With the March 4 primaries out of the way, it’s clear that the John McCain/John Hagee endorsement story is not going away any time soon. Egged on by reporters, Nancy Pelosi has joined in the chorus of condemnation. Liberal Catholic groups like Catholics United have added their voices to the call by Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for McCain to denounce and reject Hagee’s embrace (which, to be sure, he solicited).
But I must confess to having acquired, along the way, a touch of queasiness about my own piling on (here and here). Joining any crusade led by Donohue is sufficient to induce such a feeling in me, but even more, I’ve been troubled by the fact that it’s the same viral YouTube clip, and the same passage from one of his books, that thus far have constituted the brief against Hagee.
Not that I doubt these pieces of evidence. They make clear that real hostility to the Catholic Church is embedded in Hagee’s dispensationalist view of the world. Specifically—and in something of a theological departure from classic anti-Catholic Protestant polemic, it’s the role of the Catholic Church in the persecution of the Jews that seems at the forefront of Hagee’s theology. How much of this Hagee gets from more recent, Christian Zionist dispensationalist thought I leave to others to say. In any event, if churches were people, some of what Hagee has to say about the Catholic Church would be considered libelous. Whatever it was guilty of vis-a-vis the Jews (and there’s sufficient to answer for), to suggest that it was actively in league with the Nazis in moving down the road to the Holocaust is just plain untrue.
But what all this adds up to is something less than what we usually mean when we identify someone as anti-Catholic in American society. Is there reason to believe that Hagee is hostile to actual Catholics, active in anything that smacks of old-time anti-Catholic nativism, or otherwise actively opposed to the Catholic thing in the present tense? In search of an answer I called Tim Matovina, who directs the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at Notre Dame, and who spent a number of years studying Latino Catholicism in San Antonio. And it seems there is some societal fire underneath the theological smoke.
Briefly, many of the members of Hagee’s huge Cornerstone Church in San Antonio are Hispanics who came out of Roman Catholicism. It is common enough for there to be pronounced religious antagonism between Latino Catholics and Protestants, and Tim himself encountered a certain amount of it when, for reasons of love, he attended a Bible study group there. He emphasized that, the few times he attended the main service, he heard nothing overtly anti-Catholic from Hagee himself. But he knew people from the church who made a practice of witnessing for their faith across from the Catholic Cathedral where he went to Mass—witnessing in a way that was overtly anti-Catholic. And he knows people who left Cornerstone because, finally, they couldn’t take the anti-Catholicism. The point here is that, in the San Antonio context within which Hagee has operated for 40 years, there are significant tensions between Catholics and Protestants—tensions fanned by the behavior of members of Hagee’s church. San Antonio itself lies on the fault line between Catholicism and evangelicalism in Texas, and Hagee’s theology very much expresses the contestation that takes place there.
As far as McCain is concerned, he cannot credibly claim that he or his campaign was blindsided by Hagee’s controversial status within Catholic circles. When Mike Huckabee spoke at Hagee’s church earlier in this campaign season, that fact emerged in the news coverage, as in this Reuters article from last December. It’s been pointed out that, back in 2000, McCain did not scruple to criticize the folks at Bob Jones University for their anti-Catholic views. There are a lot of Catholics out there in America, and he’s going to need their votes come the fall. It will, to say the least, be interesting to see how this plays out.