“The World is an Insane Asylum”: Notes from a Texas Megachurch Visit

“The World is an Insane Asylum”: Notes from a Texas Megachurch Visit September 18, 2023

Hi! I am a cultural sociologist on a tour of Texas Megachurches. Check out my first post here.

For today’s post, I cover my recent visit to Cornerstone Church in San Antonio.
Cornerstone Church, located at Stone Oak Parkway and North Loop 1604 West, is a sprawling complex with a 5,400-seat sanctuary, prayer chapel, gymnasium, classrooms, and a parking lot large enough for shuttle service.  The entire operation boasts two church locations, a K-12 Christian school, a home for unwed mothers, a youth sports program, and Hagee Ministries, a media empire. Most press articles suggest Cornerstone has 17,000 members,  but the church’s website numbers 22,000 active participants across Cornerstone’s various church services. On the morning that I attend, the audience is told that people from 80 different countries and 49 states are tuned in to the 8:30 am Central Time service. Only New Hampshire is missing. 

The service begins with a dense set of announcements that includes an advertisement for Cornerstone Christian School, a private k-12 venture begun in 1993. The purpose of Cornerstone Christian Schools is “to develop and train the whole person spiritually, intellectually, physically, and socially with unprecedented excellence in a Christ-centered culture to take all the Gospel to all the world and to every generation.” Pastor John Hagee bought the school’s campus from Ursuline nuns. It has just received a $100 million renovation to expand its capacities to serve new “Warrior families.” Tuition costs $23,000, but the church contributes $13005, bringing the real cost to $9995– as the website states, this is an “investment” that must be planned. 

“Ladies” in the audience are invited to attend a brunch, complete with five hours of free childcare, and men in the audience are invited to an event where they could showcase their classic cars. The “whole family” is invited to an event called Feast 2023, to be held from October 20-22, to “celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles”– a Jewish holiday. The invitation for Feast compels people to: “Enjoy a delightful experience with the finest food trucks, exhilarating amusement rides for all ages, and a festive atmosphere throughout the grounds. Each evening, join us for uplifting church services filled with praise and worship. Be captivated by electrifying performances from Planetshakers and multi-Grammy Award nominee Tauren Wells. Don’t miss the breathtaking state-of-the-art fireworks display on Saturday night.” This event turns the campus of Cornerstone into an amusement park, but admission is free. “Under the leadership of Pastor John Hagee,” the invitation reads, “experience an unforgettable evening filled with love and respect.”

At the beginning of worship, a 40 person, interracial choir, 7 worship leaders, and a full orchestra lead the congregation in a well-known song called, “When I think about the Lord” by a Dallas-based worship collective from Christ for the Nations. The website for Christ For The Nations notes that the school is “celebrating 75 years of rich, spiritual heritage and a dynamic, pioneering legacy. Founded by Gordon and Freda Lindsay, CFN has grown into a global missions organization that transforms lives and impacts millions of people around the world for the Kingdom of God.” For the nations is a phrase that readily reads as Pentecostal parlance. Early Pentecostals were very focused on reaching as many people as possible before the second coming of Jesus. That this megachurch is opening with this song is a bit unusual, given that charismatic worship is today a full-blown industry in which songs get recycled every other year, but this song is from 1999. The next song is Anne Wilson’s “My Jesus” –which includes the word ain’t –and the woman leading the song looks inspired by prairie wear. Wearing clothes that seem fit for a cottage has cross-ethnic appeal now, but when paired with a country sounding song and then sung by a caucasian woman, the effect can be a whitening of aesthetics. When I am looking for White Christian Nationalism (as I am when I visit these megachurches) I listen for rhetoric, but I also look for aesthetics, rituals, symbols and affects. The second song feels risky.

But the final song immediately announces a switch to black church sonic traditions and it is the power anthem of the morning. The song is “Something Happens” by Kurt Carr, released in 2005, and sung to perfection by an African American woman with a lovely alto voice. The song brings the worship part of the service to its emotional pitch–something that Pentecostal crowds expect and also hard to do when a service is on a tight schedule. (Services have to be on a tight schedule when there are multiple services in one morning.) The words helped move the crowd quickly:

Demons have to flee when I say Jesus (Jesus)
Sickness has to heal when I say Jesus (Jesus)
Every knee shall bow before, and every tongue proclaim
With worthy praise
That matchless name of Jesus

When this crowd ardently sings about demons fleeing and sickness being healed, they mean it; Pentecostals have been appealing to supernatural healing since the early 1900s. Cornerstone perpetuates such a supernatural view of the cosmos. When they say every knee will bow and every tongue will proclaim Jesus, they also mean it. Theirs is a global vision for all tongues to proclaim Jesus. That they have proclaimed a global agenda in a thoroughly interracial service that expresses a priority for Israel, not the US (thus far) makes it hard to call this White Christian Nationalism, per se.


But Tucked into (what, in total, amounted to) Cornerstone’s metanarrative about the role of Israel in the end of time, about repentance and holiness, and about sewing what one reaps (a small bit of prosperity gospel) I heard frequent excursions into culture war.

And these excursions are explicit.

