McCain and the sinister ministers
SUMMARY: MoveOn.org disapprovingly quotes two conservative ministers who are supporting McCain, and gets its facts mostly right. Whether that carries weight with voters remains to be seen.
In the weeks after news coverage of Sen. Barack Obama's relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, left-leaning groups and blogs have argued that Sen. John McCain has his own pastor problems.
The liberal group MoveOn.org summed up the arguments in an e-mail to supporters:
"McCain has sought closer ties to the extreme religious right in recent years. The pastor McCain calls his 'spiritual guide,' Rod Parsley, believes America's founding mission is to destroy Islam, which he calls a 'false religion.' McCain sought the political support of right-wing preacher John Hagee, who believes Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment for gay rights and called the Catholic Church 'the Antichrist' and a 'false cult.' "
Some of MoveOn's points are correct. McCain has accepted endorsements from Parsley and Hagee, both evangelical ministers who have said some attention-grabbing things about other religions.
Hagee heads the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, with 17,000 members. He has a nationally syndicated television show, a sprawling Web site and numerous books. His dominant issue is the defense of Israel: He founded the advocacy group Christians United for Israel in 2006, and his book Jerusalem Countdown takes grim satisfaction in predicting a nuclear confrontation in the Middle East with the United States and Israel on one side and Iran on the other.
Parsley heads the World Harvest Church and an affiliated Bible college based in Columbus, Ohio. He also hosts a nationally syndicated television show, and his books include Silent No More, a collection of Parsley's opinions on political and moral issues, and Culturally Incorrect, which urges Christians toward greater civic and political involvement. Parsley also founded a group, the Center for Moral Clarity, to advocate for his concerns on conservative social issues.
In political circles, Parsley may best be known for his role encouraging large conservative voter turnout in Ohio for the 2004 presidential election, in which George W. Bush narrowly beat John Kerry. In 2006, Parsley endorsed Republican Ken Blackwell for Ohio governor, but Democrat Ted Strickland won the race.
The churches of Parsley and Hagee are not affiliated, but the ministers move in the same circles. Their television shows both air on Trinity Broadcasting Network; they've shared a book publisher in Strang Communications; and Parsley serves as a regional director for Hagee's Christians United for Israel.
Parsley and Hagee are part of an evangelical movement that seeks to restore traditional values to American government, said John C. Green, a senior fellow in religion and politics at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, a nonpartisan research group that does not take positions in policy debates. Their endorsements could motivate evangelicals who have been important to Republican political success in recent years but have not always embraced McCain.
"John McCain has a real challenge in motivating evangelical Christians to support him in the upcoming campaign," Green said. "There's evidence that McCain sought these endorsements, and there's also evidence that these men were happy to give their endorsements."
Green said the MoveOn.org e-mail targets areas where the ministers arguably hold their most extreme views: Parsley on Islam, and Hagee on the Catholic Church.
Hagee and McCain
Hagee's endorsement of McCain on Feb. 27, 2008, set off several rounds of controversy. The day after the endorsement, the Catholic League called Hagee an anti-Catholic bigot and lamented McCain's connection to him. The group monitors anti-Catholic bias and emphasizes Catholic teaching on abortion and other moral issues.
Hagee used the words "Antichrist" and "false cult" as he discussed the Catholic Church, the Crusades, the Holocaust and the Book of Revelation on a television show. (His statements are a little convoluted; watch the video here .) After the Catholic League criticism, however, he said he was speaking only of historical acts of anti-Semitism by the Catholic Church, not attacking the church itself. But Catholic League president Bill Donahue said Hagee's excuses weren't credible and continued calls for McCain to distance himself.
Hagee also renounced his previous statements on Hurricane Katrina, during this time, saying in a statement, "As a believing Christian, I see the hand of God in everything that happens here on earth, both the blessings and the curses. But ultimately neither I nor any other person can know the mind of God concerning Hurricane Katrina. I should not have suggested otherwise."
During an interview with George Stephanopoulos on April 20, McCain said he still welcomed Hagee's endorsement but strongly condemned "any comments that he made about the Catholic church." The Catholic League continued to criticize Hagee, so on May 13, Hagee released a letter he sent directly to Donahue, expressing regret for his previous statements about the Catholic Church. Donahue accepted the apology.
