Of course, it comes as no surprise to those of us who understand the doctrinal swamp that is premillenial dispensationalism. But to a secular press, and a naive John McCain, the revelation that one of McCain’s most prominent evangelical supporters believes some pretty weird things about the meaning of scripture, the role of the Jews and the nature of God was shocking. “You mean these people think God is a capricious old sky tyrant, and that He would send millions of people to horrible deaths so that a Jewish republic could be set up within the Biblical borders of the ancient land of Israel?” Yep, that’s what they believe.
The speed with which McCain unaccepted John Hagee’s endorsement was due to his campaign’s desire to avoid the type of negative hits that Barak Obama took after his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, was revealed to have made numerous statements that could only be categorized as anti-American. Obama finally ditched him, but the incident plagued his campaign for several weeks and may yet come back to haunt him if he is the Democratic nominee this fall.
McCain has also recently unceremoniously dumped Rod Parsley, the Ohio pastor whom he called his “spiritual guide” back in February (when he was still worried about the insurgent Baptist minister Mike Huckabee) after quotes from Parsley’s book Silent No More, appeared on the internet. In it, Parsley claims that America was founded, in part, “with the intention of seeing this false religion [Islam] destroyed.” He then calls on Americans to take up the sword (or the nuclear bomb) against Muslims. So much for spiritual guidance.
These are the hazards that politicians encounter when they set about at play in the fields of the Lord. When you attempt to gain the support of religious leaders, right or left, you should do so knowing that religious people speak a language different from the language of a republic founded on the (mostly) secular values of Enlightenment humanism.
Religious people often understand the world through the teachings of religious leaders who interpret their sacred texts. Whether that’s the Dalai Lama, the Supreme Ayatollah, the Pope or the Primate of Nigeria, and whether the language of faith is prophetic (Wright) or dialectical (Hagee), interpreted in a secular context, it reveals the vast chasm between faith which makes absolute truth claims and a pluralistic world which demands tolerance towards other beliefs (or lack thereof).
When Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell called Hurricane Katrina the judgment of God on the sin-filled city of New Orleans, people outside their hermeneutical circle were alternately shocked and puzzled. But their interpretation of the disaster makes perfect sense if you understand that in their world view, God punishes people who break divine laws with plague, pestilence, earthquakes and floods. Robertson and Falwell were from differing camps within evangelical Christianity, but shared the dialectical view of Divine sovereignty with John Hagee: God has purposed a certain outcome of history and manipulates events towards that end. While Robertson and Hagee lean towards a nominally Wesleyan view (which allows for a certain amount of human free will) and Falwell toward a Calvinist (and highly deterministic) one, their disagreements are more style than substance. It’s why George Bush, the faith-based President, denounced their remarks, but never their support. He wanted the mantle of evangelical support around his shoulders, the better to justify his reckless policies.
When you seek the support of people of faith, you drag their beliefs with you into a public square crowded with those who believe quite differently. When the Democratic party began its own faith-based initiatives, particularly after the publication of Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics, the Democrats dragged along the likes of Jeremiah Wright, with his beliefs that God will damn America for its history of racism. The Republicans have become so good at this cynical game, invented by Ronald Reagan, that they know how to throw the offending believers overboard before the damage gets too severe, while the Democrats still are caught in the headlights. Reagan seduced the evangelical right by throwing them the occasion rhetorical bone, but in his policies he was as secular as John Kennedy, who famously disavowed any loyalty to the See of Rome. Catholics loved him anyway. Reagan, who rarely attended church, has been beatified by the evangelical right as the veritable Second Coming of St. Augustine, whose mighty command in West Berlin brought down the Iron Curtain.
Perhaps the current scuffle over whose religious supporters are nuttier, and who in his heart of hearts believes them in spite of protestations to the contrary, will soon pass. But maybe it’s a good time to remember that the inventor of a wall of separation between sacred and secular was not Thomas Jefferson, but a Galilean rabbi, who said two thousand years ago: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.”
Political candidates are welcome to seek the support of people of faith, but they shouldn’t be surprised when those people believe what they say they believe and those beliefs clash with the pluralism of a nation in which you are free to believe anything at all.