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By Bill Gallagher

DETROIT -- Onward, Christian soldiers. The Bible brigade is bound for Baghdad and they're in a hurry.

Their mission is to convert those heathens in Iraq, let them know our president's savior is theirs too, teach them to forget their wayward past and embrace real fundamentalist Christian values. When that's done, the army of the righteous has to hustle back stateside in time for the 2004 elections.

The work of God and the GOP, the divine mating of religion and politics, must move in deliberate haste to serve both Jesus and George W. Bush in timely devotion.

The Iraqi people are war-weary, humiliated, hungry and thirsty. They may pray (to the wrong God, of course) for the hope of a post-Saddam democracy, but more important things come first. Let's get those "Mooslimb" souls saved, as they say down in Texas, where all religious and political truths spring eternal. Hallelujah.

The coalition of Christians on this great mission includes Dr. Charles Stanley, the pastor of Atlanta's 15,000-member First Baptist Church. He's also a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, which is among the seven pillars of wisdom for George W. Bush and the Republican Party (the other six are John Ashcroft and five members of the U.S. Supreme Court).

You'd be hard pressed to find anyone anywhere more enthused about the war in Iraq than Dr. Stanley. He delivered a sermon, titled "A Nation At War," and he simply gushed over the invasion of Iraq. "God battles with people who oppose him, who fight against him and his followers. ... The government is ordained by God with the right to promote good and restrain evil. ... Therefore, a government has biblical grounds to go to war in a nation's defense or to liberate others in the world who are enslaved." George W. Bush couldn't have said it better himself.

The pastor pulled out every citation of scripture he could find to support war. But certainly there was no mention in any way of "Blessed are the peacemakers." That must have been left out of Dr. Stanley's King James translation.

The politically powerful preacher then went on to remind people that "the Bible also instructs citizens in the proper way to respond when their country goes to war." That means, in Dr. Stanley's view, don't dare dissent or question authority. Those who do "will receive condemnation upon themselves." Forgive me, Lord!

Stanley is also founder of In Touch Ministries, a modest little charitable group with $40 million in assets, which broadcasts the reverend's sermons in 14 languages to every country in the world.

In Touch Ministries is responsible for a little prayer pamphlet titled "A Christian's Duty" that somehow got distributed to troops in Iraq. It features a list of daily prayers they could offer for the president and his advisors. The red, white and blue pamphlet has a tear-off prayer pledge that can be signed and mailed directly to the president.

Keeping with Stanley's fear of dissent, one prayer reads: "Pray that the President and his advisors will be strong and courageous to do what is right regardless of critics."

In Touch Ministries may have inspired one enthusiastic Army chaplain, Josh Llano. He was offering baths at one camp in Iraq to soldiers who hadn't bathed in weeks, with the condition that he be allowed to baptize them.

Rev. Llano was enraptured with war, telling the Miami Herald (between baptisms, I trust), "We are called upon by our government to fight and that is giving to Caesar, as the Bible tells us."

A more resourceful pastor-patriot-politician would have capped the bath and baptism with a Florida voter registration form, leaving the soldier with a clean trinity of virtue.

With the fall in Iraq, In Touch Ministries is poised to send missionaries there and pump up Rev. Stanley's broadcasts in the region to promote the Christian gospel. Instead of the limited audience with shortwave broadcasts, the sermons will now get much wider play on AM and FM bands that soldier-disciples will blare on boom boxes in Baghdad.

In Touch is already doing some of that in southern Lebanon, a heavily Shiite area. The broadcasts offend Muslims and Christians alike.

The nations in the Middle East have ancient Christian communities -- the kind fundamentalists often prefer to ignore -- the Chaldeans in Iraq, Maronite and Melkite Catholics and Greek Orthodox in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and on the West Bank, the Armenian Apostolic Church throughout the region and Coptic Christians in Egypt. These communities trace their faith to the apostles. Their liturgies, scriptures and traditions are the oldest, and many believe that they reflect the most authentic ethos of Christianity. When they hear that they must be "saved" or "born again" from the mouths of people whose version of Christianity was shaped by televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Bakker and Jerry Falwell, well, they get a little offended.

They also worry about inflaming their Muslim neighbors with the confrontational approach so many evangelicals employ.

