Staying on the high rhetorical road about Islam necessitates staying away from the mud puddles of Christian fundamentalism.

“Tonight we honor the traditions of a great faith by hosting this Iftaar at the White House,” he said. “Ramadan is a special time of prayer and fasting, contemplation of God’s greatness, and service to those in need.”

The president said, “We see in Islam a religion that traces its origins back to God’s call on Abraham. We share your belief in God’s justice, and your insistence on man’s moral responsibility.”

Speaking about the war on terrorism, Bush said, “Our nation is waging a war on a racial network of terrorists, not on a religion and not on a civilization.”

“One of the deepest commitments of America is tolerance,” Bush said. “No one should be treated unkindly because of the color of their skins or the content of their creed. No one should be unfairly judged by appearance or ethnic background, or religious faith. We must uphold these values of progress and pluralism and tolerance.”

Bush gets thumbs up for the clarity and consistency of his message about Islam. His early stumble after 9-11 has been replaced with a purposeful and undisturbed stride toward the practice of religious tolerance.

Much of the nation has watched with admiration as Bush has refused to demonize Islam and has spoken favorably about Islamic values. Much of the world has watched with horror as the religious right has thrown apoplectic fits about Islam and the prophet Muhammad. Some of us have watched in puzzlement about when President Bush would finally find the courageous voice to say that the words of the Christian fundamentalist clerics were not his words.

A month ago, Jerry Falwell called Muhammad “a terrorist.” The White House was mute. In August, when Franklin Graham was pimping his book, he said that Islam preached violence and Islamic clerics believed in holy war. The White House was silent. In June, when Southern Baptist Convention leader Jerry Vines called Muhammad “a demon-possessed pedophile,” the White House dragged its feet for over a week before finally saying Vines’ statement was “bigoted.”

On that occasion, Bush spoke to the SBC meeting via a satellite-broadcasted address the day after Vines’ remarks. Bush called Baptists “the earliest champions of religious tolerance and freedom.” But he made no comment about Vines’ sermon. When asked the White House if Bush knew about Vines’ remarks, the White did not respond. Not until Vines’ hateful comments received worldwide headlines did the White House distance itself from Vines.

The president’s silence or slowness to speak about the hatefulness of some of his closest political allies drains some of the value of his good statements about Islam. That’s why President Bush should stop inviting Christian fundamentalists to the White House. He would send an unmistakable signal to them, hopefully generating some behavior modification among right-wing clergy such as tongue-biting before speaking. He would also end doubts in the Islamic world about the authentic nature of his good words about their religion.

Staying on the high rhetorical road about Islam necessitates staying away from the mud puddles of Christian fundamentalism.

Robert Parham is executive director of the
Baptist Center for Ethics.

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