On his nightly television show recently, MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell said that Texas governor Rick Perry is not suitable to be president of the United States because of his connection to one man — Pastor John Hagee of San Antonio, Texas.
“Because Rick Perry has invited Hagee to his prayer event, the idiotic governor of Texas now owns that Hagee quote,” O’Donnell said in reference to a sermon Hagee delivered more than a decade ago in which he explored the connection between the evils of the Holocaust and the notion that God is loving and omnipotent. “Rick Perry owns the idea that Hitler’s killing 6 million Jews was God’s idea,” O’Donnell continued.
The implication of O’Donnell’s words was clear: Hagee is an anti-Semite, a Jew hater—and Perry is guilty by association.
But for those who know Hagee, and for those who are themselves acutely aware of the evils of anti-Semitism, O’Donnell’s charge is simply not true.
“He surely is not an anti-Semite, from what I can tell,” Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel told me in a phone interview. “He loves the Jewish state and the Jewish people. From what I learned during those meetings [with Hagee], he is not an anti-Semite.”
“I have not heard him [say anything anti-Semitic]. Nobody has ever told me that,” Wiesel said.
In order to levy the serious accusation of anti-Semitism onto another person, Wiesel said, the burden of proof is high and lies with the accuser. “To charge or to accuse someone of anti-Semitism is a very serious charge. Anti-Semitism today means that somebody hates the Jewish people—for all the reasons that people in the past have hated the Jewish people. Someone should not accuse someone else of anti-Semitism unless he has exceptional research that shows that this man or woman is an anti-Semite.”
On O’Donnell’s MSNBC show, the host’s proof for Hagee’s alleged anti-Semitism was this lone passage, which Hagee delivered more than ten years ago:
JOHN HAGEE, PASTOR: Hitler was a hunter, and the Bible says, Jeremiah writing, they shall hunt them from every mountain and from every hill out of the holes of the rocks -- meaning there’s no place to hide. And that would be offensive to people, well, dear heart, be offended. I didn’t write it. Jeremiah wrote it.
It was the truth and it is the truth. How did it happen? Because God allowed it to happen. Why did it happen? Because God said my top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel.
Hagee himself has previously explained the sermon that he delivered in 1999. “[C]entral to my faith is a belief in an omnipotent, sovereign God,” Hagee wrote in a letter addressed to Anti-Defamation League national director Abe Foxman. “In a sermon in 1999, I grappled with the vexing question of why a loving God would allow the evil of the Holocaust to occur. I know how sensitive the issue of the Holocaust is and should be to the Jewish community and I regret if my Jewish friends felt any pain as a result.”
Foxman accepted Hagee’s apology and explanation. “Thank you for your letter clarifying your views on Jews and the Holocaust,” Foxman responded. “We are grateful that you have devoted your life to combating anti-Semitism and supporting the State of Israel. We wholeheartedly support your efforts to eradicate anti-Semitism, including its historic antecedents in the Christian community. We especially appreciate your extraordinary efforts to rally so many in the Christian community to stand with Israel.”
Even Wiesel, who has written numerous books about his own experience in the Holocaust, has wondered how an omnipotent and loving God could allow for the murder of 6 million Jews. “But I don’t understand how God was silent,” Wiesel says, acknowledging that it’s a serious theological question.
Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg, the orthodox Jewish rabbi in Hagee’s hometown of San Antonio, Texas, finds the notion “ludicrous” that one might consider the pastor an anti-Semite. “That’s old hat—they’re throwing that up at the pastor?” Scheinberg said when asked to respond to O’Donnell’s comments. “That’s ludicrous. I’ve seen his tears at Yad Vashem [Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum].”
“Since I’ve known the pastor the last thirty years, every part of his life has been devoted to strengthening the Jewish people. Every fiber of his being is devoted to strengthening the Jewish people,” Scheinberg said, describing Hagee in an interview with me. “I feel he’s like a brother. And I’ve seen him probably more up close than most—his heart, and his soul, and his energy is devoted to strengthening the Jewish people and advocating for the state of Israel.”
