President Bush told Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan that they believe in the same God, breaking ranks once again with Christian fundamentalists, who have habitually declared since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that Allah is not the God worshipped by Christians and Jews.
The New York Times Magazine reported that Bush startled Erdogan when he talked about their common faiths at an early December 2002 meeting at the White House, even though both men were well-recognized as being devout followers of their specific faiths.
Bush reportedly said: “You believe in the Almighty, and I believe in the Almighty. That’s why we’ll be great partners,” according to the Turkish translator.
In an interview with the magazine some months after the White House meeting, Erdogan said: “Before anything else, I’m a Muslim. As a Muslim, I try to comply with the requirements of my religion. I have a responsibility to God, who created me, and I try to fulfill that responsibility.”
Turkey’s new prime minister added, “But I try now very much to keep this away from my political life, to keep it private.”
Sounding a theme common to the Western democratic tradition of the separation of church and state, Erdogan said: “A political party cannot have a religion. Only individuals can. Otherwise, you’d be exploiting religion, and religion is so supreme that it cannot be exploited or taken advantage of.”
While some Christians retain an inclusive understanding about the Islamic faith, fundamentalists view Islam as a false belief system.
Following Sept. 11 attacks, several Christian fundamentalists portrayed Islam as a hateful and violent religion.
“I believe the Qur’an teaches violence. It doesn’t teach peace, it teaches violence,” said well-known evangelist Franklin Graham. “The God of the Christian faith is not the God of Islam. People say they’re cousins, but they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
“The God we worship is completely different than the God we see in the Qur’an,” Graham said.
Another fundamentalist leader, Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said, “The biggest problem with Islamic theology is that it kills the soul.”
Mohler said that Islam “lies about God” and “presents a false gospel.”
Not only did Christian fundamentalists disparage Islam, they expressed sharp disapproval of Bush’s positive statements about Muslims and attempts to distance himself from the Christian right.
At a mid-November 2001 meeting with U.N. General-Secretary Kofi Annan, Bush said, “Some of the comments that have been uttered about Islam do not reflect the sentiments of my government.”
TV evangelist Pat Robertson reacted swiftly. He told the Washington Times that Bush “is not elected as chief theologian.”
Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, said Bush was ignoring history when he refused to point out that Islam is “violent at its core.”
Appearing later on ABC News program “This Week,” Robertson stepped up his attacks on Bush, accusing the president of “playing geopolitics.”
As Bush’s latest comments spread this week, Christian fundamentalists face another fork in the theo-political road. They can criticize a popular president for his pluralistic theology. Or fundamentalist leaders can ignore his words, hoping their followers don’t learn about it and question whether Bush is really a conservative Christian.
Either way, Bush has crossed the theological Rubicon with his most faithful political allies and has pushed open even wider the door of Christian inclusivity.
Robert M. Parham is BCE executive director.
Robert M. Parham (1953 – 2017) was the founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics from 1991 to 2017. He served as executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, BCE’s website, from its launch in 2002 until 2017.