In a pass in which John Hagee indicted the sins of the flesh: lying, immorality, lust, cheating, he took a sidebar to denounce the Biden administration as immoral. He invoked Hunter and Joe Biden, both, and this produced an interesting symmetry because, for the entire service, John Hagee has been flanked by Matt Hagee, his successor as the lead pastor at Cornerstone. During the whole preaching portion, the two of them are posed sitting side by side, like the Son of God sitting at the right hand of the Father. For this duo to be jointly decrying Hunter and Joe Biden as immoral forms a striking parallelogram of opposition.

John Hagee is an institution. His bearing reminds me of Logan Roy from HBO’s Succession, a fictional media mogul. Founder and Senior Pastor of Cornerstone Church, Hagee is the author of 45 major books, seven of which were on the New York Times Best Sellers List.  He is also the founder of Hagee Ministries, which “telecasts his teachings throughout America and the nations of the world.” Per their own reporting, Hagee Ministries has given more than $100 million toward humanitarian causes in Israel. Hagee is the founder and National Chairman of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), a grass-roots organization which has grown to become the largest Christian pro-Israel group in the United States with over 10 million members that speak as one voice on behalf of Israel.

For this work, John Hagee was recognized by the state of Israel on its 70th Anniversary as one of the 70 greatest contributors to Israel since statehood. He was also invited by U.S. Ambassador David Friedman to give the benediction at the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, a ceremonial honor that ties him to the Trump administration, which moved the embassy to Jerusalem in 2017.

This year, Hagee celebrates 65 years of ministry, but he has been presenting Matthew as his heir apparent from at least 2006. Apparently (unlike Succession’s Logan Roy), John Hagee is not one for suspense. His appointing Matthew as heir, early, may signal that he understands an operation as large as Cornerstone needs a crystal clear succession plan to avoid collapse in the event of his death. Hagee is a very charismatic preacher, and it’s hard to keep the same preacherly fire with a second generation. But John Hagee is, apparently, “a 5th generation pastor and the 47th descendant of his family to preach the Gospel all the days of his adult life.”  Pastor Matthew Hagee, the website reads, “is following in his father’s footsteps, he is the 6th generation pastor and the 48th descendent of the Hagee family to preach the Gospel.” One gets the feeling that the Hagees understand themselves as a dynasty. This lineage tracing is interesting given Cornerstone Church’s history in Pentecostalism , which historically forwarded the idea that the Holy Spirit could and would call anyone to the ministry. Now, a bloodline logic appears; family politics are readily apparent in charismatic pulpits. 

It’s Hagee the Elder who calls the troops to culture war in a tight 40-ish minute sermon. First, Hagee noted that salt is meant to preserve meat from deterioration, thus– he reasons–when God calls Christians to be salt and light, he is calling them to preserve their cultures from spiritual deterioration. Christianity, he says, “is not retreat or escape; it is being salt and light, and it is evangelism.” Christianity, he continues, is like being thrown into the furnace; it’s like being thrown into the lion’s den and walking out alive. In implicitly referencing Hebrew Bible stories, Hagee positions Christians as protagonists over and against unbeliever, politically-connected antagonists. Then he depicts the nation as corrupt, public schools and district attorneys who don’t prosecute crimes as corrupt; “our president and his son” as corrupt. “The world is an insane asylum,” Hagee thundered; the answer to all the above problems is for “We the People to rise up in righteous rage.” The tone of this section reminded me of nothing so much as the iconic scene in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, where Burl Ives decries, “mendacity and lies.” The Americana of the use of “We the People” was unmistakable. Rising up in rage is not a mandate I want to hear in this context, but more than 20,000 people probably heard it. To conclude his section on contending against the forces of evil plaguing America, Hagee used the language of Psalm 91 to note that “a thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand”– language that invokes the protection of God in war.

Bingo: this sounds like Christian Nationalism, to be sure. But a video from Hagee’s Christians United For Israel (CUFI) makes a prevailing logic, Hagee’s prevailing nationalistic logic, clearer: “If America is to be a blessed nation, then we must stand with Israel and the Jewish people like never before. Our mission is to stand with Israel and the Jewish people.” The nation that can lay claim, in Hagee’s rhetoric, to a special divine identity is, first and foremost, Israel. The website makes clear: if the US would like to have a blessed destiny, it will have to stand in support of Israel. As this video shows, John Hagee has been prioritizing Israel for decades: since he was a much younger man in the late 1970s. He kept prioritizing Israel throughout the 1990s, while evangelicalism was in the heyday that produced the songs that his church is still singing, before our cultural war took hold. And John Hagee is still prioritizing Israel now. Given the cultural shifts in the US that he decries, it is easy to hear his message as one that conforms to expectations, in which a megachurch pastor goes all-in on the importance of Christianity to the US. To some extent, Hagee appears to have done so; but the metanarrative Hagee is telling is not ultimately about the divine destiny of this nation. Hagee’s version of Christian Nationalism makes the US’ fate dependent on its alignment with Israel’s, surely a complicating factor. 

Thanks for reading! Have questions or recommendations? Please leave a comment!

Next time, I’ll be reporting on my visit to Max Lucado’s Oak Hills Church.

About Erica Ramirez
Erica Ramirez is a cultural sociologist of religion who is currently Director of Research at Auburn Theological Seminary in Manhattan. A fifth-generation Texan, Erica's research has been supported by Hispanic Theological Initiative, the Forum for Theological Exploration, and Louisville Institute. Her analysis has been featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times and, in 2022, Erica was recognized by Religion News Service for her insightful coverage of Hispanic Pentecostal politics. You can read more about the author here.
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