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Giving God a Break

Nicholas D. Kristof
Op-Ed Columnist, New York Times

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God must be feeling dizzy, listening to American evangelicals pray for help in converting Muslims from their vile faith while Muslims appeal for assistance in stomping out bloodthirsty Christian infidel invaders.

So maybe God, along with all of us, will find relief following a milestone last month: some leading evangelicals called on their own prophets of pugnacity to zip it. We can, er, pray, that responsible Muslim leaders will follow that wise example and similarly rein in their own extremists.

The "loving rebuke" by conservative Christians of their fire-breathing brethren came at a Washington conference. This helped move us back from the clash of civilizations that hard-liners in both Islam and Christianity are pushing us all toward.

Franklin Graham, Billy's son, has led the call to arms with blasts like his description of Islam as "a very evil and wicked religion." In addition, Pat Robertson dismissed Muhammad as "an absolute wild-eyed fanatic, a robber and brigand," and Jerry Vines, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, labeled Muhammad a "demon-possessed pedophile."

Mr. Graham is not a nut. His Samaritan's Purse organization is an exceptionally well-managed charity that provides $150 million annually in food and medical care in some of the grimmest corners of the third world.

Still, he clearly subscribes to that essential human conceit that God is on the pew beside us, a member of our own sect. As Spinoza noted, "If a triangle could speak, it would say . . . that God is eminently triangular."

The repudiation of the radical comments on Islam reflects the way the evangelical movement has grown increasingly tolerant over the years. Now even the most conservative adherents no longer give the impression that they are gathering piles of rocks to deal with gays or single mothers. Vituperations about Islam are a throwback, not the trend.

The National Association of Evangelicals "has gone through periods of time when our differentiating value was the things we were against," says Ted Haggard, the new president of the organization. "One of the reasons the board selected me is that I am a strong advocate of the things we are for."

"I am for people being born again," he added. "I am for people reading the Bible; I am for people receiving the benefits that Jesus has to offer and looking to Jesus as a model for life and godliness. These ideas are so positive that if we can communicate that, we don't need to spend so much time articulating the things we are against."

That message of evangelizing for one's own beliefs rather than against heretics is one that Muslim extremists should absorb.

To be sure, Mr. Haggard and other evangelical leaders don't seem to disagree fundamentally with the loudmouths; they just think that insults make bad public relations and put missionaries at risk.

"It's really a concern about safety," not doctrine, said Clive Calver, president of World Relief, an evangelical aid group, and he adds about Christian aid workers: "These people are in danger. I don't want to see them killed."

The demonization of Islam by the Christian right always seemed opportunistic. Cal Thomas, the evangelical commentator, notes that both left and right need enemies to galvanize fund-raising, and he adds: "The right has been looking for an enemy to replace communism since 1990. And maybe Islam is it."

Nonetheless, even if it's about P.R. more than substance, the step toward civility is important. My conversations with Muslims around the world have left me convinced that nobody has done more harm to America's image in the Islamic world than Franklin Graham and those like him. So let's all hope that Mr. Graham keeps his mouth zipped and focuses on what he does superbly: aid work.

President Bush, the world's No. 1 evangelical, can help. Mr. Bush's own trajectory reflects the softening of the religious right. In 1994 in Texas, Mr. Bush endorsed sodomy laws aimed at homosexuals; in contrast, as president Mr. Bush has appointed an openly gay man to be an ambassador.

Mr. Bush displayed real moral leadership after 9/11 when he praised Islam as a "religion of peace" and made it clear that his administration would not demonize it. He should now join the evangelical leadership in repudiating remarks by religious zealots who preach contempt for other religions and then we should demand that Saudi and Yemeni leaders repudiate their own zealots.

Nicholas D. Kristof is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times.

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