John McCain likes to think of himself as a straight shooter—a man of honor who doesn't duck tough questions. But at least one question does get him bobbing and weaving: why doesn't he renounce the endorsement of Pastor John Hagee, the San Antonio televangelist who has offended Roman Catholics and other groups?
On the trail, McCain tries to stay away from talking about Hagee. In New Orleans last month, he grew irritated when asked about the pastor's views on Hurricane Katrina. "It's nonsense, it's nonsense, it's nonsense," McCain said when a reporter drew attention to Hagee's 2006 statement to National Public Radio that New Orleans had suffered "the judgment of God" because of its "level of sin." McCain refused to disavow Hagee's support. "Would I consider repudiating his endorsement?" McCain said to reporters on the back of his bus. "I certainly condemn those parts of his remarks. [But] I continue to appreciate his support for the state of Israel and for many of the good things that he and his church have done."
McCain and his aides draw a sharp distinction between his relationship to Hagee and Barack Obama's ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. "I didn't attend Pastor Hagee's church for 20 years," the candidate told reporters on his Straight Talk Express. "And there's a great deal of difference, in my view, between someone who endorses you, and other circumstances." McCain's aides attribute the Hagee controversy to poor vetting. But even some Republicans (not affiliated with the campaign) privately wonder how the pastor's extreme views slipped through without notice. McCain personally wooed Hagee for more than a year. In early 2007, the Arizona senator traveled to Hagee's Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, where the two men had breakfast. They bonded over a shared commitment to the protection of Israel, a meeting that McCain later cited as a sign of his outreach to social conservatives.
While Hagee declined to publicly endorse McCain at that time, the pastor donated to his campaign and organized, with Jerry Falwell, a reception for the senator at a convention of influential religious broadcasters. After McCain's campaign collapsed last summer, Hagee stuck with the senator, traveling in September to South Carolina, where he introduced McCain at the first stop of the candidate's "No Surrender" comeback tour. In turn, the senator praised Hagee for his strong support for the war in Iraq and was a keynote speaker at the annual meeting of Christians United for Israel, a pro-Israel group that Hagee founded.
"When someone endorses me, that does not mean that I endorse everything he stands for and believes in," McCain said last month. "I don't have to agree with everyone that endorses my campaign." But that may seem insensitive to those who have been offended by Hagee's more controversial positions. The pastor has made some outrageous comments. He called the Catholic Church, among other things, "the great whore" and "a false cult system." Hagee says his comments were taken out of context; he says he was not referring to modern Catholicism, but to what he says were the anti-Semitic views of the Catholic Church in the past. The Catholic League, which published a list of Hagee's "slurs" against the church, has called on McCain to renounce the endorsement.
Hagee also has strong views about the Middle East. He believes the United States has a Biblical obligation to support Israel, and he has advocated a pre-emptive strike on Iran to protect the Jewish state. He opposes a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, suggesting that if Washington backs such a plan, God might punish Americans by dispatching terrorists. "If God brings this nation into judgment," he warns in an undated video on YouTube.com, "he will very likely release the terrorists you've let get here through the ridiculous immigration policy you refuse to stop, and this nation is going to go through a bloodbath."
Hagee threw his public backing behind McCain in late February, joining the senator at a press conference in San Antonio, where he promised his "vigorous, enthusiastic and personal support" of McCain's campaign. But since then, Hagee and McCain haven't been seen together. The pastor has tried to limit potential damage. After McCain visited New Orleans, for instance, Hagee backed off his remarks about divine retribution there, releasing a statement that "ultimately neither I nor anyone else can know the mind of God concerning Hurricane Katrina. I should not have suggested otherwise." Hagee won't answer questions about McCain or his campaign. "It's better that I don't," he said on a recent conference call with reporters. That's one view McCain probably does agree with.