Charismatic televangelist Pastor John Hagee thinks that the Rev. Pat Robertson's suggestion that Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke was payback from God for withdrawing from Gaza was "insensitive and unnecessary." But he nevertheless appears to share Robertson's concern that Israel may be giving up too much land to the Palestinians.
To prevent the Bush Administration from pressuring the Israelis into turning over even more land, Hagee, the pastor of San Antonio's Cornerstone Church, and the head of a multi-million dollar evangelical enterprise, recently brought together 400 Christian evangelical leaders -- representing as many as 30 million Christians -- for an invitation-only "Summit on Israel."
The result was the launching of a new pro-Israeli lobbying group called Christians United for Israel.
Christians United for Israel
Although not as well known on the national political scene as some of his evangelical counterparts, Hagee has built an impressive evangelical empire and developed strong political ties to the Republican Party. Since his 1978 "conversion" to Zionism, he has emphasized establishing and maintaining good relations with Israeli leaders and certain sectors of the American Jewish community. Over the years he has met with Israeli heads of state and he's carving out a special relationship with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is once again seeking that office in the upcoming election in Israel. Hagee is also a longtime supporter of Rep. Tom DeLay, the embattled and indicted Texas congressman who recently handily won the Republican Party primary in his district.
"Think of CUFI as a Christian version of American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)," the powerful pro-Israel lobby, Hagee told The Jerusalem Post in an interview a few days before the early February summit. "We need to be able to respond instantly to Washington with our concerns about Israel. We must join forces to speak as one group and move as one body to [respond to] the crisis Israel will be facing in the near future."
While Hagee wouldn't spell out which particular crisis he was concerned with, he did tell the Israeli newspaper that "'the Bible issue,' namely what he considers to be the mistaken policy of trading parts of the biblical Land of Israel for peace," was at the top of CUFI's list.
"Every state in the Union, every congressional district" will be accounted for, Hagee added.
A post-meeting report at The John Hagee Ministries website pointed out that Christians United for Israel had put together a National Board consisting of Hagee as National Chairman, Dr. Jerry Falwell, Gary Bauer, president of American Values, and Pastor George Morrison of Arvada, Colorado. "In addition to a National Board, twelve Regional Directors were authorized over at least four states. The Regional Directors will appoint State Directors who will appoint City Directors," the website noted.
Christians United for Israel intends to establish a 50-state rapid-response network that aims to reach every senator and congressman in the U.S. The organization is also concerned with "protecting marriage, family and faith," Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, reported.
CUFI's The Jewish Connection
A report in the San Antonio Express-News pointed out that CUFI was the "first-of-its kind umbrella organization embraced by the local Jewish community."
Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg of San Antonio's Congregation Rodfei Sholom attended the meeting and called it a historic gathering. Scheinberg told the San Antonio Express-News that, "It's the first nationwide effort I know of to unify evangelical leaders in support of Israel. These leaders who participated speak for millions of people. This organization has phenomenal potential in supporting, defending and advocating for Israel."
Pastor Hagee and Rabbi Scheinberg go way back. In a story entitled "Our Jewish Roots" published in JHMagazine, Hagee tells of a June 1978 visit to Israel where he "went ... as a tourist and came home a Zionist." When he returned home he decided to organize "A Night to Honor Israel." According to Hagee's account, Rabbi Scheinberg "pressed the Jewish Community into taking a chance and extending its hand in mutual friendship."
The Rabbi, pictured with Hagee in several photographs in JHMagazine, delivered the benediction at the first "A Night to Honor Israel" event in 1981, and has been a regular participant ever since.
Members of CUFI intend to meet with "legislators in Washington for two days in July to tell them about the organization and its platform, and express their support for Israel," according to Haaretz. In addition, the "A Night to Honor Israel" event will be expanded and held in several cities simultaneously.
