Whatever their true private beliefs, presidential candidates in America are constantly required to provide proofs of faith, often through their connections with various religious figures. Benedictions from the pulpit bestow an aura of righteousness — except, of course, when the pastor or minister is a disreputable kook whose endorsement should be an embarrassment.
In recent weeks, both Barack Obama and John McCain have suffered exactly this kind of indignity, under very different circumstances. And their contrasting responses revealed not only aspects of their own characters but also the enduring prejudices of the national media covering this year's campaign.
For an African-American politician seeking to attract voters of all ethnicities and persuasions, there could hardly be a less desirable supporter than Louis Farrakhan, the aging leader of the Nation of Islam. As the media never tire of reminding us, Farrakhan is a habitual bigot whose utterances have repeatedly denigrated Jews, Catholics, Caucasians, and homosexuals, among others, seeking to inflame his followers against these supposed enemies.
He detects conspiracies of "international bankers," whose machinations he blames for all the world's troubles dating back to World War II. He looks forward to a time when the Holy Land will be "cleansed by blood," as he exclaimed in a sermon not so long ago. He warns that the evil ones ruling the planet will someday be destroyed for their sins, while those who obey his admonishments (and tithe to his organization) will be saved.
Well aware of Farrakhan's record, since both of them reside in Chicago, Obama forthrightly rejected the support of the unsavory minister. Unfortunately, his own Christian pastor, Jeremiah Wright, has chosen to associate himself with the Nation of Islam, which may well create problems for Obama — but at least he has clearly separated himself from the poisonous Farrakhan philosophy.
By contrast, McCain went out of his way last week to accept the endorsement of a Christian pastor with a deeply disturbing record of bigotry and extremism. That would be John Hagee, a Texas televangelist whose career is chronicled in God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, a new book by investigative reporter Sarah Posner. As Posner reveals, Hagee is the kind of evangelical minister who has anticipated the end of the world for decades now, even as he promises untold riches to those who tithe to his ministry. He is an ardent warmonger who, like Farrakhan, seems to imagine a Middle East cleansed by blood — except that in his fantasies, the Christians will be saved while everyone else burns. (The saved won't include members of the Catholic Church, however, an institution he despises and denounces as venomously as Farrakhan does.)
But the perspectives of these two self-proclaimed men of God resemble each other even more closely in certain ways. Hagee, too, promotes hatred of homosexuals and demands that women submit to men. And he also imagines a conspiracy by international bankers, the Bavarian Illuminati, the United Nations, the Council on Foreign Relations, and other shadowy groups to deliver America into the hands of Satan. All that verbiage is merely code for traditional anti-Semitism, as Hagee surely knows, because, like Farrakhan, he blames the Jewish people for their own persecution, including the Holocaust, as he explained a few years ago in his book entitled Jerusalem Countdown.
Yet, for reasons that seem more related to race than reason, the assorted inanities of Hagee are acceptable while those of Farrakhan are not, at least in the higher circles of the Republican Party and the national media. No matter how many times Obama rejects the Nation of Islam leader, a television anchor or debate moderator will demand that he do so again, if only to mention their names in the same breath.
Meanwhile, McCain escapes the hard questions that should be asked about his embrace of Hagee, whose ugly words and mad prophecies ought to repel him. Eight years ago, the San Antonio minister was among the political preachers, including Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, who denounced McCain and proclaimed George W. Bush to be the Lord's chosen candidate.
Back then, the Arizona Republican proved his maverick courage when he rebuked them all as "agents of intolerance." He has sought to court their favor ever since — and it is sad to see him genuflect now to the same kind of demagogue he once mocked.
Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer.