I’ve never been a fan of John Hagee, the bombastic pastor of San Antonio’s Cornerstone Church. I find his theology bizarre and his sermons too laden with his own geopolitical concerns. You might remember him as the guy whose endorsement for McCain made the news because of remarks he’d made about the Holocaust.
When I stumbled across his broadcast the other night on my circuit through the channels, I found him talking about the founding of America. Thinking this would provide some entertainment, I stuck with it. It turned out to be your standard civil religion jeremiad. America is going down the tubes, we’ve forgotten our roots, etc.
By way of illustration, Hagee ran through a list of men who signed the Declaration of Independence and later suffered devastation and ruin because of their support for the Revolution. If this rings a bell, it’s because it comes from a patriotic chain e-mail called “The Price They Paid” that usually makes the rounds on July 4. It’s mostly hogwash, riddled with the sort of errors that anybody with Internet access can debunk in a few minutes.
Take, for example, the story of Thomas Nelson, Jr, member of the Continental Congress and commander of militia. In 1781 he succeeded Jefferson as governor of Virginia. He owned a fine home in Yorktown, supposedly used as the headquarters of Cornwallis during the siege. According to “The Price They Paid,” and as repeated by Hagee, Nelson was aware that the British commander would have taken up residence in his house and requested French and/or American artillery to open fire on the building. The cannons demolished the house, and Nelson died broke.
It’s a great story, but it’s at best highly exaggerated. How do we know? Well, here’s a modern photo of the site of Nelson’s home:
Note the big freaking house sitting on top of it. Nelson’s home is still there, and while it did indeed suffer cannon damage, there’s no evidence outside of tradition that Nelson himself ordered troops to fire on it.
In fact, according to Jerome Greene’s highly detailed study of the siege, Cornwallis did not even use Nelson’s house as his headquarters. Instead, he set up shop in the home of Nelson’s sixty-five-year-old namesake uncle. Allied guns struck this home, too; Greene reports that cannon fire killed one of Nelson’s servants. Some versions of the legend maintain that it was this house to which Nelson directed fire, but again, it’s an unsubstantiated tradition.
Personally, I think these myths actually trivialize the actions of the signers. They took real risks in publicly identifying themselves with an unlikely cause because they thought it was the right thing to do. Embellishing their stories implies that this wasn’t enough, that they weren’t real patriots until they lost everything they had because of their allegiance to the cause. It’s the willingness to risk that makes someone a hero, not the outcome.
You’d think a guy like Hagee, who makes a fortune as a speaker and writer, could do better than a sappy chain e-mail for a sermon illustration. But if his congregation thinks they’re getting their money’s worth, then I guess they might as well have at it.