Charles Kimball is the director of religious studies at Wake Forest University and he's also a Baptist minister. He tells "Salon" magazine that the notion of "whipping up a kind of Christian nationalism," as Charles Stanley and other God-and-the-flag preachers are doing, could seriously complicate matters in Iraq and throughout the Muslim world.

"Anything that prominent Christian leaders do and say that gets a lot of press attention and says 'America is right' and 'God is on our side' is not lost on the world," Kimball says. He warns that the fanatics from the religious right are flat-out dangerous. "All of these folks in their certainty and arrogance are doing considerable harm by what they are preaching. They have to realize these words reverberate and are being used by Muslim extremists to whip up a frenzy."

Words do matter and top Southern Baptist leaders use words that make tolerant people cringe. In a sermon preceding the denomination's meeting last year, former Southern Baptist President Rev. Jerry Vines called the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, "a demon-possessed pedophile."

The present Southern Baptist President, James Merrit, defended his predecessor, saying, "historically, he is on solid ground." Ibrahim Hooper from the Council on American-Islamic Relations called the Baptist leaders' remarks "completely irresponsible" and "deeply offensive." Urging tolerance, Hooper said the views could harm America's interests worldwide. "This hands a victory to terrorists who want to drive a wedge between Christians, Muslims and Jews."

The Southern Baptists don't spare the Jews. Another former President, Rev. Bailey Smith, once declared, "God doesn't hear the prayers of Jews."

I knew Rev. Smith and interviewed him several times at his church-studio-palace in Midwest City, Okla. After my eyes adjusted from the glitter of the gold and diamonds he wore, I would, with a straight face, ask Rev. Smith how God's prayer filter worked, and what effect he had on his son, Jesus, a Jew, his mother and all his friends.

Rev. Smith never seemed to enjoy my theological inquiries, but his smile never faded until the camera was turned off and I was ushered out.

The religious right is THE foundation of George W. Bush's political base and he will do everything he can to bolster it and nothing to offend it. If that means messing up some Muslim feelings in the Middle East, so what. They don't vote here.

The Southern Baptists are generally important, but of all the evangelical Christians, the most influential on the president is Rev. Billy Graham and his heir apparent, Rev. Franklin Graham. The religious and political ties run deep. The Graham family is nearly as close to the Bush family as the Saudi royal family is.

Billy Graham led George W. Bush to shake off the demons of wretched gin drunks and become reborn as a God-fearing Christian. Franklin Graham delivered the invocation at his presidential inauguration after Christian allies on the Supreme Court selected Bush.

Franklin Graham has a long history of making anti-Islam comments, most notably that Islam is a "very evil and wicked religion." Slurs like that didn't prevent the Defense Department from inviting Graham to preach at the Pentagon on Good Friday, in spite of the angry protests of Muslim employees.

Franklin Graham has his own humanitarian organization, Samaritan's Purse. The group spends $100 million a year to aid the needy in impoverished places on earth. The extraordinary work is much needed.

However, Franklin Graham insists on his own religious label and Christian message on all the food and shelter he plans on sending to Iraq.

Given Graham's Islam-bashing and Bush-boosting, and in the wake of an invading army, that might not be the most prudent thing to do with an already suspicious Muslim population. But caution and sensitivity be damned. God, Graham and Bush want it that way and the "wogs" are so in need they'll just have to get their charity on Christian terms.

Many charities do admirable work with no religious strings attached. The Quakers and Mennonites are legendary in their quiet response to human suffering. The United Methodist Committee on Relief is raising funds for Iraq, but all the aid will go through established groups that do not evangelize.

Catholic Relief Services has been providing aid for the Iraqi people continuously since 1999 and it also does not preach to those it seeks to help.

While fundamentalist zeal serves the Bush administration's political purposes domestically and is worthy for foreign export, an ironic reservation arises when it takes hold in a different faith tradition.

The Bush administration is leery about the impending return to Iraq of religious leader Ayatollah Al-Hakim. He's been living in exile and is revered among the Iraqi Shiites for his courageous resistance to Saddam Hussein, which caused him to flee his native land.

He would like to build a democracy that includes Islamic tradition. "We believe there is no separation between politics and religion, because religion guides politics for the benefit of the people," he says.

That's what George Bush has been doing in the United States with his pals from the religious right. When the folks in Iraq try to do the same, how can we say no?

Bill Gallagher, a Peabody Award winner, is a former Niagara Falls city councilman who now covers Detroit for Fox News. His e-mail address is gallaghernewsman@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 22 2003