McCain's Pastor Problem

In 2005, The American Prospect assigned me a story about the rising political star of Ohio televangelist Rod Parsley and how this white mega-church pastor -- who this year endorsed John McCain -- managed to rally African-Americans to vote for George W. Bush in 2004. As I embarked on my reporting, my first foray into Parsley's world was watching him speak to a mostly African-American crowd at Washington's Constitution Hall, promoting his book, Silent No More. He called for a "revolution" and implored the audience to "get on a war footing" because the "church of Jesus Christ is under siege," mostly by the "false religion" of Islam and weak-kneed secularists.

But as I delved deeper into Parsley, I found another insidious story to tell about the culture warrior who fancies his Center for Moral Clarity a successor to Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority. I found myself in the world of the Word of Faith, or prosperity gospel movement, a world in which televangelists live large in mansions they call parsonages and travel the globe in private jets, all off the donations of their credulous followers.

You've probably seen the prosperity gospel on television if you've surfed past the Trinity Broadcasting Network, where you could see Parsley, John Hagee, who also endorsed McCain, or Kenneth Copeland, who supported Mike Huckabee. Prosperity preachers tell their followers that if they "sow a seed" -- in other words, donate to the televangelist -- they will "reap a harvest," or get a supernatural return on their investment. The promise of God's blessing in return for lining the preachers' pocket is the movement's organizing principle, bolstered by promises that believers are "little gods" who possess "revelation knowledge" entitling them to ignore the media and academia, and the ability to positively confess things -- that is, just say, "in the name of Jesus, that Cadillac is mine!"

Operating their churches with an iron hand and complete secrecy around their finances, these televangelists command their troops by declaring themselves prophets, God's "anointed," not to be criticized or questioned. "Touch not mine anointed ones, and do my prophets no harm," a verse from Psalms, is invoked as their autocratic shield. It's that secrecy that provoked a Senate Finance Committee investigation into the financial affairs of six of them, including Copeland, who continues to refuse to cooperate with Congressional investigators. Because they view the world through the prism of spiritual warfare, anyone who questions their doctrine or their wealth must be instruments of Satan.

Revelation knowledge lies at the heart of this autocratic movement's powerful hold. Don't let Satan eclipse what revelation knowledge tells you. Revelation knowledge always trumps reason. If this movement's followers believe that they only need to listen to God's word, as delivered through the mouths of their pastors, and that the media, scholarship, and reason are to be ignored, what does this say about the political choices, not to mention the life choices, followers of this movement make?

The embrace of these televangelists by Republican politicians -- exposed in my new book, God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters -- elevates them in the eyes of their followers and promotes their ideology as moral and pure. Parsley, whom McCain called a "moral compass" and "spiritual guide," proudly boasts about how presidential candidates seek his advice. Hagee claims the admiration of the White House, members of Congress from both parties (Joe Lieberman has compared him to Moses), Republican Party officials, and even the former director of the CIA, James Woolsey. When President Bush compared Barack Obama to Nazi appeasers last week, he was tipping his hat to Hagee, who routinely charges political enemies with appeasement as well, while portraying himself and his followers as modern-day Churchills.

There's a great deal of overlap between the Word of Faith movement and Hagee's Christians United for Israel (CUFI). Many of the organization's regional and state directors, including Parsley, Copeland, and others, are Word of Faith preachers. But the overlap is not just a result of Hagee's friends getting on board with his Christian Zionist project. It's because Word of Faith thrives -- and profits -- on the fear-mongering narratives that animate CUFI's activism. Godly forces (Christianity) are locked in battle with Satanic forces (Islam). These Satanic forces aim to subvert God's plan that Jerusalem remain in exclusively Jewish hands in order for Christ to return and rule the world from the Temple Mount. Before all of that happens, though, the Rapture will whisk all believing Christians up to heaven to spare them from the turmoil below until Jesus returns. To make sure as many people get raptured as possible, the Word of Faith preachers insist, they need more of your money to save as many souls before it happens. Since they are adamant that the Rapture could happen at any time -- it could happen while you're reading these words -- time is of the essence, so send in your money right away.

If you were to turn on your television and watch Parsley or Hagee, you would undoubtedly see them pleading for money. But you might also see Parsley calling for spiritual warfare against Satan, faith-healing homosexuals from the "bondage" of their sin, or prophesying a bloody apocalyptic showdown with Islam out of secret codes in Genesis. You might see Hagee proclaiming that he doesn't care if someone who doesn't work starves, because welfare is satanic. He might be calling environmentalists "wackos" or feminism witchcraft or describing the Bible's plan for men to maintain authority over their wives or predicting God's wrath on the United States if it supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Watching Word of Faith on television, though, is nothing compared to experiencing it -- sitting in the pews while everyone stares you down for not waving your offering envelope in the air, watching a televangelist demand money while people are in an ecstatic religious state; or being crushed by a euphoric crowd at a faith-healing service, during which Parsley claimed he had healed a baby born without a brain, and moments later bragged about how he's a coveted guest in the halls of Congress.

That Republican presidential candidates have sought out the support of Word of Faith preachers for the past three decades is due to more than their quest to consolidate the evangelical vote. No doubt these free-market conservatives were unperturbed by the prospect of hoodwinking believers into turning to Jesus to provide for their needs, as their policies dismantled the social safety net and gave away big tax cuts to corporations and the uber-wealthy. No doubt these crusaders for "individual responsibility" loved nothing more than the idea that wealth is produced by faith, not by the government's economic policy, and that one's failure to produce wealth was due to a lack of faith, a lack of obedience to God, and nothing more. And there is no doubt that Bush, Cheney, and their band of neoconservative outlaws who led us into one catastrophic war and might lead us into another have been more than pleased to have these faith-based cheerleaders on the sidelines.

When Hagee and Parsley were revealed to have spewed bigotry from their pulpits, many people wondered if McCain had a "pastor problem" like Obama's supposed problem with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The rejoinder from the McCain camp was that he was not responsible for every sentence uttered by people who endorse his candidacy. But his pastor problem is not just his own, it's his party's too. And it's not about candidates bearing responsibility for odious sermons. It's about bearing responsibility for propping up religious demagoguery in order to win elections.