06/07/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Reverend Hagee's Hitler Problem and Mine: God, Could You Email Me Offline?

Babylonian creation stories described a slithery evil water goddess who tried to annihilate mankind by sending a deadly flood. We are saved after an epic battle by a friendlier god. As Jack Miles recounts in his beautiful God: A Biography, early polytheist myths resonated in later monotheistic traditions, in which God the creator-destroyer must fuse so many beautiful and frightening features of our present world.

Every religious community tries to make sense of the suffering, evil, and tragedy around us. These basic questions lead people to religion. Every community gropes to find plausible answers. One hopes for consoling and humane answers. Sometimes these hopes are disappointed.

I knew little about Rev. John Hagee until I read Sarah Posner's engrossing book God's Profits. Hagee leads a group called Christians United for Israel. CUFI is often described as stridently pro-Israel -- a term which is only accurate if one believes that intransigent right-wing policies improve Israel's long-term security.

Erudite reporter and commentator Gershom Gorenberg has extensively covered the Christian Zionist movement. He has given two remarkable Fresh Air interviews that tell the story well. His">website includes these and other terrific materials. I must have been living under a rock not to have heard this before. The more I learn about Hagee and others, the more I want to climb back under.

Rev. Hagee sees many links between our present day and the Book of Revelation -- surely the first bad acid trip on record. In case you've been under a rock, Jews can be flattered that we play a special role in Hagee's eschatology. We must gather in Israel to hasten the arrival of Armageddon. Don't ask what happens when that conflagration actually comes.

Hagee's feelings about Catholics are equally spectral, but much less pleasant. His repeated descriptions of the Catholic Church as "the whore of Babylon" were widely known. When millions of Catholic voters heard about this in a campaign season, Hagee apologized in an open letter to the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights, a conservative pressure group that itself doesn't set records for tolerance.

Hagee's letter would be a terrific apology for an awkward gaffe. It doesn't begin to account for a detailed and nasty theological scheme he has regularly espoused over many years. With a flair for understatement, he added: "I want to express my deep regret for any comments that Catholics have found hurtful." The League quickly forgave him, to the obvious relief of the McCain campaign.

I hope he marches down the long list of others he has gratuitously offended. Here is a sampling of his philosophical investigations, reported by Katie Halper.

"Do you know the difference between a woman with PMS and a snarling Doberman pinscher? The answer is lipstick.

I believe that the Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans...[T]here was to be a homosexual parade there that the Katrina came.

Then God sent a hunter... Hitler was a hunter. And the Bible says -- Jeremiah writing -- 'They shall hunt them from every mountain and from every hill and from the holes of the rocks,' meaning there's no place to hide. And that might be offensive to some people, but don't let your heart be offended. I didn't write it. Jeremiah wrote it. It was the truth, and it is the truth. How did hit happen? Because God allowed it to happen. Because God said my top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel.

Homosexuality means the death of society because homosexuals can recruit but they can't reproduce."

Three things are clear from such comments.

First, many of Hagee's comments don't make sense, even within his own worldview. I would have expected him to cheer when gay people exit from the gene pool. Even at the University of Chicago, the lines of young men buying the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue suggest that gay recruiting drives pose no immediate demographic threat.

Second, many Republicans and Jewish leaders used terrible judgment in associating themselves with CUFI. Senator Lieberman is (still!) slated to speak to CUFI's this July. He and everyone else who palled around with Re. Hagee should be ashamed.

Third, Hagee's politically self-immolating comments about Hitler are not quite what they seem. He genuinely mourns Hitler's victims. Within his own particular eschatology, the Holocaust was a sad required milestone on the way to Judgment Day. As he recently commented:

The fact is that all people of faith have had to wrestle with the question of why a sovereign God would allow evil in the world. After Auschwitz, this question became more urgent than ever.

Many people simply could not explain how a loving God would permit such horrors. After the Holocaust, they abandoned their faith...

But I and many millions of Christians and Jews came to a different conclusion. We maintained our faith in a sovereign God who allows both the good and the evil that is in the world. We therefore search the scriptures for an explanation of that evil.

Hagee is not stupid or crazy. It is only his worldview that leads him to the occasional stupid or crazy place. He is grappling with questions that have vexed everyone from Job to Mother Theresa. He is neither the first nor the last to find bad answers here. Just the other day, Sharon Stone claimed that China's earthquake reflects bad karma over the Tibet issue.

Like others who speak with frightening certitude about God's plans, Hagee regards his secret knowledge as providing license to express horrible views towards other people. I'm more upset about his sexism, religious chauvinism, and loathing of gay and lesbian people than I am about his eccentric theological views of the Holocaust.

Hagee should learn from that same Catholic Church he so harshly condemns. At Vatican II, it opened its heart and affirmed religious freedom, tolerance, and other precepts of a diverse, democratic society. This transformation was never as sweeping or as complete as liberals hoped to see. I remain appalled by Church positions on contraception and other matters. Yet the Church does not talk about people with the brutality that Hagee does. Providing compassionate ministry to millions of suffering people, the Church does not claim to know whether or how atrocity and tragedy advance God's plan. My devout wife tells me: "God does not move us around like pieces on the chess board, although we sometimes wish God would." This seems the only humane religious stand.

I myself am increasingly angry with God. This is not logical, since I am an atheist. Maybe other nonbelievers feel the same. Oddly enough, Rev. Hagee's questions identify my dilemma. We see God's face in the rainbow after the flood, in the grimy, exhausted face of the fireman pulling a child from the shattered building. Yet where is God herself? Some claim to see her scowling face in a hurtling wall of seawater, or in two grinding tectonic plates consuming a school. If we believe in a personal God who acts through human history, how can we be sure that they are wrong?

God, could you email me?
My editor assures me that God is a regular reader. So, God, I'll ask you directly: A five year-old girl is calling you from the Irrawaddy Delta. She is hot and thirsty. Her belly is distended. I'd like to pray, but I can't when I don't believe you are answering. You regard our suffering from afar in stony silence. How can I know you care? I have wondered since childhood how Adolph Hitler could have been one of your children. I've never received a satisfying answer. Could you email me offline to clear this up?

So far, the only response I've received was from God's press secretary, conveyed through a devout acquaintance, Mr. Gorenberg. The spokesman reports: "God is busy for the next day (a thousand human years) trying to figure out how the crown of her creation, human civilization, came to include such evil. She will respond to Her email afterwards."

Darned press secretaries. Given my age, doesn't he know that I'm operating on a fifty-year deadline here?