Since Sept. 11, President Bush's outreach to Muslims--calling Islam a "peaceful religion," hosting a Ramadan dinner at the White House, and describing the Muslim scripture as the "holy" Qur'an--has been applauded by many Americans as a display of old-fashioned American religious tolerance.

But not everyone. Conservative Christians say Bush's group hug with Muslims amounts to a near-repudiation of his Christian beliefs, and proof that the President is ignoring his evangelical base. Some conservative activists are threatening to take their allegiance elsewhere if the Administration doesn't pay attention to them.

"We don't believe Islam needs validating at the highest level of American government," says David Crowe, director of Restore America, a grassroots conservative Christian political organization based in Oregon. "A lot of people think Bush has bent way too far over backward to say nice things about Muslims."

For now, the grousing has not gone completely public--and conservative leaders want to keep it that way because they don't want to be seen as disloyal to the Bush administration. But some political experts and conservative activists suggest it may turn into something bigger.

Some of the discontent bubbled to the surface after a Nov. 19 dinner at the White House celebrating Ramadan, the first ever held at the White House and attended by a U.S. president. In response, one evangelical group--the Family Policy Network--asked its members to contact the White House and "politely express your opposition to Islamic prayer services at the White House." On Monday, Bush went a step further, hosting Muslim children at the White House as they ended Ramadan.

The Family Policy Network has also encouraged members to "thank Franklin Graham for his faithfulness to Christ in the face of criticism." That was a reference to comments made by Billy Graham's evangelist son, in which he described Islam as a "wicked, violent" religion. The White House publicly disagreed with Graham, saying the president "views Islam as a religion that preaches peace."

"Lots of people I've spoken to--not just the grassroots but also leaders of other pro-family organizations--are bewildered at why George Bush is doing so much to pay homage to Islam," says Joe Glover, a conservative Christian political organizer who is president of the Family Policy Network in Virginia, a Christian anti-gay rights group. "Conservative evangelicals love Muslims. They care for them. They want to provide religious freedom for them. However, they are diametrically opposed to Islam."

Indeed, some leaders are comparing Islam to the homosexuality issue. "It's the same difference we have with the homosexual community," he says. "We care about homosexuals, yet we're opposed to their agenda because we know it destroys their lives. Likewise, we care about Muslims, but we're opposed to even any tacit endorsement of Islam because it's against the will of God."

On Monday, Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson discussed the emerging Islam "problem" as it relates to the case of John Walker, the accused American Taliban fighter. "Since Sept. 11, many of our elites have bent over backwards to obscure, even hide, Islam's true nature," Colson said on his radio program, Breakpoint. "That's why people like Walker and his parents believe that Islam is a peaceful faith....The Walker case, you see, is really a metaphor for what happens if Americans buy into the politically correct talk about Islam being peace-loving. Christians have to be prepared to take the lead in setting the record straight."

Janet Folger, director of the Center for Reclaiming America, part of D. James Kennedy's powerful Florida-based Coral Ridge Ministries, is also unhappy with the Bush display of tolerance.

"My heart sank when they opened the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance service in the name of God, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus and Allah," she says. "I don't pray in the name of Baal any more than I pray in the name of Allah. Because guess what? Allah is a different god. It's not one big umbrella and we shouldn't just get along. If you look in the Bible, God isn't real fond of people who pray to false gods."

On one conservative message board, run by the Free Republic Foundation, member tex-oma wrote of the president: "He's a fool to praise a religion that is the root cause of the terrorism. Just as he is a fool to solicit and embrace homosexuality." Another member named Penny wrote: "I hope that if this was the wrong decision (and I believe it was a BIG mistake), God will make that clear to W. There has to be a line drawn somewhere, and I fear with this latest move he's crossed it." Ironword responded: "I wish he'd quit buoying an irrational, copycat, ritualistic, false religion."

Another piece of the equation is conservative Christians' long-standing outrage over persecution of Christians in Muslim countries. Lately, evangelicals have become deeply angry that in its war on terrorism, the Administration is cozying up to some of the countries where Christian persecution is the most intense--Pakistan, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. Last week, for instance, there were reports that Islamic terrorists in Indonesia threatened to kill thousands of Christians. In response, some conservative Christian groups sent out alerts, asking members to apply pressure to elected officials to deal with the crisis. Restore America's bulletin was typical: "When it comes to Christians being persecuted or murdered elsewhere in the world, the media and our government look the other way. The government and the media seem to care more about what the Muslim world thinks than calling attention to terrorism directed at Christians."

"The discomfort level is going to continue to rise," says Michael Cromartie, director of the evangelical studies project of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "You've got this problem of Christians being slaughtered in Sudan, and you have what happened here, and the key question everyone is going to sorting out is `Is Osama bin Laden an aberration, or is there something at the core of Islamic belief that has jihad at center of it?'"

