'I am not anti-Islam or any other religion."
"I support the free exercise of all religions."
"For those who have been offended by my statements, I offer a sincere apology."
Those were Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin's responses to criticisms of his recent statements. Boykin, recently named as the Pentagon's deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, is now under fire for speeches to church groups in which he portrayed the war on terror as a religious struggle between a Christian America and Satan. He also has detailed a conversation in which he had told a Muslim Somali warlord's aide that "I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol."
As for Boykin's responses, the latter two seem honest; there's no reason to doubt he believes in religious freedom or that he is sorry for the offense his remarks caused.
But based on Boykin's public statements, there are many reasons to doubt that the first statement is genuine. It seems pretty clear that Boykin is anti-Islam and anti-any-
religion-other-than-Christianity, just as are many evangelical Christians who claim a "literalist" view of the Bible.
Such folks agree that everyone should be free to practice any religion, but they also believe those religions are nothing more than cults. That's what Boykin meant when he said what he said about the Muslim and Christian Gods.
Idols are false gods, not real ones. To such Christians, who sometimes refer to themselves as "biblical Christians," there is only one religion: Christianity, which is truth. All others are cults. The general can believe in freedom of religion and feel bad when he offends a person with another religion, yet still be convinced that all those other religions are, in fact, false.
Check out the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association Web site and you'll see it spelled out: "A cult is any group which teaches doctrines or beliefs that deviate from the biblical message of the Christian faith."
Or read Franklin Graham, president of the international relief organization Samaritan's Purse and CEO of the association named after his father: "hile I respect the rights of all people to adopt their own beliefs, I would respectfully disagree with any religion that teaches people to put their faith in other gods."
No ambiguity there. If you believe in Christ, your faith will save you. If you believe anything else, you are in a cult - and you're in trouble when it comes to eternity.
Graham and Boykin, of course, are free to believe what they like. In Graham's case, one might say it's in his job description. Boykin's situation is trickier, given that his new job requires him to deal with a number of predominantly Muslim countries.
But beyond the question of Boykin's fitness to serve, his remarks show that the crucial culture gap over faith is not between those who are religious and those who aren't, but between those who are 100-percent convinced their religion is the only way to salvation and those who are willing to live with a little less certainty.
On the question of which religion is "true," I don't have a dog in that fight. I've been a secular person for as long as I can remember and have never felt the need for a faith-based belief system. I find all religions about equally interesting - and baffling.
But I do have a stake in the question of certainty: I think absolute certainty is dangerous. I have moral and political convictions and respect others who do, but I think people should be open to the possibility that their belief system could be just a bit off - or maybe all wrong. That's something on which philosophers and scientists (at least the good ones) agree.
I know many religious people who don't shrink from their own convictions, yet take seriously the limits we humans face in trying to understand the complexity of the world. Even though we have different theological views, I can talk - and have talked - across those differences with such folks, often working with them in movements for social justice. Everyone benefits from that kind of interaction.
Conversations with people like Franklin Graham and Lt. Gen. Boykin are more difficult - not because I don't want to talk but because often there isn't anyone really listening on the other end. Whatever one's religious convictions, that's bad for public discourse in a pluralist democracy.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a founding member of the Nowar Collective, www.nowarcollective.com. He is the author of the forthcoming "Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.