The Fundamentalist General
By Robert Jensen
Published in Counterpunch · October, 2003
[A version of this article appeared in the Dallas Morning News, October 22, 2003, p. A-19, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, October 21, 2003.]
“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 apology.”
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 idol.”
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 and interaction.
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 democracy.