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All presidential candidates need key endorsements to help them get elected, but when controversial religious figures are involved, it can get tricky. Each one has supporters and detractors and can unwittingly drag a candidate into a theological fray.

During a recent debate, for example, Barak Obama categorically rejected the support of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has made many anti-Semitic remarks.

On Wednesday, John McCain publicly and graciously accepted the endorsement of the Rev. John Hagee, pastor of 19,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio who has called the Catholic Church "The Great Whore," an "apostate church," the "anti-Christ," and a "false cult system."

William Donahue, president of the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, immediately called for McCain to reject the endorsement and decry Hagee's anti-Catholic statements. Two days later, McCain issued a clarification saying, "in no way did I intend for his endorsement to suggest that I in turn agree with all of Pastor Hagee's views, which I obviously do not."

That didn't satisfy Donahue. Now other groups are demanding that McCain disassociate from Hagee, who, they say, has a long history of slandering Catholics, Muslims, African Americans, gays and women.

"Despite grave concerns raised by the Catholic community, Sen. McCain has failed to offer an unambiguous repudiation of this tainted endorsement," Alexia Kelley, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good said Thursday in a release. "We would hope that all political leaders will have the courage to speak out against the kind of bigotry and intolerance that has no place in American politics."

Even evangelical blogger John Schroeder believes McCain should specifically reject Hagee's anti-Catholic statements, especially because McCain publicly praised Hagee in his acceptance.

"I would be most comfortable if the candidates did not mess with political endorsements at all, but a president is always going to look for power bases," said Shroeder, who spent the last year blogging about the way Mitt Romney's Mormonism was described and discussed by the press with an LDS co-author, Lowell Brown. "If [Focus on the Family's] Jim Dobson wants to endorse a candidate, that's his business. But candidates should not go on a stage and embrace that endorsement."

Colleen Gudreau, spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, declined to comment on the Hagee endorsement, but Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, a Mormon who heads McCain's campaign in Utah, defended McCain.

"I certainly am in no position to say whether he should or shouldn't accept an endorsement," Shurtleff said. "He made it clear he doesn't agree with Pastor Hagee and that's enough. John McCain is not anti-Catholic or anti-Semitic and that's all that matters."

Every endorsement and contribution comes with "baggage," says Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

"You need support from a majority of people to get elected," said Jowers, who was a Romney supporter. "The most difficult part is that sometimes you need the support of people for whom you have real reservations about their positions or actions."

What to do about the problem lies on a continuum between outright rejection and subtle disagreement, he says. When someone is indicted or does something "truly horrible," a candidate gives back their money and renounces them.

"McCain has essentially decided he will try to have his cake and eat it, too - accept Pastor Hagee's endorsement and the benefits that go with that but reject some of his views," Jowers says, "whereas Obama just decided there was no cake to be eaten."


* PEGGY FLETCHER STACK can be contacted at or 801-257-8725. Send comments about this story to