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Here is the commentary, sent to Sustainers last night.
Anti-Islam? October 23, 2003
By Robert Jensen
"I am not anti-Islam or any other religion."
"I support the free exercise of all religions."
"For those who have been offended by my statements, I offer a sincere
Those were Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin's responses to criticisms of his
recent fundamentalist theological commentary. The latter two seem
honest; there's no reason to doubt that he believes in religious freedom
or doubt that he is sorry for the offense his remarks caused.
But based on Boykin's public statements, there are many reasons to doubt
that the first statement is genuine. It seems pretty clear that Boykin
is anti-Islam and anti-any-religion-other-than-Christianity, just as are
many evangelical Christians who claim a "literalist" view of the Bible.
Such folks agree that everyone should be free to practice any religion,
but they also believe those religions are nothing more than cults.
That's what Boykin meant when he said of the Muslim warlord in Somalia
he was fighting, "I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an
Idols are false gods, not real ones. To such Christians, who sometimes
refer to themselves as "biblical Christians," there is only one religion
-- Christianity, which is truth. All others are cults. The general can
believe in freedom of religion and feel bad when he offends a person
with another religion, yet still be convinced that all those other
religions are, in fact, false.
Check out the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association web site and you'll
see it spelled out: "A cult is any group which teaches doctrines or
beliefs that deviate from the biblical message of the Christian faith."
Or, read Franklin Graham, president of the international relief
organization Samaritan's Purse and CEO of that association named after
his father: "[W]hile I respect the rights of all people to adopt their
own beliefs, I would respectfully disagree with any religion that
teaches people to put their faith in other gods."
There's no ambiguity there. If you believe in Christ, your faith will
save you. If you believe anything else, you are in a cult -- and you're
in trouble when it comes to eternity.
Graham and Boykin, of course, are free to believe what they like. In
Graham's case, one might say it's in his job description. Boykin's
situation is trickier, given that his new job as the Pentagon's deputy
undersecretary for intelligence requires him to deal with a number of
predominantly Muslim countries.
But this is important beyond the question of Boykin's fitness to serve
in a high-level position. It points out that the crucial gap in the
culture over faith is not between those who are religious and those who
aren't, but between those who are 100-percent convinced their religion
is the only way to salvation and those who are willing to live with a
little less certainty.
On the question of which religion is "true," I don't have a dog in that
fight. I've been a secular person for as long as I can remember and have
never felt the need for a faith-based belief system. I find all
religions about equally interesting, and baffling
But I do have a stake in the question of certainty: I think absolute
certainty is dangerous. I have moral and political convictions and
respect others who do, but I think people should be open to the
possibility that their belief system could be just a bit off -- or maybe
all wrong. That's something that philosophers and scientists (at least
the good ones) agree on.
I know many religious people who don't shrink from their own
convictions, yet take seriously the limits we humans face in trying to
understand the complexity of the world. Even though we have different
theological views, I can talk -- and have talked -- across those
differences with such folks, often working with them in movements for
social justice. I think everyone benefits from that kind of discussion
Conversations with people like Franklin Graham and Lt. Gen. Boykin are
more difficult -- not because I don't want to talk but because often
there isn't anyone really listening on the other end. Whatever one's
religious convictions, that's bad for public discourse in a pluralist
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at
Austin and a founding member of the Nowar Collective,
www.nowarcollective.com. He is the author of the forthcoming "Citizens
of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights Books).
He can be reached at [EMAIL PROTECTED]
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