As I rounded the corner to the front of the Washington, D.C., convention center on a Sunday evening late last month, two older, portly gentlemen made their way across the street from Mt. Vernon Square. Hunched over, ID badges dangling from their necks, they entered the building just behind me, and we proceeded toward the metal detectors. We were all on our way to Pastor John Hagee's third annual Christians United for Israel (CUFI) Summit. In the lobby a large sign stated that weapons were prohibited inside the complex. On seeing it, one of the men asked loudly: "No weapons!?! But what will I do with the sword of the Lord?"
Could Hagee and his supporters leave talk of rapture, fire, brimstone, and the Lord's sword at the door? John Hagee had just come off several disastrous months following his endorsement of John McCain, subsequent revelations of politically incorrect statements about everything from Hurricane Katrina to Catholics to the Holocaust.
Hagee made apologies, McCain cut formal ties to him, and life moved on. I had come to the summit posing as a college student interested in CUFI and its efforts to see whether Hagee would moderate his image and whether his loyalists would follow suit.
Hagee's team certainly learned a valuable lesson about the importance of image control. This summit was its first opportunity to remake the Hagee brand into something moderate and marketable. The only problem is that while Hagee's team understands the need for a new image, it's not clear that his followers do. While leaders like Hagee flirted with controversy and spoke in coded innuendo, many of the attendees were not interested in toning things down. The tension was palpable.
The special guest for the first evening of the summit was Baruch Spiegel, a retired Israeli general and adviser to President Shimon Peres of Israel. During a Q&A session following a letter from Peres and a speech, Spiegel spoke friendly words about a two-state solution and former President Bill Clinton; the crowd seemed deflated. However, his final questioner was more interested in how, as the emcee paraphrased her query, "prayer warriors can focus their prayers on the Israeli military."
Afterward, I headed over to the CUFI on Campus meet and greet. The room was filled with approximately 250 students from 138 universities, and we were greeted by Hagee's wife Diane and lauded as "the dream" and "Joshua's generation." Mrs. Hagee launched into a speech about biblical rationale to support Israel. At one point she mentioned that Hitler could be reborn. Across the table, a suspiciously old-looking "student" guffawed. "Hitler reborn? Hitler has been reborn," he said, pausing for effect, "and his name is Obama."
Day Two: On the Front Lines of a Holy War
As I stood in the registration line the next morning, a middle-aged man in a Hawaiian shirt in front of me asked if I knew how we could solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I admitted I had no idea. He paused and then began to speak. "Besides Jesus coming back, it seems to me the only solution is to get all the wealthy Arabs and Jews and the U.S. government to buy each of those Palestinians their own condo." Perhaps there was hope, after all.
At a neighboring booth, a rather animated Dana Milbank of The Washington Post was trying to get the public-relations officials to let him inside to see Hagee address the convention. The result was a column in the next day's Post criticizing the summit's secrecy. (David Brog, CUFI's executive director and cheerleader extraordinaire, told Milbank that press releases announcing the conference schedule may have been the work of saboteurs.)
Milbank was not missing much. Hagee's speech was a hodge-podge, comparing the relationship between the land of Israel and the Jewish people to a marriage and warning various evildoers like Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia of ominous divine intervention. Discussion of end times and the pastor's signature fire-and-brimstone preaching was notably absent until an awkward rhetorical pivot, seemingly designed to please the crowd: "The terrorists will produce a bloodbath that will make 9-11 look like a walk in the park," Hagee proclaimed in a booming voice. "The Lord's vengeance shall soon come."
During the Q&A, one woman asked about forming a "Christian militia." Hagee grimaced; "militia" implied taking up arms. "We are in a spiritual dogfight," he said, suggesting that she use "the weapon of prayer" and "concerts of prayer" to affect "spiritual revival."
It was easy to see why the militia-monger was confused, though. The conference was never short of military jargon. We were told to establish "facts on the ground in our fight to take back America's campuses" and reminded that "you are in a war, a battle for your mind." We were "prayer warriors," set upon by many foes: the media, liberal professors, popular culture, the cultural elite, secular society, Europe, the United Nations, and, of course, the Islamo-Fascists.
That afternoon, right-wing darling former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania laid the situation out clearly: We are not at war with terror, he said, we are at war with Islamism -- a significant though small portion of the Islamic world. "Secular relativistic" liberals, he explained, "don't believe, and if you don't believe, you can't understand." To my left, a middle-aged woman with ginger-blond hair dutifully scribbled in her notebook. "Eliminate Iran," she wrote.
Day Three: Faith and Policy.
On the final day I arrived early to make sure I didn't miss the first session, which was designed to prepare CUFI members to effectively lobby the Hill. We would learn how to stick to talking points and avoid references to the rapture. David Brog, who prior to joining CUFI served as chief of staff to Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, led the session and was quick to emphasize the need to "stay on the talking points" and "talk Washington." "Faith motivates us," Brog said, "but policy is important."
What would we do if asked about the recent Hagee controversies? Blame the media: "The press got it backwards"; "most of it was inaccurate"; "out of context"; "Hagee rejected not the Catholic Church but the apostate church made up of all who reject the Gospel."
In an earlier conference session, Brog told a group of students that CUFI isn't trying to convert Jews or usher in the end times, but instead seeks build a bi-partisan pro-Israel coalition. Hagee has repeatedly said his organization is grounded in a deep love for Israel and not in some warmongering hatred of Iran or Muslims. Clearly, the strategy was to throw some bones to the media, and to allies in the Jewish community at home and abroad. Hagee's concern, ultimately, is for the state of Israel even if his motivations for supporting it are based in biblical prophesy. To further his goals he has to appeal to a broader audience than his ardent evangelical supporters.
Ultimately though, the backbone of his group is still these evangelicals. They came to his conference by the thousands, shelling out hundreds of dollars to register, travel and book a hotel. Hagee was playing a dangerous, difficult game -- trying to establish his moderate credibility by switching from supporting attacking to advocating sanctions while at the same time making sure that his ardent supporters know where he really stands by making murky references to the Lord's vengeance. When one lady asked him whether the rapture was coming, Hagee followed this new approach, responding ambiguously that "those who are ready will be raptured."
At home that evening, I watched the televised "Night to Honor Israel" Banquet, where Sen. Lieberman delivered a keynote address comparing Hagee to Moses. No Q&A session followed Lieberman's speech, nor Hagee's, nor Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Dan Gillerman's. The audience, full of ardent believers whose support for Israel was fed by a yearning for the Messiah's return, was a stage prop to cheer on a colorful ceremony with a pro-Israel agenda acceptable to most Americans. For the time being, Hagee's flock seemed to put up with his new persona, but I had to wonder how far Hagee could move to the center without upsetting, perhaps alienating his supporters. Somehow, I suspected that Hagee wasn't too worried: The end times drawing nigh would make it all irrelevant.