President Bush’s national security adviser said Sunday that a top general was wrong to describe the war on terrorism as a conflict between Christianity and Satan.
But Condoleezza Rice twice avoided questions about whether Bush will condemn statements by Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin, a high-ranking officer in a new Pentagon unit assigned with tracking down high-profile terrorists.
“The president’s views on this are absolutely clear,” Rice said on the ABC television program, This Week. “This is not a war between religions. No one should describe it as such.”
Boykin apologized Friday for offending Muslims with comments he made in speeches at evangelical churches over the last two years, which were broadcast last week on NBC News.
Boykin, deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, told a church group in Colorado that terrorists hate America because it is “a Christian nation.” He told another group in Daytona Beach, Fla., that a Muslim military leader in Somalia worshiped an idol.
Critics of Boykin’s remarks called for him to be reassigned.
“Putting a man with such extremist views in a critical policy-making position sends entirely the wrong message to a Muslim world that is already skeptical about America’s motives and intentions,” said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“Everyone is entitled to their own religious beliefs, no matter now ill-informed or bigoted, but those beliefs should not be allowed to color important decisions that need to be made in the war on terrorism.”
Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics said Boykin “sounds more like a messianic crusader than a military commander.”
But Boykin is not without defenders.
Bobby Welch, pastor of First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., one of the churches where Boykin has spoken, reacted strongly to the controversy in a column in Baptist Press. “I despise the unthinkable and asinine fact that some take cheap backstabbing shots at a real God-fearing American hero who continually risks his life to protect all of us,” Welch said.
Conservative columnist David Limbaugh said Boykin was being criticized only because “he had the audacity openly to declare his faith in the God of the Bible.”
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said the issue is not whether everyone agrees with Boykin’s comments, “but rather whether we will defend his right to exercise his freedom of speech.”
“Eventually, liberal activists will have to face the fact that religious expression is not prohibited by the Constitution,” Perkins said in his organization’s “Washington Update” e-newsletter.
“I am not anti-Islam or any other religion,” Boykin said in a statement released by the Pentagon. “I support the free exercise of all religions. For those who have been offended by my statements, I offer a sincere apology.”
“I have frequently stated that I do not see this current conflict as a war between Islam and Christianity,” Boykin said. “I have asked American Christian audiences to realize that even though they cannot be in Iraq or Afghanistan, they can be part of this war by praying for America and its leaders.”
Boykin said his quote from a story about a Muslim lieutenant to a Somalian warlord–“I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol”–was misunderstood.
“My comments to Osman Otto in Mogadishu were not referencing his worship of Allah but his worship of money and power—idolatry,” Boykin said in his statement. “He was a corrupt man, not a follower of Islam.”
The CAIR’s Awad said he still believes the general should step down, despite his apology, because of his views.
“The army in America is not a Christian army or a Southern Baptist army,” he said. “It’s a nationalistic army that has Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists in it, and therefore our approach to the war on terrorism is based on national security, not on religion.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.