By Joseph Williams, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- After winning the backing of an influential Texas televangelist, presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain today abruptly rejected the pastor's endorsement after more of his controversial remarks became public -- including a sermon in which he says the Nazis "operated on God's behalf" to drive Jews from Europe to Israel.
McCain had distanced himself from the Rev. John Hagee's anti-Catholic remarks describing the church as a "great whore," a statement for which Hagee apologized earlier this month. But the Arizona senator, who wanted Hagee's support to shore up his uncertain standing among evangelical conservatives, had not repudiated the endorsement until today.
"Obviously, I find these remarks and others deeply offensive and indefensible, and I repudiate them," McCain said in a statement today. "I did not know of them before Reverend Hagee's endorsement, and I feel I must reject his endorsement as well."
The controversy is the latest intersection of faith and politics in this year's presidential race.
Democratic front-runner Barack Obama's association with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., the former pastor at his home church in Chicago, threatened to derail his candidacy after videos surfaced of Wright making a series of remarks that many viewed as anti-American and racially divisive. Among them, Wright condemned the country for past racism, said the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were the fruit of unjust US foreign policies and suggested he agrees with rumors that the US government had developed and used the AIDS virus as an act of genocide against black people.
After rejecting Wright's remarks but likening the fiery minister to family, Obama formally cut his ties to Wright last month -- after Wright defended himself in a lengthy TV interview and two defiant, high-profile appearances.
McCain has said he is sure that Obama does not share Wright's views, but scolded Obama for not severing his long ties with the minister. But in his statement today, McCain distinguished his relationship with Hagee from Obama's with Wright, saying, "let me also be clear, Reverend Hagee was not and is not my pastor or spiritual advisor, and I did not attend his church for twenty years."
Soon after McCain's rejection, Hagee withdrew his support and said he would sit out the 2008 campaign.
"Ever since I endorsed John McCain for president, people seeking to attack Senator McCain have combed my records for statements they can use for political gain," Hagee said in a statement. "They have had no qualms about grossly misrepresenting my position on issues most near and dear to my heart if it serves their political ambitions. I am tired of these baseless attacks and fear that they have become a distraction in what should be a national debate about important issues."
McCain's strongly-worded rebuff, however, could hurt him among some evangelical voters, whose support he needs in November, said John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
But McCain, Green added, had little choice because Hagee had become a political liability.
"There's only so many controversial statements that someone who has endorsed a candidate can make," Green said. Hagee's anti-Catholic comments were one thing, Green added, but "the second set [about Jews] creates big problems."
The leader of the 19,000-member, non-demonimational Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Tex., Hagee also runs a substantial communications empire with national reach. His televised sermons are well known among evangelicals -- as are his controversial views on homosexuality, the Roman Catholic Church, and his fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible.
In sermons and in statements, Hagee has called Catholicism a "false cult system." The minister also has suggested that Hitler's anti-Semitism was shaped by the church, and said the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was God's response to homosexual sin.
Nevertheless, McCain -- along with other GOP presidential rivals -- sought Hagee's endorsement and the voters he could bring with him. McCain accepted his endorsement at a news conference Feb. 27 in San Antonio, shortly before he won the Texas presidential primary and clinched the nomination.
Though McCain did not disavow Hagee after his anti-Catholic statements surfaced, the remarks on Judaism and Hitler were too much to ignore. In a late 1990s sermon, disclosed online today by the Huffington Post and others, Hagee quoted the Bible and said that “the Nazis had operated on God's behalf to chase the Jews from Europe and shepherd them to Palestine,” the promised land.
Green said the political uproars over Hagee and Wright "just reveals how controversial religion can be when it comes into the political arena" and is taken out of the church.
The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister who is president of the Interfaith Alliance, which called for McCain to repudiate McCain, agreed. "While I’m happy Sen. McCain is disassociating himself from Pastor Hagee, this action should have come much sooner and not simply because of public outcry," he said in a statement. "Any time that religious leaders and politicians attempt to use each other, both of them get hurt."
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.