On Purim, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the day Queen Esther saved the Jews from annihilation, Trinity Broadcasting Network's flagship talk show, Praise the Lord, featured an appearance by Rabbi Daniel Lapin. A politically conservative Orthodox rabbi, Lapin is best known for crusading with the Christian right against anti-religion bigotry and, more recently, for his close association with the convicted super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But he was not invited to a nationwide telecast to discuss such topics as the trumped-up war against religion or the better nature of his fallen friend. He had been asked to explain the significance of Purim to Christians, and particularly how the Old Testament's Book of Esther "serves as a roadmap to reality," which pinpoints where the next world "hot spot" will be.
That soon-to-be-flaming location is where the Book of Esther was set: namely Persia, or in modern parlance, Iran.
Seated beside Lapin in the ornately gilded Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) studio was Pastor John Hagee, the author of an incendiary new book purporting to show that the Bible predicts a military confrontation with Iran. By then, Hagee's book, Jerusalem Countdown, had sold nearly 500,000 copies. It had occupied the No. 1 position on the Wal-Mart inspirational best-seller list, showed up on Wal-Mart's list of top 10 best sellers for seven weeks, and made the USA Today top 50 best-seller list for six weeks.
Hagee, who serves as head pastor of the 18,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, hosts his own television program that is seen twice a day on TBN. He argues that the United States must join Israel in a pre-emptive military strike against Iran to fulfill God's plan for both Israel and the West. Shortly after the release of his book last January, he launched Christians United for Israel (CUFI), a lobbying organization intended, he says, to be a Christian version of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee. With CUFI, which Hagee has said will cause a "political earthquake," the televangelist aims to put the political organizing muscle of the conservative evangelical movement behind his grand plan for a biblically prophesied end-time confrontation with Iran, which will lead to the Rapture, Tribulation, and Second Coming of Christ.
While Washington insiders wonder and worry whether President Bush really is bent on a military strike against Iran, Hagee already has spent months mobilizing the shock troops in support of another war. As diplomats, experts, and pundits debate how many years Iran will need to develop a viable nuclear weapon, Hagee says the mullahs already possess the means to destroy Israel and America. And although Bush insists that diplomatic options are still on the table, Hagee has dismissed pussyfooting diplomacy and primed his followers for a conflagration.
Indeed, Hagee wields "a very large megaphone" that reaches "a very large group of people," said Rabbi James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee, who has studied the Christian right for 30 years. With CUFI, the Texas pastor has exponentially expanded the reach of his megaphone beyond his television audience. Thanks to the viral marketing made possible by the hundreds of evangelical leaders who have signed on to his new organization, his warmongering has rippled through mega-churches across America for months.
Hagee calls pastors "the spiritual generals of America," an appropriate phrase given his reliance on them to rally their troops behind his message. The CUFI board of directors includes the Reverend Jerry Falwell, former Republican presidential candidate and religious right activist Gary Bauer, and George Morrison, pastor to the 8,000-member Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada, Colorado, and chairman of the board of Promise Keepers. Rod Parsley, the Ohio televangelist who is rapidly becoming a major political figure in the Christian right, signed on as a regional director. Among CUFI's other supporters are nationally syndicated Christian right talk show host Janet Parshall, who serves on its board of advisers, and Ron Wexler, an Orthodox Jew and president of the theocratic Ten Commandments Commission, which has the backing of nearly every prominent conservative evangelical in the country. Many popular TBN televangelists, among them the controversial faith healer Benny Hinn and the best-selling author of self-improvement books, Joyce Meyer, have also offered their support. Meyer was named one of the country's 25 most influential evangelicals in an oft-cited 2005 Time magazine article -- as was Stephen Strang, CEO of Strang Communications, which published Jerusalem Countdown. Long before his launch of CUFI, Hagee had sought to influence American policy toward the Middle East. For 25 years, he has hosted a "Night to Honor Israel" at his church, an event that showcased Tom DeLay as the keynote speaker in 2002, and that has attracted leaders of the Israeli government as well as American politicians.