CUFI organizers suggested that the event "will give American Christians the opportunity to fight anti- Semitism and express 'their debt of gratitude to the Jewish people for their contribution to Christianity,' Haaretz reported. The organizers also made a point of noting that the organization's activities would be strictly "non-conversionary."
CUFI's website maintains that the group was founded "to provide a national organization through which every pro-Israel organization and ministry in America can speak and act with one voice in support of Israel in matters related to Biblical issues."
"We see Christians in the United States as true friends and important supporters on the basis of shared values, and we welcome their efforts to strengthen the ties between Israel and the U.S.," Israeli Ambassador to the United States Danny Ayalon said.
The Enterprising Hagee Family
In addition to running San Antonio's well-attended Cornerstone Church, Hagee "is head of a multimillion-dollar evangelism enterprise called Global Evangelism Television," Analisa Nazareno, a business writer for the San Antonio Express-News reported in July 2003:
For four decades, Hagee's message has motivated his members to give millions to his ministry.
And it is a message that has helped his nonprofit television arm, Global Evangelism Television, become a prosperous, global, money-making family enterprise that has netted millions year after year selling prayer, inspirational books, tapes and the promise of prosperity.
Since Hagee and wife Diana Hagee founded GETV 25 years ago, the organization has gone from a back-room operation broadcasting Sunday sermons to San Antonio-area viewers to a 50,000-square-foot multimedia studio broadcasting to 127 television stations and 82 radio stations nationwide...
Hagee is not operating a fly-by-the-seat-of-his pants enterprise. The San Antonio Express-News reported that "According to income tax statements GETV filed with the Internal Revenue Service, the nonprofit organization drew $18.3 million in revenue in 2001, the most recent year the organization submitted a return to the IRS. That year, Hagee's total compensation package from the TV ministry and the church amounted to more than $1.25 million."
GETV received $12.3 million in donations; $4.8 million is sales of religious paraphernalia and another $1.1 million from other sources. Hagee himself received $540,000 in compensation for being the GETV's president, and $302,005 in for being president of Cornerstone Church. "He also received $411,561 in benefits from GETV, including contributions to a retirement package for highly paid executives the IRS calls a 'rabbi trust,' so named because the first beneficiary of such an irrevocable trust was a rabbi," The Texas newspaper reported.
"The John Hagee Rabbi Trust includes a $2.1 million, 7,696-acre ranch outside Brackettville, with five lodges, including a 'main lodge' and a gun locker. It also includes a manager's house, a smokehouse, a skeet range and three barns.
"Taken together, his payment package, $842,005 in compensation and $414,485 in benefits, was one of the highest, if not the highest, pay package for a nonprofit director in the San Antonio area in 2001."
It's a family affair for the Hagees. According to the San Antonio Express-News, Hagee's wife Diana received $67,907 as vice president of GETV and $58,813 as "the special events director" for Cornerstone Church. Their son, Matthew Hagee, received $10,288 as "a director" at GETV . . . and . . . one of their daughters earned a salary for serving as the director of publications for GETV."
In addition, "Matthew and his sisters, Tina and Sandy, make up the John Hagee Family Singers, who also earn royalties from album sales and honoraria for singing at events and get paid through GETV. "
Hagee's apocalyptic vision
In 1998, Hagee teamed up with Christian filmmakers Peter and Paul Lelond to make Vanished in the Twinkling of an Eye, a "docudrama," about the aftermath of the rapture. According to a description of the film at Yahoo! Movies, "Hagee appears periodically to relate the on screen action to the Word of God so that he might explain how each scene is prophesied by Bible, and how one might avoid being one of those left behind." (For an evangelical perspective on the movie, see here).
In a piece for The Texas Observer written in December 2003, Lou Dubose, the former longtime editor of that publication, and the co-author with columnist Molly Ivins of Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America and Schrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, called Hagee "a pre-millennial dispensationalist, whose theology focuses on selected apocalyptic passages of the book of Revelations."
