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Pastor problems

Obama and McCain have gotten painful lessons in the perils of religious endorsements.

May 24, 2008

He who lies down with the lion wakes up with teeth marks. Well, that's not quite it, but it seems that some kind of cosmic proverbial lesson is being taught to this country's two presumptive presidential nominees, both of whom have been mauled after getting into bed with fringe religious leaders.

This week it was GOP candidate John McCain's turn. After weeks of criticism over his ties to bombastic televangelist John Hagee, who once described Adolf Hitler as a divine agent sent to force the Jews back to Israel, McCain said Thursday that he rejected Hagee's endorsement. While he was at it, he also repudiated another evangelical Christian endorser, Rod Parsley, who thinks Islam is inherently violent.

Democratic front-runner Barack Obama must have been relishing the scandal, having had his own come-to-Jesus moment last month when he was forced to cut all ties to the controversial Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose "God damn America" sermon belongs on a list of YouTube’s greatest hits.

So, which candidate is more guilty by association? McCain says it's Obama, who had a close personal relationship with Wright and spent 20 years attending his church; McCain, by contrast, merely sought Hagee's endorsement and never went to a single service. Yet in some ways, McCain's sin is the greater. While Obama had the poor judgment to stand by a pastor with poisonous political views, McCain cynically sought out Hagee's blessing for purely political purposes. In 2000, McCain famously referred to televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as "agents of intolerance." The failure of his campaign that year seems to have pushed him into the arms of leaders even further out on the religious right's fringe.

What unites the scandals is inflammatory rhetoric about Israel, though from opposite ends of the spectrum. Wright's allegations of "state terrorism" directed against the Palestinians by Israel undoubtedly hurt Obama's chances among some religious voters even more than his vitriolic attacks on the United States. Hagee, meanwhile, is a Christian Zionist who believes the Jews should not give up a grain of sand to placate displaced Arabs. The danger, of course, is that such extreme voices might influence the foreign policy decisions of the eventual president. A lasting Middle East peace will require the cessation of terrorist attacks and the creation of two independent states with mutually agreed-upon borders. Obama and McCain appear to be wise enough to know that, so it's disturbing that they seek support from people who don't.

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