Now 66 years old, the ambitious preacher divorced his first wife 30 years ago when their children were ages 3 and 6, and less than six months later married his second wife, who happened to be 12 years his junior. Despite this apparent moral lapse, other evangelicals have long looked to him for guidance. The Christian pollster George Barna recently reported that Hagee is ranked in the top 10 spokesmen for Christianity among other Pentecostals. Morrison, who has been friends with Hagee for more than 20 years and whose ministry has likewise "always seen Israel in God's plan for the future," says that Hagee "has proven himself as a spiritual leader in the country. And he has the platform, his TV ministry and 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." (Hagee himself, as well as Falwell and Bauer, declined to be interviewed for this article.)
David Brog, a former chief of staff to Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican, serves on CUFI's board of advisers. Standing With Israel, his book urging Jews to embrace the support of evangelical Christians, has just been published by Strang Communications. Brog believes that CUFI "can have an enormous influence. It can really create a player where there isn't currently one." As to whether Hagee has the organizational skills to pull off such a project, Brog added that the pastor is a "great administrator" and a "great leader," and was able to build his church and TV ministry because "he's a good businessman, he's a good organizer."
But Hagee the businessman -- along with friends like Hinn, Meyer, Parsley, and other TBN televangelists, including the network's top executives, Paul and Jan Crouch -- has come under fire for excessive compensation derived from his nonprofit ministries. According to his organization's tax returns, Hagee has earned more than $1 million annually since 1999 in salary and deferred compensation from his nonprofit Global Evangelism Television and Cornerstone Church. In 2004, the San Antonio News Express reported that he was the highest-paid nonprofit executive in that city; his pay was nearly twice that of the next best-paid executive.
TBN is the largest Christian television network in the world, claiming to reach more than 92 million households in the United States alone, and since 9-11 has expanded its worldwide reach into Muslim countries, including Iran. Despite TBN's claim to represent the whole of Christianity, however, many Christians might not recognize their religion in TBN's "Word of Faith" programming. Word of Faith is a nondenominational Pentecostal movement, based on the power of the spoken word to claim one's spiritual and material desires and to purge devils from one's life. The movement's other central tenet, which critics say leads to the excessive compensation of its leaders, is the notion that "sowing a seed" -- contributing to the ministry -- will result in the donor's "harvest" of personal prosperity. Like the televangelists' individual ministries, TBN is operated by a nonprofit entity, so contributions are tax-deductible to the donor and tax free to the ministry. While TBN reaps more than $100 million of revenue per year, mostly from viewer donations, Hagee's organization reports annual revenues of about $15 million.
Olé Anthony is president of the Trinity Foundation, an independent watchdog of TBN and its televangelists. He says that the ministries increase donations through "sophisticated direct-mail campaigns," using mailing lists compiled as a result of viewers calling the "prayer lines" advertised on television programs. He regards the abuse of the prayer lines to get callers' names and addresses as "one of the many scandals of the religious world of television."
Although many Christians consider the money-centered word of faith theology to be a form of heresy, the Republican Party has embraced TBN's audience as a valuable constituency. Rabbi Lapin, who himself has met personally with President Bush, told the Prospect that Hagee "without question, yes, absolutely" has the ear of the White House. But he declined to identify any officials by name, claiming "there's a lot of sensitivity in government circles about the so-called religious right." TBN has made much of its own Republican connections, touting network founder Paul Crouch's relationship with John Ashcroft (they attended the same church as children) -- and the Republicans have returned the compliment.
In his 1999 campaign memoir, Bush recalls feeling "spellbound" by the preaching of Dallas-based TBN televangelist T.D. Jakes, whom he has since invited to participate in official White House events. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has lauded TBN's efforts to expand its broadcasting into China. TBN's lawyer is Colby May, who also serves as counsel to the American Center for Law and Justice, a group founded by Pat Robertson, whose president Jay Sekulow, a converted Jew, advised Bush on his Supreme Court nominees. May also represents certain members of Congress on legislative initiatives and helped draft the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act, which, if passed, would lift the ban on electioneering from the pulpit. Its chief sponsor, Congressman Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican, has appeared on Praise the Lord to promote the bill. Other guests on TBN programming have included Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican; Texas gop co-chairman David Barton; and Oliver North, the radio host and Iran-Contra scandal celebrity.
Several years ago, after Crouch interviewed California Congressman Duke Cunningham, he wrote in TBN's newsletter: "What a soul-winner he is! Every time he shares his powerful testimony, lives are touched, and our SOULS TOTAL soars!" That was long before Cunningham pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy, and fell under suspicion of providing favors to a defense contractor who sent him prostitutes via limousine.
For Hagee's new project, his influence in washington is probably less important than his influence over his audience. With the clout of his listeners, he can serve Bush administration hawks by firing up grass-roots support for a military strike against Iran. TBN has provided several opportunities for Hagee to promote his book on Praise the Lord, several installments of his own program, and a two-day appearance on Benny Hinn's show. Through the marketing efforts of Strang Communications, which placed national radio advertising spots for Jerusalem Countdown on The Sean Hannity Show, The O'Reilly Factor, and Janet Parshall's America, Hagee brought his Armageddon message to a wider conservative audience. His end-times theology is nothing new; countless numbers of self-proclaimed prophets of the end of the world have demanded attention since the beginning of time. The difference now is that TBN's relentless fund raising -- along with advances in digital and satellite broadcasting technology -- has permitted worldwide dissemination of his ominous predictions. Through TBN, other religious and conservative media, and the growing mega-churches, Hagee has turned his Bible-thumping not only into a multi-million dollar business, but into a pro-war movement as well.
While pundits and politicians in Washington debate the merits of confrontation with Tehran, Hagee and other evangelical leaders plan to activate hundreds of congregations across the country -- many of which boast tens of thousands of members -- to flood congressional inboxes with e-mails at the touch of a button. The message from the heartland, beyond the ken of elites who cannot quite imagine such a decision, will be to strike Iran before it is too late.
The pages of Jerusalem Countdown provide 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," says the author without a trace of irony. "It's that close to where we are and beyond." Oddly enough he predicted, allegedly relying on information from a "reliable" Israeli source, that Iran would have a nuclear weapon ready by April 2006 -- the month during which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran had enriched uranium, although apparently not nearly enough to make a bomb.
The particulars of Iran's nuclear program, however, do not seem to interest Hagee. In many of his appearances last winter, before the Iranian president's announcement, 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." (His command of politics in Islamic countries is similarly flawed; he repeatedly has called Iranian religious fundamentalists "Wahabbists," even though Wahabbism is a form of Sunni Islam, and the overwhelming majority of Iranians are Shiites.) Last March, 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." That statement is blatantly false, even according to the most pessimistic assessments of Iran's nuclear prowess, but Hagee's purpose is to frighten his listeners, not to inform them.
He speaks simultaneously to two audiences about Iran's nuclear capabilities: one that fears a terrorist attack by Iran and another that embraces a biblically mandated apocalypse. To impress the fearful, he mimics Bush's deceptions about Iraq's capacity to attack the United States with weapons of mass destruction, Condoleezza Rice's warnings of mushroom clouds, and Dick Cheney's dissembling about an alliance between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. Comparing Ahmadinejad to Hitler, Hagee argues that Iran's development of nuclear weapons must be stopped to protect America and Israel from a nuclear attack. Preying on legitimate worries about terrorism, and invoking 9-11, he vividly describes 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."
When addressing audiences receptive to Scriptural prophecy, however, Hagee welcomes the 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 his appearance on Hinn's program at the end of last March, for example, the host enthused, "We are living in the last days. These are the most exciting days in church history," but 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.
The rhetoric in 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 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. Naturally, he expresses contempt for the possibilities offered by diplomacy, calling the U.N. Security Council "a joke." Lapin says "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 -- two members of the Security Council resisting sanctions on Iran -- as America's enemies, adding that Russia has helped Iran build long-range missiles that could reach New York City. (Those don't exist, either.)
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 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.
Now that's entertainment.
Notwithstanding Hagee's bizarre narrative of the future, certain Jewish leaders value what they call his support for Israel, and appreciate his pledge not to actively proselytize Jews -- a promise that sets him apart from other evangelicals. Rudin says that while he welcomes Hagee's support for Israel, he is uneasy "with what I feel is placing Jews and Judaism and the state of Israel into somebody else's divine play."
