The Gospel According to John

Pastor John Hagee's new project has one goal: mobilization of American support for Israel - with no restrictions, conditions, qualifications or apologies. And what does he want in return?

SAN ANTONIO, Texas - In the courtyard of Pastor John Hagee's church, there is a wall of hewn stones on which is inscribed the well-known verse from Psalms: "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee" (122:6). On a warm cloudy day in the short spring that precedes the Texan summer of scorching, oppressive heat, Hagee affectionately caresses his wall, its cool stones, which he imported specially from Jerusalem, and the white slips of paper that members of his congregation have inserted in its cracks, slips bearing prayers and special requests.

He prays for the peace of Jerusalem, he tells me, because he knows Israel's citizens are tired of war. Millions of people will join him in his prayers: the 18,000 members of his Cornerstone Church in suburban San Antonio and the millions who have read his 10 books or have been exposed to his sermons and messages through his radio and television stations and publishing house. No matter what you may think of John Hagee, one salient fact cannot be denied: He has a large following. Through his speeches, religious faith and organizational skills, which should not be underestimated, he has created a magnificent evangelical industry and he has plans for further expansion.

Hagee is now working to help Israel's Jews. His new project, on which he will spend many hours and many days, has one goal: mobilization of American support for Israel. Support without any restrictions, conditions, qualifications or apologies. He is harnessing all his powers for this project and, on July 18, he intends to go to Washington with the team of activists his assistant Steve Sorensen, whose office is located next door to the church, is presently gathering to serve as regional, state and municipal coordinators. Each district in America will have its own coordinator who will recruit activists, supervise activities, maintain contact with elected officials and, wherever necessary, remind them of the first rule of politics: If you want to be elected, you must obey the will of the people.

All those who have written about his new organization, Christians United for Israel (CUFI), have compared it to the pro-Israel lobby in the United States, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and the two bodies are similar. CUFI is based on a simple assumption, rooted in the reality of American politics: Elected officials never stop campaigning and so are in need of a constant flow of activists, cash and local support. The support will be provided by those few individuals willing to invest their time and energy, the money by affluent citizens who use their wealth to influence causes dear to their heart. The millions upon millions of evangelical Christians who support Israel are diligent, enthusiastic and full of faith in their beliefs and they are a force that must be reckoned with. That is why elected officials will pay close attention to what he says and what they will hear will be incredibly simple: Vote for Israel, support Israel.

Hagee has set for himself several goals. By July he wants to complete work on his organization's skeleton - through the election of branch heads - and he has made much progress. These are the people who will be coming to Washington and who will meet, individually, with the elected officials they have been assigned to. His 50-state rapid-response network, which will send faxes and e-mails and bombard with telephone calls, is quickly growing and taking shape. Once a year in every major American city, an entire evening will be organized, devoted to helping Israel. An evening of support. And what does Hagee expect in return for this support? Absolutely nothing, he replies. Many people - Jews and Israelis alike - may suspect his motives but Hagee says this does not deter him and certainly does not anger him. After two millennia of persecution under the Church's aegis, Christian anti-Semitism is the basis for nearly all the Jews' suffering, Hagee argues, and many generations of authentic Christian friendship will be necessary to build up trust. He is a very patient individual, he points out, and he intends to support Israel even if he encounters a high wall of distrust. What he is doing, he explains, is not for the purpose of gaining approval from Israelis or Americans. He is acting because he believes he is acting out God's will.

Laughs with Sharon

God, Hagee is firmly convinced, has never abandoned Israel. Thus, in response to all those who suspect that what he really intends to do is to convert the Jews to Christianity, he quotes verses from the New Testament, such as Romans 11:1, "I say then, Hath God cast away his people? God forbid," or Rom. 15:27, which has taught him that he is obligated to help the Jews - "and their debtors they are. For if the Gentiles have been made partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister unto them in carnal things"...

Hagee's theology is clear and determined: He will not attempt to persuade Jews to convert to Christianity; that is not his aim.

In the lobby adjacent to his office are the pictures of three individuals: Menachem Begin, with whom he met three times; Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, the latter when they were both younger, he quips.

