President Bush drew criticism from evangelical leaders after saying that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, a comment at odds with many in his conservative Christian voting bloc.
Bush made the statement last Thursday in London in response to a reporter’s question about how he reacts to people who share his beliefs but don’t believe Muslims worship the same Almighty.
“I do say that freedom is the Almighty’s gift to every person,” Bush said. “I also condition it by saying freedom is not America’s gift to the world, it is much greater than that of course, and I believe we worship the same God.”
Bush’s comment got attention in the evangelical community, where he enjoys some of his strongest support.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told Baptist Press that he respects Bush but believes he is wrong.
“Like many other Americans I applaud the president as a man of deep religious faith who attempts to bring that faith conviction to bear on public policy issues,” said Land, who was appointed by Bush to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “However, we should always remember that he is Commander-in-Chief, not theologian-in-chief. And when he says that he believes that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, he is simply mistaken.”
Bush, in an effort to assure Muslims in the United States and overseas that his war on terrorism is not against Islam, has in the past distanced himself from views of some of his supporters who denigrate the Muslim faith. But this is apparently his most direct affirmation to date that he believes Muslims and Christians worship the same God.
The New York Times Magazine reported this spring that in December 2002 Bush surprised Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a devout Muslim, by telling him in a meeting that they believe in the same God. Bush reportedly said: “You believe in the Almighty, and I believe in the Almighty. That’s why we’ll be great partners.”
More recently, Bush said an Army general’s comment that Muslims worship an idol and not the true God “doesn’t reflect my point of view or the view of this administration.”
But some Muslims expressed doubts about Bush’s sincerity when he ignored calls to remove Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin from his high-level position in the Defense Department. Islamic groups called for a boycott of an Iftar–a meal served at the end of the day during Ramadan to break the day’s fast–which Bush hosted Oct. 28 at the White House.
Critics pointed not only to Bush’s failure to censure Boykin, but also to his recent appointment of Daniel Pipes to the board of directors of the U.S. Institute of Peace and to the Defense Department inviting evangelist Franklin Graham to deliver the 2003 Good Friday homily. Pipes has a history of comments critical of Islam and Graham drew Muslim ire by declaring Islam a “very evil and wicked” religion.
On the other hand, some evangelicals have previously questioned whether Bush has gone too far in reaching out to non-Christians.
Some criticized him for clapping his hands and bowing at a Shinto Temple during a visit to Japan in February 2002, a cultural exchange that offended some Japanese Christians. Others said his visit to a mosque immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, sent a message to Muslims that he and they worshipped the same God.
The author of a new book on Bush’s faith says the president has had to walk a tightrope in affirming his beliefs while promoting respect for other faiths since 9/11.
“It is a very tough line and, of course, he really alienated a lot of people in the religious right as a result,” historian Stephen Mansfield, author of The Faith of George W. Bush, told Religion News Service.
Concerning Bush’s most recent statement, the SBC’s Land said the Bible is “clear” that Christians and Muslims don’t worship the same God.
“There is one God and his name is Jehovah and his only begotten Son is Jesus Christ of the seed of Abraham and Isaac, whose mother was the Jewess virgin, Mary. Jesus our Savior has made it clear that we must know his Father through faith in him and him alone,” he said.
Another SBC leader, seminary president Albert Mohler, has said that not only do Christians and Muslims worship different gods, but so do Christians and Jews.
Former SBC president Jerry Vines was criticized in 2002 for describing Muhammad as “a demon-possessed pedophile,” adding: “And I will tell you, Allah is not Jehovah either. Jehovah’s not going to turn you into a terrorist that’ll try to bomb people and take the lives of thousands and thousands of people.”
In his book When Religion Becomes Evil, Wake Forest University Professor Charles Kimball says Allah is simply the Arabic word for God. When Christians in the Middle East pray to God, they address him as “Allah,” he says.
The Quran teaches that God has spoken to humankind through many prophets, including biblical figures like Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and John the Baptist, Kimball writes. Jesus is one of the most prominent figures in the Quran, which mentions him by name 93 times.
“There is simply no ambiguity here,” Kimball concludes. “Jews, Christians and Muslims are talking about the same deity.”
Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, who has in the past been criticized for making inflammatory comments about Islam, holds a different view. On a recent broadcast of his “700 Club” TV show, Robertson said: “Under no circumstances is Jehovah, the God of the Bible, and Allah, of the Quran, the same.
“First of all, the God of the Bible is a God of love and redemption, who sent his Son into the world to die for our sins. Allah tells people to die for him in order to get salvation, but there is no understanding of salvation. Allah was the moon god from Mecca. That is why Islam has the crescent moon. The flag of Turkey has a crescent moon with a star in it. Well, the crescent moon is because Allah was the moon god, and that is the deal. But we don’t serve a moon god. We serve the God of creation, the Creator of everything.
“They are not the same. To translate Allah as God is wrong. When you see something in there and it says Allah, you translate it Allah. Don’t call it God because it is different. God is Elohim. He is the Creator, the Jehovah God, Yahweh. Yahweh of the Old Testament was the Father who brought forth Jesus into the world.”
Speaking to the Washington Post, Land said that he doubted Bush’s remarks would cost him votes in the 2004 election.
“This president has earned a lot of wiggle room among evangelicals,” Land said. “If he had said that Islam is on a par with Christianity, it would be a more serious case of heartburn. This is just indigestion.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Click here to read EthicsDaily.com’s 2002 interview with Charles Kimball.