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April 7, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 2



global perspective

A dangerous entanglement of religious expression

by Tom Roberts, editor of NCR

Many news organizations have received news releases recently outlining the ambitions of some evangelical fundamentalist Christian groups to begin relief work in Iraq the minute the bullets stop flying. No doubt, they will be in line behind a host of other agencies and groups negotiating with the government and the military on exactly who will be dispensing humanitarian aid when the rebuilding of Iraq gets underway.

The curious thing is that some of the recent announcements come from groups whose leaders have made some rather nasty remarks about Islam in recent months.

For instance, the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of legendary evangelist the Rev. Billy Graham, has taken a different tack from his father, who, immediately after Sept. 11, urged tolerance toward Muslims.

The son, several months later in interviews and in a book he’s written, described Islam as “a very evil and wicked religion.” His relief group, Samaritan’s Purse, wants to take relief aid and the young Graham’s version of the Christian message to Iraq.

So does the Southern Baptist Convention, even though a former leader, according to a recent report in The New York Times, last year described the prophet Muhammed as a “pedophile” and “terrorist.”

That same Times story said the Bush administration is attempting to put some distance between itself and the aid groups without offending Religious Right voters.

It is a dance that some politicians have been attempting for some time -- keeping the Religious Right happy while staying far enough away to remain untainted by its most extreme views .

In the late 1980s, before the elder George Bush began his run in earnest for the presidency, a woman who was editor of a conservative Protestant evangelical magazine called me to tell me of a meeting she had attended at the then-vice president’s home. She said he had gathered a number of evangelical Protestant editors, with the help of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, to discuss his religious beliefs.

A few stories were done on the gathering, during which Bush explained that although he might not always use the language of evangelical Christianity, he was a true believer who had been raised with the Bible. Many of us then viewed the story as an oddity, an example of what politicians have to do to cement relationships with particular constituencies.

Since then, however, it has become clear that the religious right has definite designs on shaping domestic and international policy. This is not religion that seeks to inform politics, it is religion that wants to be a major player. And some would contend it has become just that, in a big way.

In recent weeks, we’ve run stories depicting the significant effect of conservative Christians on the current Bush administration, as well as the president’s view that God has conveyed a special “call of history” to America. His deputy director of public liaison, Tim Goeglein, was quoted as saying he thought “Bush is God’s man at this hour,” and Time magazine reported, “Privately, Bush even talked of being chosen by the grace of God to lead at that moment,” referring to the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001.

What some might see as moral clarity others see as a dangerous entanglement of religious expression and theology that wraps itself around a specific world view.

In the case of the anti-Islam Christians who want to distribute aid, the danger becomes clear. No one needs further fuel on the smoldering suspicions of the Arab world that this is a Christian-Muslim battle, a revisiting of ancient enmities played out by a modern superpower with high-tech means. In this case, a far more inclusive God is essential.

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