Ammons, who said evangelical leaders have been consumed primarily with the gay marriage debate, added that the Christian Coalition would keep an online petition in support of Boykin on its homepage.

Angell Watts, spokeswoman for Pat Robertson, said that although "the troops messed up big time," the "liberal media" are overplaying it. "I was more disgusted at the beheading of Nick Berg," she said. "Look at what we're dealing with."

As for Boykin? Watts said that if Boykin knew about the abuses, "he has to be held accountable...Christians are held to a higher standard." Although Watts said she doesn't believe Rumsfeld or Boykin knew about the abuses, "if I'm wrong, I'll grieve over that."

Conservative Christian leaders and commentators have contended since last fall that Boykin's comments were taken out of context, or that he was being attacked because he is a Christian. Among his staunchest supporters were Focus on the Family's James Dobson; religious broadcaster Pat Robertson; the Family Research Council; the Christian Coalition; and the Rev. Bobby Welch, who will be nominated president of the Southern Baptist Convention in June.

"Every conservative Christian would understand the language that Gen. Boykin used to describe what is known as spiritual warfare. His words were consistent with mainstream evangelical beliefs and he had a right to express them," Dobson said at the time.

The Christian Coalition started an online petition in support of Boykin--and posted it on its homepage. Pat Robertson's 700 Club even went so far as to ask Chuck Holton, a former Army Ranger who served under Boykin in Somalia, to attend a church service at which Boykin spoke, record his speech, and then report on it for Christian Broadcasting Network.

Welch, in a column for Baptist Press, described Boykin's critics as "back-stabbers," writing: "I despise the unthinkable and asinine fact that some take cheap backstabbing shots at a real God-fearing American hero who continually risks his life to protect all of us."

In a 2002

Conservative columnist Tony Blankley described Boykin as a "victim" in the terrorism struggle. "For a quarter century, he has been fighting terror with his bare hands, his fine mind and his faith-shaped soul," Blankley wrote. "It is that last matter--his faith, and his willingness to give politically incorrect witness to that faith in Christian churches--that has drawn furious media and political fire."

Even if the evidence accumulates that Boykin was a key figure in the scandal, evangelicals may hold the line. "They've invested so much in Boykin," says John Green, an expert on the religious right and director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. People in the pews, however, may react differently. "No doubt some of them will be appalled," Green said. "And a denial reaction by their leaders might actually encourage an appalled reaction."

The Christian leader in perhaps the trickiest position is Welch, whose new position as president of the Southern Baptist Convention will give him a much higher profile. A friend of Boykin's, Welch has defended Boykin and also collaborated with him on evangelism projects.

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