Responding to anti-Islam comments from several leading religious conservatives, President Bush said on Wednesday that the statements did "not reflect the views of my government."
Thursday, Colin Powell followed up with an even more pointed rebuke. "We will reject the kinds of comments you have seen recently, where people in this country say that Muslims are responsible for the killing of all Jews and who put out hatred. This kind of hatred must be rejected. This kind of language must be spoken out against. We cannot allow this image to go forth of America because it is an inaccurate image of America."
This one-two punch by the Administration has enraged some religious conservatives. In an email to his supporters, former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, a popular figure among religious conservatives, responded to Bush's comments by saying: "The statement demonstrated an unbecoming ingratitude" since religious conservatives are "the very people who helped deliver the votes that gave the White House its congressional majority. Perhaps a 'thank you' would have been more timely."
The White House had probably been intending to do something like this for some time but held off until after the election, so as to not dampen enthusiasm among crucial evangelical Christian voters, says Michael Cromartie, director of the evangelical studies program at the Ethics and Public Policy Institute. "Why alienate the base before the election? Why not do it now when you have serious political capital?" Cromartie, who has close ties to the White House, speculated that they did this as part of their preparation for a war against Iraq. "We're about to go war with Iraq and we want to make it real clear that this is not against Islam and religious freedom. It's a war against radical Islamicists who have distorted true Islam."
The White House apparently felt that the televangelists' comments, if left standing, would undermine Bush's efforts to project an image of tolerance. "He (Bush) wanted a clear statement," a senior White House official told Reuters.
Robertson, whose comments comparing Muslims to Nazis, were directly referenced by Colin Powell, responded today with a reiteration of his views on Islam, saying, "the Koran teaches that the end of the world will not come until every Jew is killed by the Muslims. Now that's what it says in the Koran written by Mohammed."
Richard Land, a leader of the Southern Baptist convention and a strong backer of Bush, said he didn't agree with the president's statement but that "it doesn't upset me." He added, though, that it probably would upset "conservatives for whom Falwell or Robertson is their spokesperson."
One of the most awkward situations involves Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, and a friend of Bush's. Franklin Graham delivered the invocation at Bush's inaugural, but recently referred to Islam as a "very evil and wicked religion." He even indirectly mocked Bush by saying, in an interview with Beliefnet, "All of a sudden there's all of this hoo-rah around Islam being a peaceful religion, and then you start having suicide bombers and people started thinking, "Well, wait a second, something doesn't add up here."
In sharp contrast to Bauer, Graham on Thursday went to great lengths to avoid a fight with Bush. "I understand that George W. Bush, as president of the United States, represents all Americans of all faiths, and I fully support him," Graham said in a statement. "Any comments I have made on this subject were shaped by years of relief and development work in Islamic regimes around the world. I have stated my views and have not purported to speak for any other groups or people."
Jimmy Swaggart went the furthest of all in disagreeing with Bush, saying his comments were "the most asinine, idiotic, ridiculous, utterly ludicrous statement that I've ever heard in my life." Furthermore, he added, "Isaiah said Israel would come to the place they were ruled by children. He meant men with minds of kids. That's what's happening right now in the United States of America."
Bush has worked hard to maintain good relations so far with religious conservatives, in part because they turned against his father's presidency, contributing to his electoral defeat. For the most part, evangelicals have been strongly supportive of him. It remains to be seen now, however, how they'll deal with a stinging slap in the face from the President they have so far loved.