Last Thursday my cell phone began ringing with a frequency that signals "hot" news has happened. In this case the news was that President Bush, in a joint press conference with Prime Minister Tony Blair in England, responded to a question from a reporter who asked:

"Mr. President, when you talk about peace in the Middle East, you've often said that freedom is granted by the Almighty. Some people who share your beliefs don't believe that Muslims worship the same Almighty. I wonder about your views on that."

Bush responded:

"I do say that freedom is the Almighty's gift to every person. I also condition it by saying freedom is not America's gift to the world. It's much greater than that, of course. And I believe we worship the same God."

Since I am an evangelical who would be included in the reporter's description of "some people" who "don't believe that Muslims worship the same Almighty," I wish the President had answered the question differently. I would have said that freedom is the unalienable right of every human being, because the Creator endowed each person with that right as a part of His creation process as is asserted in our nation's Declaration of Independence. This right to freedom is thus the legacy of every human being, regardless of their nationality or ethnicity, and regardless of their personal faith or lack thereof.

As President, I would have declined to answer the reporter's second, and at best tangential question, as Prime Minister Blair chose to do.

Alas, the President answered the second part of the question, and I believe he answered it incorrectly. When reporters called to ask for my response to the President's statement, I told them that like many other Americans, I applaud the President as a man of deep religious faith who attempts to bring those convictions to bear on public policy. I immediately added, however, that he is Commander-in-Chief, not theologian-in-chief. And when President Bush concludes that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, he is simply mistaken.

The Bible is very clear about this. There is only one true God and His name is Jehovah, not Allah. Furthermore, the Bible tells us that Jehovah's only begotten Son is Jesus Christ, of the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, born of the Jewish virgin Mary. And this Jesus, the Son of the only true God, has proclaimed in no uncertain terms, "I am the way, the truth, and the life, no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6).

The reporters' responses to my answer were revealing. First, none of them was surprised that as a Southern Baptist, I disagreed with the President's conclusion. Is it possible they have been reading our confessional statement, Baptist Faith and Message? Or, can it be that we are doing a good job of letting America, including the media, know what we unapologetically believe as evangelical Christians?

Second, several of them seemed surprised when I informed them that a clear majority of President Bush's fellow United Methodists would agree with him--not me--although John and Charles Wesley (Methodism's founders) would be on my side. This betrays a lack of media knowledge about the fissures in the American religious landscape, in which Protestants often disagree with other Protestants, depending on which side they have enlisted in the culture war.

Third, and perhaps most shocking, was the apparent unwillingness of the reporters to accept the President's conclusion at face value - the sincere, albeit mistaken, belief of a Methodist layman. They all wanted to know if I thought this was a calculated ploy devised by the White House political gurus to curry favor with Muslim voters. If so, it would be a clueless and flawed calculus, in which you risk offending your most loyal and dedicated base (evangelicals) to curry what would at best be a temporary lessening of hostility among Muslim voters (a much smaller voting block than evangelicals).

This question itself reveals a lack of knowledge of this President and how this White House works. It also illustrates a deep cynicism among many in the media to accept any sincerely held religious convictions, at least by an evangelical Christian, at face value. It is as if they are saying, "No serious person could really believe such things, so there must be another factor in play."

Recently, I was the token conservative (a function I frequently serve) at a symposium on church-state issues and the moderator, cynicism dripping from every syllable, asserted that politicians often attempt to use "civil religion" for their own political purposes. One example he gave was during the 2000 presidential primary debates when President Bush was asked which political philosopher had influenced him most. Bush replied, "Jesus, because He changed my life." The moderator summarily dismissed the possibility that Bush was answering the question with sincerity and conviction.

This inability, or unwillingness, of some in the media to accept the faith convictions of evangelical Americans and respect them as sincerely motivated is a crippling disability in their attempt to report on the phenomenon of the increasing important role of religion in American culture.

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