”
Foxvangelist Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, also prayed during the event. Mitt Romney criticized the invite of Jeffress, arguing that “such a religious bigot should not be giving the prayer that opens the United States Embassy in Jerusalem.”
Hagee said in an interview at the time that Trump would “step into political immortality” with the move. And he called the establishment of the political embassy with a secular nation “a divine miracle” where he “could literally feel the presence of God in the atmosphere.” For Hagee, this move meant the world was closer to Jesus coming back to kill all the Jews and Muslims. Of course, lots of things are signs to him that this bloody Armageddon is close, like “blood moons” several years ago.
But with that moment, Hagee had arrived at a new height politically almost exactly one decade after McCain’s denouncement attempt to push the preacher to the margins of the Republican Party. With Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and many other titans of the Christian Right dead, the 83-year-old Hagee is a key figure for GOP candidates to seek in hopes of receiving a political blessing.
The Hagee Primary
As former Vice President Mike Pence tested the waters for his presidential campaign, he went on a book tour to speak in multiple megachurches. One of his earliest stops was to San Antonio in January to share the stage with Hagee during a Sunday evening service (after speaking the week before at First Baptist in Dallas with Jeffress).
“I deeply admire your work and your ministry,” Pence told Hagee as he said it was “a joy” and an “honor” to be there.
Knowing his audience, Pence talked about his record of deciding to “stand with Israel,” how the Bible guided his policy positions on this front, and the moving of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. And he attacked the Obama and Biden administrations for talks with Iran. Hagee’s congregants rewarded these comments with numerous rounds of applause — as they also did when Pence hit other issues like recounting Trump-Pence administration efforts to reduce immigration and overturn Roe v. Wade.
Pence, however, wasn’t the first candidate this cycle to show up at Hagee’s church praying for support. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley spoke there during a Sunday evening service last November as she tried to build support for a potential candidacy.
After some praise songs, the service shifted to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “God Bless the USA” (and the congregation sang “God Bless America” at the end of the service). Like Pence, Haley praised Hagee and declared her support for Israel before hitting predictable notes.
“What a blessing it is to be here. And thank you, Pastor Hagee. One of the greatest privileges of my life is calling you and Diana my friend,” Haley told Hagee after hugging him during the service. “I just want to be you when I grow up.”
During her remarks, Haley claimed it’s hard to be a Christian in America, espoused Christian Nationalist ideas, criticized unnamed American leaders for making the country “weak” so that it has “hit rock bottom,” and promised she will fight to “save America.”
Three months later, Haley officially announced her candidacy during a rally in South Carolina. Hagee showed up to offer the opening prayer at the rally. Of all the pastors she could’ve launched her campaign with, Haley chose one with a long history of antisemitic and anti-Catholic rhetoric — but also with a long history of Republican advocacy and who leads a group that claims to have 10 million members.
“On this special day, we petition the courts of Heaven to give Ambassador Nikki Haley a wise and understanding heart. Give her wisdom that is supernatural,” Hagee prayed. “May the angelic escort of Almighty God go before Ambassador Haley to prepare her way, and behind her to be her rearguard. As she has been a defender of Israel, so let her experience the promise of God given to Abraham and to all who are righteous: ‘I will bless those who bless you.’”
But even with that campaign blessing, some other candidates are apparently still hoping to win over Hagee and his supporters. So Pence and DeSantis joined Haley this week at the 2023 Christians United for Israel Summit, along with other Republicans like Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa.
After pronouncing Hagee’s name wrong, DeSantis tried to win over the crowd by praising them for their advocacy and talking about his recent trip to Israel. He added that he supports pro-Israel policies because of his “faith in God” and because “the United States of America was founded on Judeo-Christian values.” He also invoked the favored language of Zionists to describe the Palestinian territories as he bragged about leading “public events in Judea and Samaria” — thus using biblical terms instead of “West Bank” to deny Palestinian claims to statehood.
“Judea and Samaria are not occupied territories,” DeSantis added to applause. “Israel has the strongest claim of right to Judea and Samaria.”
Channeling his inner Pat Robertson, DeSantis also claimed that a prayer he put in the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2019 made Hurricane Dorian turn away from the state that year. With a big smile, he declared, “It did not hit the state of Florida! We were free and clear.” While it did turn northward after devasting the Bahamas, six of the nine fatalities in the continental U.S. from the storm were in Florida. (But the hurricane did not strike Alabama, despite Trump’s sharpie drawing to cover up for a misstatement about the storm’s projected path.)
After DeSantis made his pitch for what he would do as president, Pence and Haley did the same, echoing points they previously highlighted at Hagee’s church as they praised Hagee, pledged to support Israel no matter what, and attacked Biden. With three of the top five polling GOP candidates trying to win over Hagee, it’s clear that Hagee is viewed as an influential figure to court in the 2024 primary.
The extremism of Hagee predated the rise of Trump, but was also perfectly suited for this age. Such alignment was on display in November 2021 as his church hosted an early iteration of the ReAwaken America Tour (or RAT for short). A traveling carnival of anti-vax rhetoric, QAnon conspiracies, and Christian Nationalism, these events are headlined by people who believe God has ordained a second Trump administration. That was the version of RAT where Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn declared that we need to not just be “one nation under God” but also “one religion under God.”
It was also the time RAT sparked controversy as the crowd in the sanctuary erupted in chants of “Let’s Go Brandon!” (a coded way of cursing President Joe Biden). After the church tried to distance itself from the event, new stories emerged when I posted a video to Twitter showing Hagee’s son and fellow pastor at the church speaking at the event to welcome the group. Matt Hagee then offered an apology. But the controversy did little to undermine the influence of the Hagees in rightwing politics. After all, they’ve weathered worse.
When McCain condemned John Hagee in 2008, the Arizona politician sent the Texas preacher to political purgatory. But the exile didn’t last long. Now, McCain is dead, as is his philosophy for the Republican Party. Today’s politics is instead dominated by Trump and Hagee, by blood moons and apocalyptic visions.
While the success of religious extremism in our politics today is not a new story, we also shouldn’t be numb to it. We shouldn’t normalize Hagee or overlook his record of antisemitic, anti-Catholic, or other bigoted remarks. We should hold candidates accountable for seeking his endorsement, thus helping empower him and his agenda. Because these signs of the times aren’t healthy.
As a public witness,