- Christians United for Israel
- Pastor John Hagee (right) shakes the hand of Vice President Mike Pence at the CUFI summit in July.
The inference at the heart of the statement is key to the so-called prosperity theology pushed by the San Antonio preacher: if you want the Almighty’s blessing, you’d better tithe.
On cue, ushers with offering plates descended the aisles of Hagee’s 5,400-seat Cornerstone Church. As cash and checks fell into the burnished metal plates, Hagee urged viewers watching him on television to donate by clicking an onscreen button or calling an 800 number. Camera operators walked the aisles, capturing footage of congregants kicking in.
After the collection was done, music erupted from the stage. A swaying gospel choir and young, well-coiffed singers led the congregation in a parade of praise hits. A quartet of video screens displayed the lyrics for anyone who wanted to sing along.
Like other TV preachers, Hagee and ministry have elevated fundraising to a feel-good art form. But what sets Hagee apart from the Joel Osteens of the world is the 79-year-old pastor’s ability to apply his marketing magic to politics.
It’s evidenced in the clout he now wields with the administration of President Donald Trump, which has enjoyed deep support from Christian evangelicals like Hagee’s followers.
Hagee also founded one of the largest pro-Israel lobbying groups, Christians United for Israel (CUFI), and disseminates books and videos telling his church members who to vote for. He’s even displayed an appetite for local politics, recently urging followers to vote against Mayor Ron Nirenberg over city council’s decision to cut Chick-fil-A out of on an airport concessions contract.
Of most alarm to political observers, though, is the confluence of Hagee’s political power and his repeated claims that Christ’s return is imminent. In sermons, the pastor says the end times will be preceded by war and bloodshed, and he’s repeatedly called for a U.S. first strike on Iran, which he’s likened to the Nazi Germany of 1938.
“In CUFI’s philosophy, war and violence are celebrated as harbingers of the end times,” said Rabbi Alissa Wise, a critic of Hagee’s meddling in Middle East affairs. “That’s extremely frightening to me. It should be extremely frightening to all of us. This kind of religious extremism empowered by those with the ability to make U.S. foreign policy is alarming.”
The Current reached out to Hagee for comment on this article and was referred to CUFI spokesman Ari Morgenstern. Morgenstern declined to schedule an interview, demanding instead that the paper send questions in writing. Once the queries were submitted, he declined to answer them, saying they displayed a “complete lack of research.”
“This is deeply unprofessional and as such CUFI will not grant your interview request,” Morgenstern wrote.
Even so, in the email, Morgenstern denied that Hagee has advocated an attack on Iran to speed up Armageddon. As proof, he linked to a “near decade-old piece debunking this fabricated quote.”
The editorial, posted to the right-wing blog American Thinker, was written by Morgenstern himself.
In reality, Hagee’s saber rattling about Iran doesn’t derive from a single quote. Recordings of multiple Hagee speeches show him advocating a U.S. strike on Iran. Indeed, he once likened President Barack Obama’s signing of the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran to a “finger in the eye of God.”
“Iran is a clear and present danger to the survival of Israel, to the United States of America and the Western world,” Hagee said in a 2005 clip aired on PBS’ Bill Moyers Journal. “Therefore, it is time for America to embrace the words of Senator Joseph Lieberman and consider a military preemptive strike against Iran to prevent a nuclear holocaust in Israel and a nuclear attack in America.”
There’s little doubt that message has been heard in the Trump White House. At CUFI’s annual summit this summer in Washington D.C., Vice President Mike Pence and hawkish Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were among the five high-level attendees from the administration.
Hagee’s invitation to give the closing speech at the May 14 dedication of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem is also a clear sign of his favor with Trump’s camp. The pastor used his time to deliver a blustery putdown to Iran. At no point during his speech did he address Palestinians’ outrage over the embassy’s relocation or mention the 55 Palestinians who were killed and hundreds wounded by Israeli police during protests.