In order for Christ to return, by this interpretation, certain biblical prophecies must be fulfilled: The Temple must be rebuilt for a third time on the Temple Mount; the anti-Christ must manifest himself and be defeated by Christ, who will then keep the Devil bound for 1,000 years of peace; the biblical kingdoms of Israel -- Judea and Samaria -- will be united; and the Jews, having done their part, will either convert or perish ("The Righteous Brothers: Over the top with Tom DeLay" December 5, 2003).
However, in their 2004 book "The Hammer -- Tom DeLay: God, Money, and the Rise of the Republican Congress," Dubose and Jan Reid point out that Hagee seems to have switched up on the Jews-will-convert-or-perish part of his vision -- a concept that many Jews find particularly troubling, and managed to finesse the issue so Jews don't wind up getting Left Behind:
[Hagee] cuts Jews in on Christian salvation. His theology includes a loophole for Jews, or to borrow a phrase from Liberation Theology, "a preferential option" for the Jews. Unlike his dispensationalist brethren, Hagee allows that Jews can be saved from eternal damnation because they're covered by the First Covenant between God and his people. The get into Heaven by what might be called a grandfather clause.
(In a piece posted at JPost.com dated March 2, 2006, Hagee "denied" a recent report in the Jerusalem Post that he "embrace[d] the 'dual covenant' theology." In a statement to the Post, Hagee said that he doesn't "believe or teach Dual Covenant." Hagee pointed out that he had "made it a practice for 25 years not to target Jews for conversion" at the "Night to Honor Israel" events. If Jews "inquire about our faith at a later time, we give them a full scriptural presentation of redemption," he added.)
The Hagee/DeLay/Netanyahu connection
Hagee's political druthers and religious vision were on full display at the 2002 edition of "A Night to Honor Israel." The keynote speaker at the event was Texas Rep. Tom DeLay, the then majority leader of the House of Representatives. In full pre- indictment swagger, DeLay praised "President Bush's moral clarity," and reiterated his opposition to giving up land to the Palestinians.
"I've stood on the Golan," DeLay said. "When I looked to the southwest, I don't see occupied territory. I see Israel. I've walked on the streets of Jerusalem. I've been to Judea and Samaria."
The Texas Observer reported that "At the climax of the evening, Hagee presented a giant cardboard check for $1.5 million to the President and CEO of the United Jewish Communities," to be used for [the relocation of] Russian Jews to Israel. Hagee believes that bringing Jews to Israel will help to fulfill the biblical prophecy of 'the beginning of the end.'"
Instead of the Book of Revelations, talk of statecraft -- radical Christian Republican-style -- dominated. Together Hagee, DeLay, and [former Israeli prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu [via a video feed from Israel] hit similar points: Jerusalem belongs to Israel; the west bank belongs to Israel; the Temple Mount belongs to Israel; the U.S. Embassy should be in Jerusalem not Tel Aviv; Yasser Arafat is a terrorist with whom one cannot negotiate; and unconditional support for Israel is the only option. As Hagee repeatedly noted, "Israel is the only nation on earth created by a sovereign act of God."
Hagee, the author of a number of books including Attack on America: New York, Jerusalem, and the role of Terrorism in the Last Days, and The Beginning of the End: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Coming Antichrist, recently penned a non-fiction book called Jerusalem Countdown: A Warning to the World, which has already landed on best-seller lists.
The new book posits that "biblical prophecy is playing itself out daily in the Middle East," Agape Press, a Christian-based news service, reported. "Hagee says Iran's new president, coupled with...[the] victory by terrorist-backed Hamas in the Palestinian elections, paves the way for an impending war in the region."
In addition to spearheading the launch of Christians United for Israel, and appearing on a panel at the recently concluded National Religious Broadcasters convention, Hagee has aligned himself with a number of Christian right evangelicals who condemned the Evangelical Climate Initiative -- an initiative signed by 86 evangelical leaders acknowledging the seriousness of global warming and pledging to press for legislation to limit carbon dioxide emissions.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.
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