When George Bush last month declared that Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship the same God, some of his evangelical supporters had a holy cow. They have been arguing for some time that Islam is a fundamentally dangerous and false religion, and then the most important evangelical in America, George Bush, goes and pays Muslims the ultimate compliment.
Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, explained his disagreement with Bush:
The Christian God encourages freedom, love, forgiveness, prosperity and health. The Muslim god appears to value the opposite. The personalities of each god are evident in the cultures, civilizations and dispositions of the peoples that serve them. Muhammad’s central message was submission; Jesus’ central message was love. They seem to be very different personalities.
Richard Land, a top official of the Southern Baptist Convention, explained the theology. “The Bible is very clear about this. There is only one true God and His name is Jehovah, not Allah.”
Haggard and Land were articulating a common view among evangelicals. In a poll of evangelical leaders at the community level, 79 percent disagreed with the statement that Muslims and Christians “pray to the same god.”
Most evangelicals these days have no problem with the idea that Jews and Christians pray to the same God. They acknowledge that Christianity grew out of Judaism and that therefore Jews must be at least attempting to pray to the same God, even if they’re making the big mistake of going around Jesus.
The real controversy is whether Muslims pray to the same God as Christians and Jews. So, in the spirit of the Ramadan-Hanukkah-Christmas season, we went straight to God’s biographer, or at least Jack Miles, author of God: A Biography. He noted that linguistic similarities indicated that Bush’s position is correct:
Allah in Arabic is a contraction for al-ilah, “the-God,” and as such is cognate with Hebrew eloh, “god” (plural of abstraction, elohim, “deity”). Linguistic technicalities aside, what matters is that back in the seventh century, the first Muslims were using the same kind of word in Arabic that the Jews were using theologically in Hebrew and using it in the same way.
As evidence that Jews, Christians, and Muslims “have always assumed their differences to be about the character rather than the identity of God,” Miles points to life in medieval Spain, where people of the three faiths mingled and disagreed with each other about the “same divine subject.” Thomas Aquinas, for instance, wrote Summa Contra Gentiles in part to refute the Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd, but he never tried to make the argument that Muslims were praying to a different God.
Muslims have been even clearer about the kinship among all “peoples of the book.” As Miles notes:
Muslims battled those who worshipped false gods, beginning with the Arab polytheists of Mecca and Medina, but they officially tolerated Jews and Christians because they understood the latter to be worshipping the one true God, the God or, in Arabic, Allah.
One oddity about the evangelical argument is that it implies at least TWO gods. Haggard’s description of the personality of “the Muslim god” evokes a universe of competing deities, slugging it out for dominance.
This was, of course, not only the view of many ancient cultures like the Greeks and Romans, but also of some parts of the Old Testament. Yahweh was the toughest god on the block, but not the only one. For instance, a song sung by Moses and the people of Israel declared:
Who is like thee, O LORD, among the gods?
Who is like thee, majestic in holiness,
terrible in glorious deeds, doing wonders? (Exodus 15:11)
Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, declares:
Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods, because he delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians, when they dealt arrogantly with them. (Exodus 18:11)
And Yahweh himself puts it this way:
You shall not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do according to their works, but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces. (Exodus 23:24)
(Other Old Testament passages implying polytheism include: Exodus 20:3; Numbers 25:2; Deuteronomy 10:17; Joshua 24:15; 1 Kings 11:2-10; and 2 Kings 17:31.)
There are passages in the Old Testament that did stress monotheism, and, as time went on, the concept of Yahweh as the biggest and best God was replaced by the idea of the Lord as the only God.
In that sense, Ted Haggard’s view seems like a devolution away from monotheism. What explains that? To some extent it may be just rhetorical sloppiness. What they actually meant is not that Christians and Muslims worship different gods but that Christians worship God and Muslims are worshipping, well, nothing.
Noted theologian Lt. Gen. William Boykin went down this Haggardian path when, describing a Muslim terrorist, he declared, “I knew that my God was bigger than his.” But then he amended his comment: “I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol.” Another possibility is that Evangelicals do actually believe in two competing deities, except these days it is not Yahweh versus Baal but Jesus versus Satan. Some view Islam not merely as false but also potentially evil, headed by the dark prince himself.
But most likely what they’re really resisting is the notion implicit in the question that there is rough equivalence among the faiths. They believe that whatever the similarities, if you don’t accept Jesus, you’re doomed. Admitting the idea that Muslims might even be trying to send prayers to the same deity would muddy that clear message.