“We stand reminding the dictators of the world that the United States of America and Israel are forever united,” Hagee proclaimed. “Let every Islamic terrorist hear this message: Israel lives! … Let it echo down the marble halls of the presidential palace in Iran: Israel lives!”
That bellicose rhetoric comes amid flaring tensions following Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. On September 7, Tehran announced it’s now using advanced centrifuges prohibited under the deal and will produce weapons-grade uranium.
“The current administration is in sync with John Hagee,” said Rabbi James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious advisor. “I think we’re seeing an affinity between Hagee’s ideology and the political actions of the Trump administration. … He’s emerged, as we saw in Jerusalem, as one of the nation’s most prominent evangelical leaders.”
The numbers seem to back that up. On its website, Cornerstone boasts that it has 22,000 members and reaches tens of millions more around the world via cable TV and streaming services. CUFI bills itself as the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States, claiming more than 7 million members.
- Twitter / @TedCruz
- Hagee poses with Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
During a recent Sunday service, it was Hagee’s son Matt who did the majority of the talking while the patriarch watched from his throne-like seat. Beyond laying out a clear line of succession, the sermon made it clear that the son shares his father’s appetite for politicizing the pulpit.
With the title “Daily Bread or Deadly Bread” projected on a massive screen behind him, Matt Hagee warned that God-fearing Christians need to provide for themselves, not look for government handouts. Socialism, after all, makes the government into god, and Christians can only serve one master.
And “socialism” even extends to student loan forgiveness and government-provided healthcare, both of which Matt Hagee catalogued as violations of God’s will. He likened the government’s control over people on public assistance to Egypt’s enslavement of the Israelites.
“I have to applaud our president when he stood before our House and Senate and said America will never be a socialist country,” the younger Hagee said in one of the sermon’s biggest applause lines. A standing ovation followed, with some of the faithful throwing back their heads and stretching their arms to the sky.
Of course, those familiar with John Hagee’s rise over the past few decades might find the sermon’s sentiments comparatively mild.
After all, the elder pastor made headlines in 2014 by claiming Ebola was probably God’s retribution for Obama’s alleged attempts to “divide Jerusalem.” He also claimed in a church-distributed video that the Harry Potter series convinced him the Antichrist would soon arrive. “Even Harry Potter’s forehead is marked with the lightning bolt of the Hitler SS,” he cited as evidence.
Hagee made more recent headlines with the release of a book and documentary claiming the four blood moons — known as lunar eclipses to those unafraid of science — appearing in the sky between April 2014 and September 2015 signaled God’s return. The last of those eclipses came on September 28, 2015, with no rapturous incident.
But, for many, the most egregious of Hagee’s statements was a claim he made during a late 1990s sermon that Adolf Hitler qualified as a divine agent because his extermination of European Jews prompted the creation of Israel.
“Then God sent a hunter. A hunter is someone with a gun and he forces you,” Hagee said. “Hitler was a hunter. … 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.”
After a recording of the sermon surfaced in 2008, Sen. John McCain, who’d previously been cozy with Hagee, rejected the preacher’s endorsement of his presidential bid, calling the remark “deeply offensive and indefensible.”
Hagee has repeatedly said the statement was taken out of context, but critics charge that it’s evidence of the antisemitism at the core of Hagee’s philosophy — which also holds that Jews who don’t repent when the apocalypse arrives will roast in Hell.
“His philosophy isn’t about love for the Jewish people but a theology that requires Jewish settlement on that land for the end times to come,” said Rabbi Wise, who serves as acting co-executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace. “Both Jews and Muslims are reduced to end-time pawns in CUFI’s philosophy.”
A quick drive around Cornerstone Church’s enclave in the pricey Stone Oak neighborhood suggests that Hagee’s prosperity theology has served him well.
