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WASHINGTON LETTER Mar-14-2008 (940 words) Backgrounder and analysis. With photo. xxxn

Televangelist's nod raises questions about who endorsements influence

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- When the Rev. John Hagee, the televangelist, gave U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona a ringing endorsement in his run for president, the opposite of an "amen chorus" sounded from well beyond Rev. Hagee's evangelical Cornerstone Church in San Antonio.

Meanwhile, a new survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center questions whether such endorsements really make much of a difference in voter behavior.

Organizations and commentators normally associated with both the left and right of the political spectrum were quick to call on McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, to reject Rev. Hagee's endorsement on the basis of the minister's writings and broadcast statements about the Catholic Church as well as his comments on other faiths and groups, which they called extremist and offensive.

"He has waged an unrelenting war against the Catholic Church," said William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in a Feb. 28 statement. "For example, he likes calling it 'The Great Whore,' an 'apostate church,' the 'anti-Christ,' and a 'false cult system.'"

Posted on the Web site of John Hagee Ministries is a statement saying his views on Catholics had been mischaracterized and that he had "always had great love for Catholic people and great respect for the Catholic Church."

"To call me 'anti-Catholic' makes about as much sense as calling me 'anti-Protestant,'" Rev. Hagee's statement said. "I am, most assuredly, neither."

A clip of a Rev. Hagee television appearance featuring him using the terms Donohue listed, apparently referencing the Catholic Church, was posted on several Internet sites that discussed the McCain endorsement.

Also posted on Web sites about the issue were excerpts from Rev. Hagee's 2006 book, "Jerusalem Countdown," in which he attributes Adolf Hitler's hatred of Jews to the "fiery anti-Semitic rantings" he heard as an elementary student in a Catholic school. Another excerpt accuses Pope Pius XII of enabling Hitler's attempt to exterminate the Jews in Western Europe.

In a follow-up statement March 7, Donohue said, "McCain is sending a signal that he tolerates these extremist positions. Rev. Hagee has offended many groups besides Catholics. The best way for him to move forward is by simply rejecting his endorsement."

Dave Robinson, executive director of Pax Christi USA, said it's "essential that the presidential candidates in this election clearly reject religious intolerance and bigotry."

Alexia Kelley, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, said in a statement that included Robinson's comments, "we would hope that all political leaders will have the courage to speak out against the kind of bigotry and intolerance that have no place in American politics."

McCain did, a few days later, tell The Associated Press that, "I repudiate any comments that are made, including Pastor Hagee's, if they are anti-Catholic or offensive to Catholics."

That wasn't good enough for Chris Korzen, executive director of Catholics United, a nonpartisan group organized to promote the principles of Catholic social teaching in political discourse, and co-author with Kelley of a forthcoming book about Catholic teaching and American politics.

"He needs to reject the endorsement of (Rev.) Hagee just like (Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack) Obama rejected the endorsement of Louis Farrakhan," a Nation of Islam minister known for anti-Semitic rhetoric. Farrakhan gave Obama an unsolicited endorsement, which the Illinois senator rejected.

"This isn't just about Catholics," Korzen told Catholic News Service.

"There isn't anybody out there who thinks John McCain is anti-Catholic," he said. "The question is, is he going to stick to the principles he championed as a senator," and try to move the tenor of political discourse in a less divisive direction.

Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service and director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobbying organization, said endorsements like Rev. Hagee's are "not about Hagee, but about McCain."

In a society where people don't know candidates personally, it's helpful to have an idea of who their friends and supporters are, Sister Campbell told CNS.

"The issue is what do candidates do with these offers of support and do they want to be associated with these people," she said.

A study of voters in the National Annenberg Election Survey released March 5 said the endorsement of groups or individuals has little bearing on most voters' electoral decisions. But though endorsements might influence relatively few people, in a close election that might prove significant, said Ken Winneg, managing director of the National Annenberg Election Survey in a press release on the survey.

"In certain targeted cases, the effect, though small, may be just enough to provide a winning margin in a close race," Winneg said.

The program of the University of Pennsylvania questioned likely voters between mid-December and mid-February. Questioners asked if participants had heard about the endorsements of presidential candidates by various public figures and groups such as Oprah Winfrey, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the National Right to Life Committee, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, the United Farm Workers of America labor union and various newspapers.

Follow-up questions asked whether such endorsements would make the voter more or less likely to support a candidate or have no effect.

In each case, 74 percent or more of the respondents said the endorsements would not affect their support for a candidate. At most, 14 percent said the endorsement of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., by the United Farm Workers would make them more likely to support her. At the opposite extreme, 9 percent said Kennedy's endorsement of Obama would make them less likely to vote for him.


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