"The tone of Hagee's letter is sincere," Donahue said in a statement. "He wants reconciliation and he has achieved it. Indeed, the Catholic League welcomes his apology."
Parsley and McCain
Parsley's endorsement hasn't been without a few bumps, either.
MoveOn.org's attack on Parsley excerpts his opinions from Silent No More, in which Parsley writes:
"I cannot tell you how important it is that we understand the true nature of Islam, that we see it for what it really is. In fact, I will tell you this: I do not believe our country can truly fulfill its divine purpose until we understand our historical conflict with Islam. I know this statement sounds extreme, but I do not shrink from its implications. The fact is that America was founded, in part, with the intention of seeing this false religion destroyed, and I believe that Sept. 11, 2001, was a generational call to arms that we can no longer ignore."
Parsley goes on to write that the Allah who inspired Mohammed was a demon spirit, that Islam enslaves women, and that it converts people by deception.
A spokesman for Parsley said MoveOn took his words out of context and pointed to a Frequently Asked Questions page on the Web site of Parsley's Center for Moral Clarity.
"Q. Does Pastor Parsley hate Muslims?
"Pastor Parsley loves people and hates the belief systems that keep them from the truth. Islam is a false, dangerous religion. Peace-loving Muslims need the full support of all Christians.
"There are two divisions of Muslims in the world — peace-loving and radical Muslim extremists. In fact, many peace-loving Muslims are appalled at what is being done in the name of their religion. They were horrified by the events of September 11, 2001, and they are appalled by the actions of suicide bombers across the world. Christians must provide understanding, cooperation, support, and friendship to peace-loving Muslims throughout the world who share our desire for democracy and peace."
McCain did call Parsley a "spiritual guide" at a campaign rally, but it seems likely that he meant they shared values rather than that Parsley was a personal advisor. The campaign has said the "spiritual guide" was meant in a broad sense, not in a personal sense, and a spokesman for Parsley said McCain has never attended services at World Harvest Church.
McCain, though raised Episcopalian, attends the North Phoenix Baptist Church near his home in Arizona. The church is headed by Rev. Dan Yeary. McCain is not considered a full member of the church because he has never undergone adult full-immersion baptism, Yeary has said.
What's it mean for McCain?
Whether McCain's connections to Hagee and Parsley help or hurt him in the general election remains to be seen.
Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster with the Tarrance Group, which has worked for McCain, said McCain has a firm lock on the evangelical vote, regardless of endorsements. His group's polling data shows McCain has 91 percent support among evangelicals when matched against Sen. Hillary Clinton, and 87 percent support against Obama, he said.
Also, the comparison of Hagee and Parsley to Jeremiah Wright doesn't work, said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative-leaning think tank that studies the role of religion in public life.
McCain only accepted the two men's endorsements, while Obama belonged to Wright's church for more than 20 years, called him his pastor, and titled one of his books after a Wright sermon, Cromartie said. Additionally, Hagee apologized for his comments.
"This is in stark contrast to Jeremiah Wright having not apologized for anything," Cromartie said.
MoveOn's attack seems to be aimed at moderate independents who could turn against McCain if they believe his stands on the issues are too conservative.
"That's always been the balancing act he has had — to promote strong turnout among conservative Republicans, while not turning off independent voters," said Amy Walter, editor of National Journal's "Hotline."
For now, the ministers' endorsements have faded into the background, given the attention on the Democrats, who are still deciding on a nominee, she said.
"It's just not getting the level of attention that controversies on the Democratic side are getting," Walter said. "That doesn't mean it won't be rekindled by the fall."
UPDATE: On May 22, 2008, McCain rejected the endorsements of both pastors, after audio of Hagee preaching, reportedly during the 1990s, was posted to the Internet. In the recording, Hagee implied that Hilter and the Holocaust were part of God's plan to create the state of Israel. (Listen to the audio here .)
McCain said Hagee's comments were "deeply offensive and indefensible," and "I did not know of them before Reverend Hagee's endorsement, and I feel I must reject his endorsement as well."
Hagee, meanwhile, issued a statement saying that he was withdrawing his endorsement and that critics were distorting his views.
"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 said on May 22, 2008. "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."
McCain rejected Parsley's endorsement at the same time. A report from ABC News about Parsley had aired that morning discussing Parsley's views on Islam.
"I believe there is no place for that kind of dialogue in America," McCain said of Parsley.