With its white-brick buildings and meticulously manicured vegetation, the 28-acre property could easily be mistaken for a small liberal arts college. A cluster of satellite dishes beam its television broadcasts to the outside world, a hotel adjoins the property and roughly a dozen buses are tucked into the back of the sprawling parking lot.
Cornerstone Christian Schools, which Hagee also founded, sits on a $100 million campus nearby, delivering what the church’s website calls a “Bible-based education of the future generation.”
The church’s website also offers up dozens of DVDs, gospel CDs and books — nearly all authored by John Hagee, son Matt or wife Diana.
But the extravagance doesn’t end at the church property.
In 2000, the John C. Hagee Royalty Trust — an entity whose trustee is Hagee’s brother-in-law, Scott Farhart — paid more than $5.5 million for a 7,600-acre ranch in Brackettville, Texas. The site raises cattle in a partnership with the Texas Israel Agricultural Research Foundation, a nonprofit also run by the pastor. It also charges a pretty penny for visitors to hunt exotic game on site.
Photographs of the property posted by a real estate group representing the ranch show a sprawling limestone and wood-timber estate decorated with enough taxidermy and antlers to rival downtown San Antonio’s Buckhorn Hall of Horns. The massive kitchen outfitted with stainless steel appliances is larger than that of many restaurants.
The ranch — equipped with a private airstrip — even earned the distinction of being named Field & Stream magazine’s Lodge of the Month in August 2006. “Accommodations are first-rate, with a huge lodge, well-appointed bunk rooms and meals cooked by a full-time chef,” the review gushed.
According to the Bexar County Appraisal District, Hagee and his wife also own three separate single-family homes inside the Dominion, an exclusive north San Antonio enclave favored by San Antonio Spurs and the city’s most successful business executives. The structures range in value from $345,000 to $735,000.
Additionally, Hagee’s enterprises have owned at least two private jets since the mid-2000s. Federal aviation records show that John Hagee Ministries purchased a Cessna 650, a business jet that typically seats up to eight people, and later upgraded to a Dassault Aviation Mystere-Falcon 50, a three-engine jet that sells for more than $20 million when purchased new.
While public records hint at the scope of Hagee’s wealth, they offer an incomplete view of how much his organizations and family own, how much they earn and how donors’ money is being spent.
And that’s precisely the way his organization wants it, critics charge.
Hagee converted his nonprofit group Global Evangelism Television into a church in 2004, freeing him of the requirement to file publicly accessible tax returns. The maneuver came after the San Antonio Express-News revealed the pastor’s $1 million-a-year salary made him highest-paid nonprofit executive in the city.
While federal law requires nonprofits to file publicly accessible 990 tax forms detailing their finances, there’s no such requirement for churches. That level of secrecy surrounding Hagee’s many holdings doesn’t sit well with Pete Evans, an investigator for the Trinity Foundation, a Dallas-based nonprofit that roots out financial fraud at religious organizations.
“I would never give money to an organization that’s this financially opaque,” said Evans, a player in the ’90s probes that brought down Dallas-based evangelist Robert Tilton. “Hagee’s multitude of organizations are not at all transparent.”
Evans prepared a report on Hagee as part of 2007 testimony before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee on televangelists’ financial excesses. The document chronicles a litany of assumed names, or DBAs, for Hagee’s church and at least three active for-profit corporations founded by the pastor.
“When we look at Hagee’s organization and see a lot of similar names and DBAs going back and forth, it raises red flags,” Evans said. “It leaves the door wide open for self-dealing. It appears as though there’s a huge opportunity to transfer nonprofit assets into for-profit enterprises.”
That lack of transparency also extends to CUFI. While the lobbying arm of the organization, called the Citizens United for Israel Action Fund, files 990 tax forms with the Internal Revenue Service, CUFI itself is organized under Hagee’s church umbrella.
That also should be a warning to potential donors, said John Burnam, a principal at Burnam|Gray, a San Antonio-based group that consults on nonprofit issues.
