The White House finally moved to distance itself from anti-Islamic statements made at the Southern Baptist Convention meeting last week in St. Louis.

Speaking to pastors at the conference, Jerry Vines, former SBC president, condemned American pluralism and charged that the prophet Muhammad was “a demon-possessed pedophile.”

The next day in a satellite broadcast to the SBC meeting, President Bush said Baptists “were among the earliest champions of religious tolerance and freedom.”

“Faith teaches us to respect those with whom we disagree. It teaches us to tolerate one another,” he said. left repeated messages at the White House, asking if Bush was aware of Vines’ comments and if he agreed with them. The White House did not respond last week to’s requests for clarification.

The Washington Post reported yesterday that Bush “apparently was unaware of Vines’ statement when he praised the Southern Baptist Convention last week for its tradition of tolerance.”

White House spokesman Scott McClellan told the Post that “the president’s views are very clear. The president believes Islam is a religion that teaches peace. The president believes in religious tolerance and respects people of all faiths.”

In a rare move, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution criticized Southern Baptists on its editorial page, saying Vines’ statement was “inflammatory.” The editorial said the SBC had “taken shelter behind thick walls, heavy doors and many locks. It has chosen to withdraw rather than to engage, to define itself by whom it can anger.”

Naming both Vines and James Merritt, outgoing SBC president, the editorial said, “Their sense of spiritual supremacy can be seductive, but like other easy seductions, it is more wisely resisted.”

The Florida Times-Union reported that Vines, pastor of First Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Fla., declined to meet with area Muslims to discuss his remarks. Vines said he was too busy.

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