Rev. Jerry Falwell's highly publicized declaration on 60 Minutes in October that "Muhammad was a terrorist" was hateful, ignorant, arrogant, irresponsible, and destructive. Once again, the self-appointed spokesman for Christianity was so far out of bounds that he was compelled to issue an apology (of sorts) when his words were directly tied to violent outbursts in India that resulted in numerous deaths.
Falwell's statement came in the context of an interview in which he clearly implied that he and his constituency control President Bush's policies toward Israel and Palestine. The remarks were repudiated by a variety of Christian leaders, but great damage had already been done.
These inflammatory remarks continue a clear pattern of pronouncements that Falwell, Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, and others have made since Sept. 11, 2001. Time and again, these and others have declared Islam to be an "evil religion" and asserted that Christians and Muslims are not talking about the same God. Rev. Jerry Vines, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and senior pastor of a 25,000-member church in Jacksonville, Florida, attracted national attention last June when he proclaimed Muhammad to be "a demon-possessed pedophile."
These kinds of verbal assaults on Islam and the prophet of Islam do far more damage than most Americans realize. They feed extremism among Muslims who want to frame conflict as being between Christians and Muslims. Such hateful statements literally put Christian missionaries and humanitarian aid workers at risk all over the world. Pompous proclamations undermine or destroy efforts many Christians and other people of good will make to build bridges of understanding and cooperation, often in the midst of very difficult circumstances.
While the media attention after such statements fades quickly in the United States, some newspapers in predominantly Muslim countries continue for weeks and months to portray "Christians attacking Islam." In the process, negative stereotypes about Christians and Christianity are reinforced precisely at a time when we must all be working toward better understanding and cooperation in our increasingly fragile and interdependent world community.
BEFORE TRASHING the world's second largest religion, Falwell typically begins with a disclaimer: "Of course, I'm no expert on Islam, and I certainly haven't studied the Quran." He wears this as a badge of honor; he wouldn't waste his time studying Islam or the Quran in depth. I'm waiting for Larry King, Chris Matthews, or Phil Donahue to simply stop him at that point and ask, "Why, then, are you here? If you admit you are ignorant, why have you come on national television to spread your ignorance to the rest of us?"
Falwell remains a media favorite, in large part because he stirs the pot with his smug proclamations and embarrassingly uninformed theological pronouncements. Recall his analysis of the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, on Pat Robertson's 700 Club: "We make God mad," Falwell said. "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America—I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.'"
Like Osama bin Laden, Falwell believes that God was actively involved in causing the destruction of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon: Bin Laden interpreted the destruction as a sign of God's support for his perceived struggle against evil; Falwell depicted the horrific events as God's way of showing displeasure at people and groups Falwell dislikes.
Jerry Falwell not only spews the worst kind of Christian theology, he is causing great damage. More and more Christians need to speak loudly and clearly: This kind of hateful, destructive language is deeply offensive to us as well; it does not represent the teachings of Jesus or the ministry to which we are called. n
Charles Kimball, a Baptist minister, is chair of the Department of Religion at Wake Forest University and author of When Religion Becomes Evil (HarperSanFrancisco, 2002).