February 15

By Claire Hansen

A rally kicking off former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s 2024 presidential campaign opened Wednesday with an invocation from a Christian pastor – a practice not unusual for a GOP political event.

What was notable, however, was Haley’s choice of pastor: John Hagee, a high-profile televangelist and founder of a Christian Zionist group, and a political activist who has made headlines for a number of controversial remarks, including those considered anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic.

Haley during a speech at the rally emphasized her background as a child of Indian immigrants, denounced American “self-loathing” and attempted to position herself as a level-headed – and younger – alternative to the likes of former President Donald Trump.

“The American people are not full of hate. We are full of love, and we are sustained by faith,” Haley said during her speech, which followed remarks from Hagee, whom she praised.

“To Pastor Hagee, I still say I want to be you when I grow up,” Haley said.

Haley and Hagee have had a relationship for several years.

In 2018, when Haley was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Haley spoke to Hagee’s group, Christians United for Israel, at its annual summit, and Hagee presented her with an award. In 2021, they visited Israel in the same group.

Hagee’s appearance at the rally is the latest in a long history of political involvement, stretching back to his endorsement of segregationist George Wallace in 1968.

Hagee endorsed Sen. John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, but McCain publicly renounced the endorsement after a previous sermon of Hagee’s came to light in which Hagee appeared to assert that Adolf Hitler was half-Jewish and was sent by God to drive Jews to Israel. Hagee suggested that it was Jews’ “disobedience” of God that “gave rise” to their persecution.

Hagee has also suggested that Hilter’s Catholic background contributed to his anti-Seminitism and appeared to refer to the Roman Catholic Church as the “apostate church” and the “great whore,” among other anti-Catholic remarks noted by Catholics, including the Catholic League, which tracks anti-Catholic discrimination. Hagee later apologized for some of his remarks on Catholicism, and defended his remarks on Jews as mischaracterized.

He has also been criticized for anti-Islam remarks.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which killed nearly 1,400 people and caused billions of dollars in damage, Hagee sparked controversy again by asserting that the storm was “the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans” for its sins, including a gay pride parade planned for the time the storm hit. He later backtracked on the statements.

Hagee has also suggested that the antichrist will be gay and created the “blood moon prophecy” suggesting that a series of lunar events beginning in 2014 were the start of the end times as described in the Bible.

Despite the controversies, Hagee has remained influential in conservative and evangelical circles.

He is the founder of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, which boasts more than 20,000 members. The services are also televised, reaching many others.

Hagee was a high-profile endorsee of former President Donald Trump, and his church has hosted pro-Trump figures including Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, MyPillow CEO Michael J. Lindell, who has promoted the theory that the 2020 election was illegitimate.

Hagee’s appearance at Haley’s rally signals the pastor’s openness to moving away from Trump, who remains Haley’s only official competition – though that is expected to change as other Republicans are expected to join in the race in the months to come.

Haley’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.