San Antonio | January 15, 2006
Pastor The Reverend John C. Hagee
Address 18755 Stone Oak Parkway
Phone 210- 490-1600
On the Internet sacornerstone.com
Services Sundays at 8:30 a.m., 11 a.m., and 6:30 p.m.
LOCATED NEAR the intersection of U.S. 281 and Anderson Loop in the north part of San Antonio, the 17,000-member nondenominational Cornerstone Church includes the standard features of the contemporary megachurch: a large (5,400-seat) sanctuary, classrooms and office buildings, a prayer chapel and garden, a gymnasium and racquetball courts, and acres of parking. Founded and led by Pastor John Hagee, Cornerstone is one of the largest churches in the nation and extends its reach by transmitting its services via 160 TV stations and 50 radio stations in the U.S. and numerous foreign countries.
On a Sunday morning in January, the crowd streaming into the quasi—Greek Revival building for the eleven o’clock service appeared to be mostly middle- and working-class, about evenly divided between Anglos and Latinos, with a smaller but significant contingent of African Americans. Dress varied, but “church clothes” were far more common than casual attire, befitting the rather formal interior of the semicircular sanctuary. While the last thousand or so worshippers filled the balcony seats, organist Harold Hild—thirty years ago Hagee rented a garage apartment from the music man, and they have been a team ever since—played a medley of gospel tunes as Hagee, 65, and his son Matthew, 27, associate pastor and heir apparent, strode to two thronelike white chairs at the center of a red-carpeted stage that stretched nearly forty yards across the front of the sanctuary.
The elder Hagee spoke first, greeting on-site visitors before inviting the congregation to welcome with applause the national and international television and radio audience. He and his son then took turns with the preliminaries, leading prayers, making announcements, and introducing musical numbers by a 75-voice choir, a 14-member musical group, and a series of soloists and ensembles. Matthew spoke of a new campaign in which “prayer warriors” pray for the conversion of unsaved friends and relatives whose names have been placed on the wall of the prayer chapel by members of the congregation. The effort was going well, he reported, with several names already transferred from the “prayer” side to the “victory” side. This news, like every song and prayer, was met with enthusiastic applause, spurred on by the instruction to “give the Lord a mighty hand clap of praise.”
When time came for the offering, John Hagee reminded his flock that the more they gave, the more God would give back to them, “pressed down, shaken together, running over, and good measure.” Hagee has good reason to believe in abundant harvests. According to reports filed with the IRS, his direct compensation from Cornerstone and Gospel Evangelism Television (now known as John Hagee Ministries), which he also founded and for which he serves as CEO, exceeded $700,000 in 2004, a figure that does not include a generous trust and the royalties from the books and tapes produced by the ministry and sold at stands throughout the foyer of the church and in a sixty-page catalog.
Although he espouses the contemporary fundamentalist-Pentecostal teachings and beliefs—biblical literalism, speaking in tongues and divine healing, the prosperity gospel, absolute opposition to abortion, and the conviction that Harry Potter is a stalking horse for Satan—John Hagee is perhaps best known for his strong support of Israel and his ardent philo-Semitism, proclaimed symbolically by the Israeli flag standing opposite Old Glory behind the stage and by the twelve large banners, one for each of the tribes of ancient Israel, lining the back walls. The support is based on the doctrine of premillennialism, widely accepted in fundamentalist-evangelical-Pentecostal circles and the theological basis for the phenomenally popular Left Behind series of novels. Adherents of this view believe that the Second Coming of Jesus will not occur until, among other conditions, Israel is in control of all the land of Judea and Samaria (a.k.a. the West Bank), fulfilling God’s covenant with Abraham. As a result, those who embrace this doctrine strongly support the Israeli settlements and actively oppose a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I had hoped to hear Hagee preach on that topic, especially since his latest book, Jerusalem Countdown, was about to be released, but the sermon for that morning was about another covenant, that of marriage. Predictably, Hagee extolled a traditional model of the family—provider husband, supportive wife, obedient children—and got his licks in against “mean-spirited feminists,” Hollywood stars getting pregnant without the benefit of marriage, and “homosexuals living together playing ‘Let’s Pretend,’” but he called both husbands and wives to high levels of mutual devotion and sacrifice and spent the bulk of the sermon castigating men who treat their wives improperly and weak women who put up with such abuse. He recalled telling a woman whose husband abused her and was unfaithful to her to “file for divorce and get out of that sick and toxic marriage because she didn’t deserve to be a carpet for a meathead that can’t treat her like a decent woman.” If a spouse is unfaithful, he told the audience, “You have the right to terminate the relationship. You don’t have to, but you have the option.”
Hagee played football in high school and at Trinity University, in San Antonio, and he still radiates a kind of smashmouth physicality appropriate to a middle lineman, but his strong voice, emphatic cadence, and orotund articulation quickly make it clear that he is, above all and without doubt, a preacher and that he relishes telling people how to act and what to believe and what will happen if they don’t. But he also enjoys making them laugh, telling time-tested jokes and tossing out zingers that could have come from “The Big Book of One-liners for Preachers and Coaches.”
“Every man likes to think of himself as a lover, and frankly, it requires a great imagination when your back goes out more often than you do.”
“A man who is bald in the front is a thinker. A man who is bald in the back is a lover. A man who is bald from front to back just thinks he’s a lover.”
After a full dose of such wit and warnings, Hagee brought his sermon and the service to a dramatic climax by asking all the married couples who wished to renew their vows to stand, noting with a chuckle that this was not legally binding and that no dating couple should stand and later declare, “Preacher married us, and it was free.” Hundreds accepted that invitation, and Hagee led them through a conventional exchange of vows, minus the ring ceremony and, surprisingly, minus any promise to obey. After sealing their renewed covenant with a kiss, the couples received Communion, the covenant meal, before the benediction. It was impressive, and judging from the warm smiles, hugs, and occasional tears on the faces of those I could see, I suspect that most of those folks would not have had much trouble answering the old question “What did the preacher talk about today?”