Evangelical Christian leaders expressed dismay yesterday over President Bush’s statement that Christians and Muslims worship the same god, saying it had caused discomfort within his conservative religious base. But most predicted that the political impact would be short-lived.
At a news conference with Prime Minister Tony Blair in England on Thursday, a reporter noted that Bush has often said that freedom is a gift from “the Almighty” but questioned whether Bush believes that “Muslims worship the same Almighty” that he does.
“I do say that freedom is the Almighty’s gift to every person,” the president replied. “I also condition it by saying freedom is not America’s gift to the world. It’s much greater than that, of course. And I believe we worship the same god.”
Bush’s remarks sent immediate shock waves through Christian Web sites and radio broadcasts. A Baptist Press report quoted Richard D. Land, president of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, as saying that Bush “is simply mistaken.”
“We should always remember that he is commander in chief, not theologian in chief,” Land said in a telephone interview yesterday. “The Bible is clear on this: The one and true god is Jehovah, and his only begotten son is Jesus Christ.”
The Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, also issued a statement contradicting Bush.
“The Christian God encourages freedom, love, forgiveness, prosperity and health. The Muslim god appears to value the opposite. The personalities of each god are evident in the cultures, civilizations and dispositions of the peoples that serve them. Muhammad’s central message was submission; Jesus’ central message was love. They seem to be very different personalities,” Haggard said.
But both Land and Haggard, who are frequent visitors to the White House, doubted that the remark would cost Bush votes in 2004.
“This president has earned a lot of wiggle room among evangelicals,” Land said. “If he had said that Islam is on a par with Christianity, it would be a more serious case of heartburn. This is just indigestion.”
Gary Bauer, president of American Values, a conservative public policy group, said it is unclear what the ultimate fallout will be. “But the one thing that’s for certain is, it’s not helpful to the president. Since everybody agrees he’s not a theologian, he would be much better advised to punt when he gets that kind of question,” Bauer said.
The Rev. Brenda Bartella Peterson, executive director of the Clergy Leadership Network, a new organization of left-leaning clergy that seeks to counter the Christian right, declined to say whether she believes Christians and Muslims worship the same god.
“I would rather you not quote my theology,” she said. “But I have to say that I’m very pleased that President Bush wants to be so inclusive, and I think his inclusiveness in this particular comment speaks well for who we have been as a nation theologically. Not all of his policies and his actions have been as inclusive.”
Sayyid M. Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, responded to Bush’s statement with a single word: Alhamdullah, Thanks be to God.
“We read again and again in the Koran that our god is the god of Abraham, the god of Noah, the god of Jesus,” he said. “It would not come to the mind of a Muslim that there is a different god that Abraham or Jesus or Moses was praying to.”