Deal W. Hudson
September 11, 2008
A few days ago I was asked to speak to a men’s group in Atlanta about Catholics in politics. As part of my presentation, I talked about the possibility of greater Catholic and Evangelical cooperation. To illustrate my point, I told the story about the reconciliation earlier this year between Pastor John Hagee and Catholic League President Bill Donohue.
I had never spoken in depth about the April meeting at Donohue’s office and was surprised to find myself deeply moved in the telling of it. Perhaps it was recalling the story in the midst of an increasingly bitter political season that gave it a new significance; whatever it was, I realized that what happened that day in New York was unique and that I wanted to revisit it.
(Since McCain eventually repudiated Hagee’s endorsement, I don’t think I can be accused of partisanship for telling the story.)
When Sen. John McCain accepted the minister’s public endorsement in late February, Donohue asked McCain to reject it, as he had been aware of what he considered anti-Catholicism in Hagee’s writing for several years. The McCain campaign’s response did not satisfy Donohue. For seven straight days, Donohue issued press releases pressuring the McCain campaign to renounce Hagee. The story was picked up by the national media. By the time McCain made a statement rejecting Hagee’s anti-Catholicism, John Hagee’s reputation was in tatters.
In the middle of the controversy, I received a call from Ralph Reed, who was growing concerned about the impact of Donohue’s charges against his friend Hagee. “John Hagee is a good man,” he told me. “I want you to talk to John and then talk to Bill.” As I remember that initial phone call, I am struck by Reed’s ability to imagine the possibility of reconciliation between the two men. When I agreed to make the call, I didn’t think there was any chance for a truce – there was just too much heat.
I left a message on Hagee’s cell phone and received an immediate call back. Having grown up a Southern Baptist in Texas, the voice I heard through the phone was familiar to me. I told him I wanted to meet with him to discuss why he was being called anti-Catholic. Hagee said he was very anxious to meet because he did not consider himself anti-Catholic, and the public attacks were taking a toll on his family and his church. I This man was actually suffering – I could hear it – and I was suddenly glad Reed had asked me to call him.
I have already written about our subsequent meeting on March 28 in New York City. After three hours of conversation, I came to the conclusion that Hagee was not actually anti-Catholic but that there were significant parts of Catholic history – especially regarding the Jews – he was not familiar with. I was also satisfied that his interpretation of the Book of Revelation was not aimed at the Catholic Church.
Two weeks later, I invited a dozen Catholic leaders in Washington to have lunch with Hagee to go over the same issues he and I had discussed in New York. The success of that get-together led me to call Donohue and suggest his own meeting with Hagee. Donohue – always careful – asked for something in writing from Hagee that would put the controversy to rest. Hagee sent a letter to him that did just that, and the Catholic League issued a press release saying the “matter is settled.”
Then I asked Donohue if he would meet with Hagee in his office. “Of course,” he said, without hesitation.
I was a little bit anxious. Here were two men: one who had been called a bigot for weeks in the national media, the other who had done a lot of that calling, and they were about to meet. That Hagee wanted to meet the man who had affected his life so significantly impressed me. And that Donohue was willing to meet with the man who represented everything that the Catholic League opposes was just as admirable.
Pastor Hagee and his wife Diana were visibly nervous when I took them up the freight elevator of Donohue’s office building (we wanted to avoid the press). They had no idea what to expect when they entered the offices of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.
Hagee is a warm man, but the only man I know who might be even friendlier is Bill Donohue. Just as Hagee’s Texas accent was heard in the doorway of the office, a booming Brooklyn voice was heard from the depths of the office, “I hear a Southern accent; it must be Pastor John Hagee. Welcome!”
I remember the look on the faces of the Hagees and their associate David Brog as they met Donohue and every member of his staff. Their smiles and warmth both stunned and delighted the Hagees. I thought to myself at the time, “This is a kind of miracle.”
When the reporters called later to ask about the meeting, they wanted to know if it had been arranged to help the McCain campaign. When I responded that it was arranged for personal reasons and out of a concern for relations between Catholics and Evangelicals, I met with skepticism. The media either assumes that every event has a political cause, or that there’s no story unless it is political. The fact is, what I witnessed that day was one of the most remarkable moments of Christian reconciliation I am likely to ever see. There was nothing political or partisan about it.
John Hagee himself understood this better than I did. Two months later, he invited Donohue and me to his Christians United for Israel dinner in Washington, D.C. Before asking us to stand, he chuckled as he reminded his 4,600 dinner guests at the Washington Convention Center that he had “been in the news lately.” Hagee thanked us publicly for all that we had taught him about the Catholic Church in the previous weeks. He then added that the three of us had resolved our differences by doing something that the media did not understand – “we acted like Christians.” As we stood, Hagee’s supporters stood with us. Donohue and I looked at each other; we were as stunned as the Hagees had been in New York City.
This is a lesson worth remembering in the midst of a testy political season. I am grateful to Ralph Reed for believing it possible, and to Bill Donohue and Pastor John Hagee for being witnesses to a friendship in Christ that can overcome the most bitter differences.