Hagee's divine play is based, in part, on Genesis 12:3. The same verse he uses to argue that America should unconditionally back Israel ("I will curse him who curses you."), he also cites to explain why Christians should love the Jewish people ("I will bless those who bless you."). During TBN's April "Praise-a-Thon," he invoked that verse for yet a third reason: to urge viewers to give their money to the network. Hagee told his viewers that "[g]iving is the only proof you have that the cancer of greed has not consumed your soul."
Besides his million-dollar compensation package, Hagee has a portfolio of other ventures, including a cattle ranch in south Texas that may have religious significance. Many evangelicals believe that the arrival of a "perfect red heifer" will signal the end times. In the Old Testament, burning a red heifer and sprinkling its ashes is described as a purification ritual for priests entering the temple. Ultra-orthodox Jews believe that the birth of a modern perfect red heifer will herald the arrival of the messiah, leading to a confrontation with Muslims over the Temple Mount, where Jews believe the Temple will be rebuilt. Some evangelicals likewise regard the red heifer as a harbinger of the ultimate showdown at the Temple Mount, which they believe will be the site of the Second Coming. And they believe that time is near.
To many other observers, the advent of the red heifer threatens to provoke a violent struggle for control of the Temple Mount, with worldwide repercussions. In the late 1990s, a group of unidentified Texas ranchers reportedly bred a perfect red heifer, which generated excitement in evangelical circles until the animal sprouted some black hairs.
Six years ago, the John C. Hagee Royalty Trust paid more than $5.5 million for a 7,600-acre ranch in Brackettville, Texas, where cattle are raised in a venture with the Texas Israel Agricultural Research Foundation, a nonprofit outfit operated by the pastor. (Another part of the property is a resort hunting facility, where guests paying up to $250 for a night's stay can also land their planes at the ranch's private airstrip.) Last year, Hagee hired one of the top lobbyists in San Antonio, David Earl, to urge the state Legislature to exempt Hagee's foundation from water-use regulations. A spokeswoman for the bill's sponsor, Representative Frank Corte, whose district includes Hagee's church, said that he introduced it on behalf of a constituent, but added that she was not authorized to divulge the identity of that constituent. (The bill stalled in committee.) Earl said that Hagee wants to share information to improve the production of livestock, particularly cattle, with an Israeli research project, but otherwise claimed to be unsure of the particulars. Dr. Scott Farhart, an obstetrician and trustee of the John C. Hagee Royalty Trust (and an elder at Hagee's church), did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the director of the ranch.
Esther is a favorite Old Testament figure of many evangelicals, a heroine who saved her people from a genocidal plot masterminded by the evil vizier Haman through her influence as the wife of the King of Persia. When she and her cousin Mordecai discussed whether she should risk death by intervening with the king, he encouraged her by suggesting that she had a divine role; perhaps she had come to the kingdom, he said, for such a time as this. Evangelicals often invoke that phrase to elevate the relevance of modern-day figures. In 2004, Laura Bush repeated a story about a woman she met on the campaign trail who told her that the President was born for such a time as this. In a recent message sent by e-mail to CUFI supporters, Hagee wrote that his organization is exactly in the position of Esther. Israel is in a time of crisis. A 21st-century Hitler (the president of Iran) has put in place a plan to exterminate the Jews with nuclear warfare. If we remain completely silent at this time, God's punishment will come to us also.
Hagee doesn't fear a nuclear conflagration, but rather God's wrath for standing by as Iran executes its supposed plot to destroy Israel. A nuclear confrontation between America and Iran, which he says is foretold in the Book of Jeremiah, will not lead to the end of the world, but rather to God's renewal of the Garden of Eden. But he also reveals that he is ultimately less concerned with the fate of Israel or the Jews than with a theocratic Christian right agenda. When Jesus returns for his millennial reign, the righteous are going to rule the nations of the earth. When Jesus Christ comes back, he's not going to ask the ACLU if it's alright to pray, he's not going to ask the churches if they can ordain pedophile bishops and priests, he's not going to ask if it's all right to put the Ten Commandments in the statehouses, he's not going to endorse abortion, he's going to run the world by the word of God and the world will never end. It's going to become a Garden of Eden, and Christ is going to rule it.
Sarah Posner's profile of TBN televangelist Rod Parsley, With God on His Side, appeared in the November 2005 issue of the Prospect.