“[W]hile not illegal, it is generally poor practice on the part of a nonprofit to have their board comprised solely of family members and individuals with close business relationships to each other,” Burnam said. “The fact that CUFI’s board is comprised of individuals with such close connections to the founder — personal and business — should be another flag to donors.”
CUFI Action Fund’s tax documents show its fortunes on the rise. The group posted revenue of $1.8 million in 2017, the most recent year for which it’s filed a 990. That’s up from the $508,000 reported for 2016.
The Action Fund spent $120,000 lobbying U.S. lawmakers on pro-Israel issues in both 2018 and 2017, according to figures from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. It looks to be on track to do the same this year, having reported $30,000 in spending for the first quarter.
But the numbers just tell part of the story. Part of the organization’s strength relies on the way it dispatches the faithful during its annual Washington gathering to meet with lawmakers and push points of shared interest between evangelicals and the Israeli right wing.
“Every group goes to every senator and every congressman with the same talking points about things we want them to be concerned about in relationship to Israel,” Hagee said in a Facebook video about the conference. “And I can assure you that the strength of what we do has caused a political earthquake in Washington from time to time.”
While a veil of secrecy surrounds CUFI, that could be pierced during the discovery phase of a lawsuit in federal district court in Washington D.C.
The petition, filed by Palestinian families who say they’ve lost land to illegal Jewish settlements, accuses Hagee, casino magnate Sheldon Adelstein and other prominent Israel boosters of breaking the law by donating to settlements in the West Bank and Occupied Palestinian Territories.
- Wikimedia Commons / CJCUC
- Hagee (second from right) meets with religious leaders at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“That activity includes arms trafficking, theft and malicious property destruction, the forced expulsion of the entire local Palestinian population living near the settlements, and the promotion of wholesale violence on the part of armed settler militia to be directed at their Palestinian neighbors (poisoning water wells and livestock, malicious wounding, sporadic live target practice),” the suit alleges.
A 2010 New York Times investigation found that American groups have collected more than $200 million in tax-deductible gifts that have benefitted Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem over the prior decade. Much of the money went to schools, synagogues and facilities permitted under U.S. tax law. However, the probe also found that some of the money paid for “more legally questionable commodities,” such as bulletproof vests, rifle scopes and vehicles used to patrol settlements.
Hagee’s associates told the Times that the majority of his donations were made within Israel’s 1967 boundaries. However, a sports complex in the West Bank settlement of Ariel is named after the pastor, the paper reported. Officials at the West Bank’s Har Bracha settlement also told the Times Hagee donated $250,000 to expand a dorm there.
“[The] Palestinians have never owned the land,” Hagee said in 2005. “I want you to hear this very clearly. The land of Israel was given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their seed in an eternal covenant. It is recorded in the book of Genesis. The boundaries are there in the Bible. And that land belongs to the Jewish people today, tomorrow and forever because it is their covenant by the word of God.”
That dictate appears to make any kind of two-state solution impossible in CUFI’s worldview. And that worries observers, who say Hagee has no interest in seeing peace in the region but in adhering to his version of how the end times play out.
“He has this death cult and this indifference about the consequences of his political agenda,” said Judith Norman, a Trinity University philosophy professor and Middle East peace activist. “I can’t think of anything more dangerous.”
Still, Hagee continues to win Israeli support, in part by assuring leaders that his interest isn’t in trying to convert Jews to Christianity, the American Jewish Committee’s Rudin said. But the rabbi points out that many in the Jewish community are outraged by Hagee’s Islamophobia, long record of anti-LGBTQ+ comments and warlike rhetoric.
Even so, Rudin warns against writing off the pastor and his followers as a political force. Doing so underestimates how many American evangelicals cling to his apocalyptic vision.
“Don’t underestimate him,” Rudin said. “John Hagee represents the sentiments of millions of Americans. They may not know his name, but they certainly share his philosophy. John Hagee has tapped into that stream.”
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