It's not clear at this point whether Bush will, in fact, lose the support of conservative Christians over the Islam issue. Evangelicals comprise about a quarter of the electorate. John Green, an expert on evangelicals and politics from the University of Akron, says that 39 percent of all of Bush's votes in 2000 came from evangelicals. According to Green, the 2000 election was so close that even a modest drop in support from evangelicals, say 5 percent, could have made a difference--especially in Florida. "Clearly, a 10 percent drop could be a big problem if the next election is close," he added.

Last week, Karl Rove, the president's political adviser, seemed to confirm Green's view. During a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Rove said that one reason the 2000 election was so tight was that as many as 4 million Christian conservatives did not go to the polls. Although the Bush campaign had expected 19 million evangelical voters, election returns revealed only 15 million turned out to cast ballots.

Rove said during his speech that the Bush campaign "probably failed to marshal support of the base as well as we should have."

Glover, of the Family Policy Network, predicted Bush would only pay attention to evangelicals "through political maneuvers, direct mail, and videos. He clearly does not have any desire to please evangelical Christians. He merely wants their vote."

He pointed as evidence to the President's openness to homosexuality, despite the displeasure of conservative Christians. As a candidate, Bush gave openly homosexual U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-AZ) a prominent speaking role at the Republican National Convention. As president, Bush named former Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci, a gay rights advocate, as U.S. Ambassador to Canada. And in September, the administration swore in Michael Guest, who is openly gay, as its new U.S. Ambassador to Romania.

In addition, Glover noted that although Bush says he opposes abortion, he has also said he doesn't believe there is enough public support to outlaw Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion, and that he wouldn't make that a priority of his Administration.

According to Green, conservative Christians were also disappointed with Bush's handling of the stem cell decision last summer, in which he approved federal funding for limited medical research on existing lines of embryonic stem cells, a move that restricts the research to embryos that have already been destroyed. But conservatives were deeply disappointed that Bush didn't ban all stem cell research.

Meanwhile, they are going to expect Bush to take steps to limit abortion--such as signing a bill outlawing late-term abortions and appointing judges who oppose abortion. If Bush doesn't deliver on these promises--and if conservative Christians don't feel appeased on the stem cell and gay rights issues--the Islam entanglement will be added to the list of ills, Green predicts.

"Evangelicals don't vote against Republican candidates, but what they do is stay home," Glover says. "He could still lose this coming election for betraying the evangelical side of the Republican Party."

Some evangelicals say they're not particularly worried about it, even though they're not thrilled with Bush's embrace of Muslims.

"I would not refer to the Qur'an as the `holy' Qur'an, but I have no problem with the dinner," says Richard Land, president and CEO of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "He is the president of all the people, and to me pluralism is not pretending we don't have different religions in America, but giving religions in America equal acknowledgement from the government."

Land, who has ties to the Administration, called Islam "one of the great religions of the world" and said it has a "higher moral code" than, say, Hinduism. He suggested the outreach to Muslims was "calculated" by the Administration to head off anti-Muslim backlash.

Meanwhile, there's another issue that could soon be in play: the faith-based initiative. Nobody is paying attention now, but before Sept. 11 Bush was squarely on the record favoring including Muslim charities in the law. Yet religious conservatives were never very comfortable with including anyone other than Christian and Jewish charities. Last spring, Jerry Falwell landed in hot water when he told Beliefnet he didn't think Muslims should get the faith-based money. And given the government's closing of the Holy Land Foundation and two other Muslim charities in the last couple weeks, it would be a tough sell for Bush to say that Muslim charities should be eligible for the government grants.

Yet it's not as if Bush can go back on his initial pledge. That would anger Muslims--whose leaders officially endorsed him last year--and it would also probably break the law to exclude them.

"This potentially could be a problem for him," Green says. "I don't think it's a big problem now, because we're bombing a Muslim nation. And while they're discouraged by the president being too cozy with Islam, he's taking actions they support."

All of this is occurring against a larger backdrop: How do evangelicals deal with pluralism? It's a question they have always wrestled with, because conservative Christians believe that belief in Jesus is the only way to heaven-and that they have an obligation to convince others of this belief.

Sometimes, this discomfort with pluralism is manifested in aggressive evangelizing campaigns. In the mid- to late-1990s, Jews were the main targets. These days, evangelicals are trying to convert Muslims, and to a lesser extent Hindus, to Christianity. Sometimes, their displeasure with pluralism is manifested in frustration, often with justification, that minority religions appear to be off-limits for criticism-as is the case with Islam at the moment. And sometimes this discomfort plays out in their feeling that belief in a personal relationship with Jesus as the son of God isn't taken seriously by "elites."

In the last couple weeks, some little-noticed events indicate a growing problem for conservative Christians. The National Association of Evangelicals sponsored a post-Sept. 11 memorial prayer service exclusively for conservative Christian clergy from 50 denominations because they deemed the interfaith civic services insufficiently religious. Two weeks ago, a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod pastor accused another of "idolatry" for participating with clergy from many faiths at the Sept. 23 Yankee Stadium service.

So once again, evangelicals must decide how much pluralism is too much. At what point do conservative Christians stop putting up with the beliefs of people of other faiths? And from a political viewpoint, when do they stop putting up with Bush's support of Islam?

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