An evangelical pastor who backs John McCain tried to put his controversial remarks about the Catholic Church behind him, apologizing to the head of the Catholic League and expressing "deep regret for any comments Catholics found hurtful."
Pastor John Hagee, who heads the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, said in a letter made public Tuesday that he now knew the terms he used to describe the church, such as "the great whore," were "rhetorical devices long employed in anti-Catholic literature."
To win over evangelicals, McCain sought Hagee's support when he launched his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. But his campaign was caught off guard by the uproar over controversial comments Hagee has made about the Roman Catholic Church.
The Catholic League called on McCain to repudiate Hagee, saying that he had "waged an unrelenting war" against the church and had called it a "false cult system," among other derogatory terms. Hagee also said the damage Hurricane Katrina inflicted on New Orleans was "the judgment of God" on the city's "sin."
McCain called Hagee's apology helpful. "Whenever someone apologizes for something they did wrong, then I think that's a laudable thing to do," he said.
The Arizona senator had initially waved off the criticisms, asserting that just because Hagee endorsed him did not mean that McCain embraced "everything that he stands for and believes in." He later distanced himself from the remarks and, on a recent visit to New Orleans, he called Hagee's comments "nonsense."
McCain had also rejected any comparison with the criticism aimed at Sen. Barack Obama for controversial statements made by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., who lead Obama's church for 20 years. McCain noted that Hagee was not his pastor.
In his letter, Hagee said he had gained a better understanding in recent weeks of the Catholic Church's relationship to the Jewish faith. He wrote of his "profound respect for the Catholic people" and said he hoped to advance "greater unity among Catholics and evangelicals." The Catholic League said in a statement that it accepted the apology.
"Pastor John Hagee has demonstrated an improved understanding of the Catholic Church and its history," Catholic League President Bill Donohue said in a statement. "The tone of Hagee's letter is sincere. He wants reconciliation and he has achieved it."
McCain said he was pleased by the exchange. "That's the kind of reconciliation that I've been engaged in for many, many years," he said.
Asked whether he or his campaign was involved in brokering the reconciliation, McCain said: "I certainly wasn't."
McCain was on the second day of his environmental tour of the Pacific Northwest. In North Bend, Wash., he escalated his criticism of President Bush in what is becoming a pattern of distancing himself from the president.
"There's a long-standing, significant, deep and strong difference on this issue between myself and the administration," McCain said at the Cedar River Watershed Education Center above Rattlesnake Lake, with acres of dense forest as his backdrop.
McCain, who has sponsored a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, said his rivals had "never, to my knowledge, been involved in legislation nor hearings nor engagement in this issue," even though both Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton co-sponsored his global warming legislation in 2007 and now back more aggressive measures.