Scheinberg blames politics for the smears. “I think, that type of nonsense is politically motivated, and it comes out of ignorance,” he said. “I do think it’s political mischief that’s bringing this up again.”
Referring directly to the passage that drew the harsh words from O’Donnell, Scheinberg showed sympathy for the ideas that Hagee was wrestling with at the time. “How could God be a part of such an evil? Hagee was taking a position that many rabbis have taken before him.”
Hagee is the founder of Christians United for Israel, the largest pro-Israel group in America with nearly three quarters of a million members. Additionally, John Hagee Ministries has given away over $50 million to Jewish and Israeli charities.
But for O’Donnell, casting Hagee as a Jew hater was only one element of the criticism—the pastor is allegedly anti-Catholic, too, according to the MSNBC host. From O’Donnell’s newscast:
He has said Catholicism is a false cult system—and that was just him warming up. That was just Hagee taking batting practice against Catholicism.
He has also said Catholicism is, quote, "a godless theology of hate."
O’Donnell does not reference his source material, and this particular quotation does not appear to be an indictment of the Catholic Church. It’s true that Hagee was previously known for not being too charitable to Catholics. But it’s also well known that Hagee has since been educated about Catholicism—and he now respects the faith.
Deal Hudson, president of the Catholic Advocate, explained to me that O’Donnell’s criticism is completely off the mark for this very reason.
“I talked for many, many hours with Pastor Hagee and have reviewed his work…I spent enough time with him,” Hudson said. “The man doesn’t have a hateful bone in his body, certainly not in respect to Catholics. He may not agree with Catholic theology in all respects, and I don’t agree with all of Hagee’s theology, but he is not anti-Catholic.”
The accusation of anti-Catholicism was most famously levied at Hagee after he became associated with 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain. The criticism of Hagee was used to hurt McCain politically with Catholic voters, much in the same way O’Donnell is suggesting that Perry’s associations with Hagee will hurt him now.
Yet, Hagee, to his great credit, learned from the criticism and reevaluated his beliefs. In part, these changes were brought about by conversations with Hudson and Bill Donahue.
“Well, I met with Pastor Hagee on a number of occasions,” Hudson said. “First, in the midst of the McCain campaign to discuss the press release of Bill Donahue of the Catholic League, asking for John McCain to reject the endorsement of Pastor Hagee.”
But Donahue and Hudson came to see a better side of Hagee and to retract the press release they issued that asked McCain to distance himself from Hagee. “[I] witnessed a powerful reconciliation between these powerful Christian leaders,” said Hudson. “While he thought he was relying on the facts [for his anti-Catholic sentiment], in fact, it was only half the story…and he got that right away.”
Since O’Donnell first made his comments about Hagee, Donahue has also come to the pastor’s defense.
“Let me set the record straight one more time: whatever issues I had with Pastor John Hagee were fully resolved once I received his May 12, 2008 letter expressing his ‘deep regret for any comments that Catholics have found hurtful,’” Donahue said in a statement. “Three days later, thanks to the intervention of Deal Hudson, Hagee came to my office seeking reconciliation. He succeeded. Christians understand the meaning of forgiveness. What we despise are attempts to keep people from reconciling. Moreover, Catholics get especially exercised when those who have never shown one iota of interest in condemning anti-Catholicism all of a sudden begin denouncing it.”
As for what O’Donnell should do now, Hudson also believes in forgiveness. But first an admission of inaccuracy should occur.
“This was not kept secret…it’s out there,” Hudson said. “For MSNBC to repeat this element without adding in the reconciliation is completely irresponsible.”
“I think O’Donnell should just come back to the story and say that he had was either unaware or had not included this final chapter in the story, and he needs to clear the record. He may not have known, I don’t know. Whoever his researchers are … they should’ve been able to come up with this,” Hudson said.