Evangelical leaders call for tempered speech on Islam

Yesterday, about 40 or 50 evangelical leaders got together to criticize evangelist Franklin Graham. Or so it would seem from media reports.

"Leading evangelical Christians for the first time have publicly condemned assaults on Islam by the Rev. Franklin Graham and other fellow religious conservatives and pledged to heal rifts with Muslims that threaten missionary work overseas," begins a widely circulating report from the Associated Press.

The Washington Post begins on a similar note, but adds a few names: "Evangelical Christian leaders from across the country called yesterday for fellow ministers such as Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson to stop making broad, inflammatory remarks about Islam."

And then there's this headline from the television station in San Diego, where Franklin Graham's father is preaching this week: "Billy Graham's son condemned by evangelical leaders: Franklin Graham rebuked for derogatory statements about Islam"

Weblog wasn't at the meeting, which was sponsored by the National Association of Evangelicals and the Institute on Religion and Democracy, and a CT news story is still in process. However, judging from the news stories themselves, it seems that characterizing it as a meeting about Franklin Graham is spurious. None of the stories on the event quote anyone explicitly critical of Graham. Not one.

In fact, says Associated Press religion reporter Rachel Zoll, participants "avoided personally criticizing the religious leaders."

The meeting in fact was called to discuss and promote the IRD's "Guidelines on Christian-Muslim Dialogue." Graham, it should be noted, is an evangelist who engages in very little Christian-Muslim dialogue. Interfaith relations isn't his bag.

In fact, by reading the guidelines and quotes from the meetings, it would be more appropriate to report that evangelical leaders criticized United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert, who says Muslims will be saved and should not be evangelized. There aren't any quotes with Talbert's name, but the guidelines seem far more directed at liberal mainline church leaders who favor "macro-ecumenism" and "pretend that [Christianity and Islam] have the same basic teachings" than at evangelists who used some ill-advised adjectives in describing Islam. In talking with Muslims, the guidelines say, Christians must "give testimony to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, because it is our duty to do so." (UPI emphasizes the anti-syncretistic flavor of yesterday's meeting, while The Washington Times characterized the meeting as anti-anti-Islam.)

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Indeed, the mainliners seem to have understood this point better than some of the reporters. National Council of Churches General Secretary Robert Edgar told The New York Times he disagreed with some of the guidelines. "We disagree that you can't have dialogue unless you talk about Jesus," he said. "My belief is that dialogue is best built on relationships. People have to get to know each other, to trust each other, to like each other, and in some cases to even love each other before real learning and listening takes place."

Nevertheless, there was what one unnamed attendee called a "loving rebuke" of Christians who have been too harsh in their condemnation of Islam, and it was clear that at least some present were talking about Graham.

"We've got to have an attitude of how can we serve, how can we help," World Relief President Clive Calver said. "Saying Islam is evil isn't going to help any of us."

In an interview with The New York Times after the meeting, Calver was apparently more direct in referring to Graham. The evangelist's statement that Islam is a wicked and evil religion, Calver said, ""is used to indict all Americans and used to indict all Christians. It obviously puts lives and livelihoods of people overseas at risk."

"Since we are in a global community, no doubt about it, we must temper our speech and we must communicate primarily through actions," NAE President Ted Haggard said. "There has to be a way to do good works without raising alarms."

Franklin Graham, who was invited to the meeting but couldn't attend because he's helping at his father's San Diego meetings, hasn't responded to the reports. Neither has Pat Robertson. But Jerry Falwell told reporters he was upset that he hadn't even been invited. That's too bad. As someone who is contrite about many of his anti-Muslim statements, his perspective might have been helpful.

"Almost suddenly, the world has become very tiny, and every comment from any portion of the planet that is important will be heard in every other part of the planet the same day," he told The Washington Post. "So, yes, we do need to be more careful, and I hope we have all learned from what we say and do."

In an interview with The New York Times, he explained what he learned: "In this media-sensitive world, we must be cautious that we walk a tightrope that does not allow offending others while at the same time never compromising what we believe. At the same time we cannot expect hundreds of thousands of evangelical church leaders to go silent when somebody asks what they think about any religion, just because those religions might kill their missionaries."

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The NAE, Falwell said, was "trying to do something noble" in calling the evangelical leaders together on the subject, and he promised to participate in future discussions.

Meanwhile, at least one reporter engaged in some name-calling and ill-advised comments of his own: according to The Washington Post's Alan Cooperman, the NAE and IRD are "fundamentalist Christian groups." For both groups, them's fighting words.

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