John McCain's pastors have gone to ground.
It's been a rough year for the Republican presidential candidate's prominent evangelical supporters. The Rev. John Hagee got in hot water for suggesting that God was behind the Holocaust and that the Roman Catholic Church is a "great whore." The Rev. Rod Parsley had some uncharitable thoughts on Islam being an "anti-Christ religion."
So it follows that all eyes would be on Hagee's group (Parsley is a regional director) when it came to town this week for its third annual "summit" of Christian Zionists. The group, Christians United for Israel, booked the convention and publicized its agenda widely in the media.
But Hagee seems to have had a conversion on the road to Washington.
"I have some bad news for you," announced the group's spokeswoman, Avraleigh Keats, when reporters showed up for a panel with Hagee and Gary Bauer, president of the group American Values, yesterday morning. "There's been a change. There's no press allowed. . . . No interviews. No filming. Nothing."
So why did Hagee's group announce the summit agenda with such fanfare and invite the public to watch? Executive Director David Brog speculated darkly: "I don't know if it was someone trying to sabotage us."
A secret Christian Zionist meeting? Talk of sabotage? It was the sort of thing that caused McCain to distance himself from Hagee and Parsley in the first place. But while McCain has officially renounced the pair (and they him), the program for the summit suggests the distancing came with a wink and a nod. It touts as speakers top McCain surrogate Joe Lieberman and Bauer, a prominent McCain supporter and an informal adviser to the campaign. It displayed three photos of McCain with Hagee at last year's summit.
This election may well come down to which candidate can better control his crazy pastors -- and after yesterday's weirdness at the convention center, McCain has fallen behind by about two cubits.
Both McCain and Barack Obama, of course, have seriously revved-up revs: Obama quit his church over the Rev. Jeremiah "God Damn America" Wright's various explosions and the Rev. Michael Pfleger's bashing of Hillary Clinton. Hagee, in turn, has called Catholicism a "false cult," blamed gays for Hurricane Katrina, and preached that Hitler came about "because God said my top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel." Parsley, meanwhile, called the prophet Muhammad "the mouthpiece of a conspiracy of spiritual evil."
But Hagee continues to be a big draw, as this week's program makes clear. His executive board includes Bauer; Jonathan Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va.; and Michael Little, president of the Christian Broadcasting Network. His speakers include former senator Rick Santorum, radio host Dennis Prager and country singer Randy Travis. And the group trades on its influence: For the $365 "Lion of Judah"-level membership, you get quarterly teleconference calls "with Israeli and U.S. elected officials."
McCain called Hagee's Holocaust words "crazy" as he took his leave of the pastor. But others in the McCain orbit have a different view. Bauer, in an article for Hagee's magazine, defended the preacher's Holocaust remarks, blaming "character assassination" and "evil" distortion by a "leftwing smear machine." Lieberman, who at last year's meeting compared Hagee to Moses, called the pastor's words "unacceptable and hurtful" but also praised the "entire span" of his work.
Brog, the executive director of Christians United, wrote that Hagee was done in by an "auto-da-fé" performed by "people who know nothing about you, and who've never read a complete transcript of anything you've said." The group's Web site says "it is more important than ever that pro-Israel Christians make their voices heard!" And the banners hanging above the metal detectors at the event yesterday proclaimed a verse from Isaiah: "For Zion's sake I will not keep silent."
And then, silence.
One by one, reporters from CNN, Talk News Radio, the Jerusalem Post, the Forward, The Washington Post, even U.S. government-funded al-Hurra, showed up yesterday for the advertised speeches by Hagee and Bauer. They had seen the notices -- which Hagee's group had placed -- on the Reuters and Associated Press news wires and several other outlets.
"We have a little problem here," spokeswoman Keats said into her cellphone, as she tried to suggest to reporters that they'd have better luck if they returned today. When the reporters demanded to know why the session had suddenly been closed to the public, Roy Casanova, another official from Hagee's group, summoned three security guards and a D.C. police officer to the scene.
Secrecy is becoming a familiar pattern for Hagee. Earlier this month, he and his copyright lawyers managed to get YouTube to remove 120 videos of him preaching. And now, for the first time, he wanted to have his "summit" meeting in private.
Belatedly, Christians United put out a statement saying it wanted "to create a more intimate" meeting, "more beneficial to our members and core audience." So much for Brog's complaint that Hagee was misunderstood because people "never read a complete transcript" of his words.
Asked for an account of Hagee's secret meeting, Brog replied: "We're not going to make that transcript available."