The photograph with Sharon was taken in the mid-1980s, when Sharon was in political exile after the war in Lebanon. Hagee recalls telling Sharon at the time that, although his situation was not all that bright, one day he would see his status restored and he would be prime minister. Sharon laughed. Even in the photo he is laughing. Hagee says Sharon had a wonderful sense of humor and, apparently, a fantastic memory. When they met many years later, and he was already prime minister, Sharon told Hagee that he remembered what he had said to him.

In the corridor are the portrait paintings of nearly all of Israel's prime ministers: Rabin, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Shamir, Benjamin Netanyahu, Sharon, Begin, Shimon Peres, even David Ben-Gurion. However, the only one who was allowed into Hagee's inner office was Begin. Hagee recalls that Begin would always say that Israel had a mandate from the Bible on the Holy Land. That is also what Hagee believes.

What are his plans for the future? The organization Hagee is creating will support Israel but what policies will he back precisely? What will he do if the Israeli government decides to evacuate parts of the Holy Land that were promised to the Jews? Hagee has a ready answer for that question and it is clear he chooses his words carefully to avoid falling into any traps. He replies that the land belongs to the Jews and, although he would prefer that they not give it to anyone else, he concedes that, if they choose to do so, they are free to make such a decision.

But what would his Christian lobby do in such a case? How would it react? Hagee has a prepared response to that question as well. No, he would not help advance decisions that would speed up an evacuation, yet he would not stand in their way. In any event, he would never dream of actively opposing the Israeli government. He cites the example of an Israeli hospital that began performing abortions. What did Hagee do? He simply transferred his support to another institution. That is how he will act if settlements and territories are evacuated. He can always help orphanages, hospitals and needy communities in Israel. He will find the right worthy cause and his support for Israel will continue. Apparently, Hagee has found a formula that one would be hard pressed to argue against.

Jerusalem countdown

Like many others, Hagee is very concerned about the Iranian threat. On one of the bookshelves in his office is his book, "Jerusalem Countdown," whose subject is this threat. It can be purchased in paperback, often at a discount, for about 15 dollars. He feels Israel is facing a great danger and he believes Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad must be taken seriously - not just by Israel, but by the entire world. In the same breath, he points out how tiny Israel is: 28 Israels could fit into Texas. And Texas is only one of the 50 states in America. He wrote his book after a visit by a friend from Israel who insisted a year ago that he must warn the world of the growing danger. Since that time, he says, that danger has only grown. Talks or negotiations will not produce a solution capable of reducing the danger.

Hagee is convinced Ahmadinejad will never allow any diplomatic pressure to budge him. Iran, says Hagee, does not respect the United Nations and the Iranian president considers himself another messiah. According to Hagee, Ahmadinejad will never agree to participate in a rational dialogue because he wants to bring about Islam's globalization. Hagee is convinced about something else as well: If Ahmadinejad achieves nuclear capability, he will use it against both Israel and the United States.

And so, it is not too hard to guess what solution Hagee would prefer. He hopes the U.S. will join Israel in the demolition of Iran's nuclear facilities. Afterwards, he says, there will be a need for land-based operations to ensure Iran's dangerous regime is replaced. Would this not be a dangerous operation? Hagee chuckles: An Iran with nuclear capability is a far more dangerous proposition.

And what about Hamas? He asks how it is at all possible to live with people who want to kill you. He turns around toward the large library behind him and takes a Bible off the shelf. He quickly finds the passage he wants. It is from Deuteronomy: "When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it... And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it: And ... thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword" (Deut. 20:10-13).

He tells me that he grew up on the Bible. This, he says, is his moral compass and, basing himself on the Bible, he believes something must be done. Fifty-eight years ago he was sitting in the kitchen with his father when it was announced over the radio that the State of Israel had been created. He recalls that he had tears in his eyes. His father announced this was the most important event of the 20th century and he believed his father's words were absolutely right.

My own father used to say there were two ways of doing things: The right way, as prescribed by the Torah, and the wrong way. Hagee believes in that principle with all his heart. That is why he is not prepared to listen to any talk about realistic compromises or about political necessities. Sometimes, he admits, the right way is harder but that does not mean that one should therefore not choose it.