Has the GOP primary gone off the rails before the first vote has even been cast?
In 2008, Sen. John McCain rejected the endorsement of John Hagee, a far-right pastor who had called the Catholic Church the "Great Whore" and said that Hitler was sent by God to be a "hunter" of Jews who had not yet moved to the land that would become Israel. McCain wasn't exactly running as a moderate - look who he chose to be his vice president - but he knew, at least this time, that a line had been crossed.
Today's GOP presidential candidates seem to have no such scruples.
Compare Hagee's statements to this passage from a 2004 sermon by Mike Bickle, megachurch pastor, big-time evangelical, and star speaker at Rick Perry's August prayer rally-cum-campaign launch. In a video found by Bruce Wilson of Talk to Action, Bickle prophesies that in the End Times 2/3 of all Jews "will die in the rage of Satan and in the judgments of God." He goes on to discuss a disturbing and ultimately dangerous theory of the Holocaust even more outrageous than that pushed by Hagee:
The Lord says, "I'm going to offer two strategies to Israel, to these 20 million." He says, "First, I am going to offer them grace, I am going to send the fisherman." Do you know how a fisherman lures? I mean do you know how a fisherman does their thing? They have the bait in front, luring the fish. It's a picture of grace.
And he says, "And if they don't respond to grace, I'm going to raise up the hunters." And the most famous hunter in recent history is a man named Adolf Hitler. He drove them from the hiding places, he drove them out of the land.
Mike Bickle is not just any radical pastor preaching End Times scripture. He was a key organizer of Perry's The Response rally this summer, lending a number of staff members of his International House of Prayer (yes, IHOP) to the event and emceeing the proceedings himself.
Bickle has a history of outrageous claims. In the lead-up to The Response , for instance, People For the American Way's Right Wing Watch reported Bickle's theory that Oprah Winfrey is the precursor to the Antichrist. Asked about the extremism of Bickle and other The Response leaders before the rally, Gov. Perry said, "I appreciate anyone who's going to endorse me, whether it's on The Response, or whether it's on a potential run for the presidency of the United States. Just because you endorse me doesn't mean I endorse everything that you say or do." That's true. But Perry did more than accept Bickle's help: he trotted him out to promote the event that served as a de facto launch of his presidential campaign.
Asked about Bickle's more recently uncovered anti-Semitic rant, a Perry spokesperson performed a similar dodge:
Gov. Perry initiated the Response event for the sole purpose of bringing our nation together for the common cause of praying about the challenges confronting us. Those participating did so because of that common cause, and the issue you refer to has nothing to do with the goal and purpose of that event.
Only in today's GOP does "bringing our nation together" entail hosting an event for the nation's most vitriolic opponents of pluralism.
We need not even go as far as Bickle to see how much the GOP has changed in just a few years. Invited to speak alongside the controversial pastor at Perry's marquee event was Hagee himself.
Neither Bickle nor Hagee has officially endorsed Perry. In fact, it's the other way around: by placing them on the stage at a nationally televised event, you could say that Perry endorsed Bickle and Hagee. While McCain rejected the endorsement of someone who demonized people of other faiths, Perry is actively working to throw such people into the spotlight.
As Perry has embraced and promoted these proponents of religious prejudice, his fellow candidates have stood by in silence. Even when Perry endorser Robert Jeffress repeatedly called Mitt Romney's Mormon religion a "cult" and called Catholicism a "counterfeit religion" created by "Satan," only one candidate (Jon Huntsman, a Mormon himself) challenged him directly -- and Perry kept the endorsement. Even Mitt Romney, who tries to come across as the most reasonable of the bunch, has accepted the endorsement of prominent anti-Muslim advocate Jay Sekulow.
These candidates, of course, are entitled to their personal religious beliefs. But they are running to be the president of all Americans. If they stand by silently while people like Bickle, Hagee and Jeffress peddle bigotry against non-Christian religions, and even against other types of Christians, they're giving us a hint of how they would approach their presidencies. It's a frightening vision, and one that the American people are smart enough to see before they go to the polls.
Whatever our differences we should all, at least, be able to agree that Hitler was not sent by God to convert Jews to Christianity; that Catholicism, Mormonism and Islam like all religions are protected by the Constitution; and that Oprah Winfrey is not the Antichrist. Will Perry or any of his fellow candidates stand up and contradict Bickle, Hagee and Jeffress? Can't we at least start there?