NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–President Barack Obama’s address at Cairo University met with mixed reactions among Southern Baptists who are experienced observers of Islam and the Middle East. While the effort to build bridges with the Arab/Muslim world is commendable, observers said, his misstatements about the Christian Gospel and the biblical view of Israel put him at odds with what Scripture says.
Baptist Press solicited observations from four sources:
Mike Edens, professor of theology and Islamic studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, praised the address on several points but said Obama “expressed a basic misunderstanding of both Islam and Christianity.”
Edens told Baptist Press:
First, the location of the speech at Cairo University and with Al-Azhar (Islamic) University co-hosting was wise. President Obama also did well in recognizing Western civilization’s debt to Islam in so many ways, as Greco-Roman philosophy and science was maintained by Islamic society and available to spur on the Renaissance and Reformation.
Second, we all should recognize the strengths the President brings to office. He is intelligent and an effective speechmaker. Also this speech brings to the front some of his strengths as a “third-culture kid.” Having developed in more than one culture, TCKs are insightful analysts of the complex world of our 21st century.
Third, he concisely presents seven tensions between Islam and American culture. He points out that the past and our differences should not define or limit our seeking a new world of peace. At several points he deals with Islamic and American stereotypes and myths. In his opening dialog with Islam he affirmed:
— America has compatible relations with Islam;
— Morocco was first to recognize the USA;
— Muslims are part of America and provide important contributions to our society;
— We have common ideals and aspirations;
— Violent extremists threaten us all.
In identifying potential partnership within seven areas of tension, he laid out a political, diplomatic and cultural agenda for dialog:
— Confronting violent extremism;
— Establishing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate;
— Prevention of the spread of and elimination of nuclear weapons;
— Securing the human right of democracy for all within their context;
— Dignity for women as defined in their culture;
— Ensuring religious freedom for all;
— Achieving greater access to education and development for all.
The President quoted effectively from both the Bible and the Qur’an. He sought to speak truth and speak from his heart, and I believe he largely succeeded. He, in his optimism and our hope, said, “The people of the world can live together in peace.” However, I believe he then expressed a basic misunderstanding of both Islam and Christianity. He said, “We know that is God’s vision.”
Temporal peace is part of God’s desire for humanity but the peace of worshipping God and being known by him is of first importance in both religions. While we can work together on the agenda the President laid out, we Christians must also bear witness to the truth that God has made peace with man in Jesus Christ and true peace without Him is not possible.
Jim Sibley, director of the Pasche Institute of Jewish Studies at Criswell College in Dallas, said Obama’s speech ignored the biblical view of Israel and failed to mention the President’s own intention to divide Jerusalem.
Sibley told Baptist Press:
There is much to commend in President Obama’s speech, and it will doubtless be well received by many in the region. To the extent that it promotes peace and the cessation of hostilities, it is to be welcomed. However, it is not built upon a biblical view of Israel. The President claimed that America’s bonds with Israel are based upon “cultural and historical ties,” but at the base of both of these lie the biblical ties and the values that issue from Scripture.
The President rightly said that a denial of the Holocaust is “baseless, ignorant, and hateful.” Yet the Holocaust should be seen in the context of God’s promise that those who curse the Jewish people will suffer judgment at God’s hand (Genesis 12:3). Hitler and his Nazi regime were destroyed, and they brought shame and destruction to Germany. This pattern is seen throughout history. I would suggest that to ignore this principle is to an even greater extent “baseless, ignorant, and hateful.”
For those who wish to live in peace with Israel, every effort should be made to accommodate their aspirations for self-government, dignity and economic prosperity. But those who promote terrorism, warfare and hatred against the people of Israel must be opposed. This is a position that recognizes and acknowledges the spiritual dimension to the struggle.
Furthermore, although not addressed directly in his speech, Jerusalem must not be divided. The Obama administration is already working toward the division of the city, and this can only lead to violence. When the city was divided previously, Jewish and Christian sites on the eastern [Jordanian] side were desecrated, and the Old City sank into squalor and disorder. Under Israeli control, living conditions for both Jew and Arab have been greatly improved and modernized. The infrastructure has been rebuilt. Archaeological parks and museums highlight both the Jewish and Muslim past. Freedom of worship has been ensured for all, and freedom of the press has flourished. The unity of Jerusalem must be preserved for the sake of all who live there, as well as for the pilgrims and tourists who visit.
Ant Greenham, assistant professor of missions and Islamic studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., said the common ground that President Obama advocates religiously “is too close to Islamic theology for comfort.”
Greenham, a South African who previously served that country’s diplomatic missions in both Israel and Jordan, told Baptist Press:
As he made clear in his Cairo speech, President Obama’s first duty is to protect the American people. As a means to this end, he delivered a carefully-worded, wide-ranging address. It embraced the interests of broader humanity, as he shared American values. This is what I expected from the President of the United States. As a Southern Baptist with permanent residency in the United States, I have deep appreciation for and commitment to this country. However, my primary allegiance is not to a country (or to humanity as such), but to the Lord Jesus Christ. And this allegiance must color a believer’s evaluation of the President’s remarks.
Unfortunately, while Obama told his Muslim audience up front he was a Christian, his speech gave them no reason to consider Christianity’s key claims. In fact, he presented an Islamic rather than a Christian Jesus, when he cited the tradition of Muhammad’s night journey to heaven. According to that account, Muhammad joined Jesus and Moses in prayer. This may sound quite innocuous, but it put all three in the same human prophet category, which is standard Muslim belief. Obama then added the familiar Islamic line, “Peace be upon them,” which placed Jesus on a par with sinners like Moses and Muhammad (and the rest of us). In contrast, Jesus, who died and rose again, is the Prince of Peace. He is the only one who brings us peace where we really need it, namely peace with God.
I wasn’t expecting Obama to preach the Gospel in Cairo. However, I would have appreciated equal time for Christian claims, given his decision to cite a key Islamic tradition. There is actually a hidden danger here. President Obama’s (political) desire to find common ground with the Muslim world is understandable. It is infinitely better than embarking on a new round of crusades, and American cooperation with the Organization of the Islamic Conference to eradicate polio is commendable. However, the common ground he advocates at the religious level is too close to Islamic theology for comfort. I fear folks who embrace this common ground, such as those who “turn dialogue into interfaith service” as Obama put it (but don’t discuss religious differences), will see Gospel-sharing believers as way out of line.
To be fair, freedom of religion was a noteworthy subject in Obama’s speech. He spoke of American freedom being “indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion” and then asserted, “People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind, heart, and soul.” This is good, but all too often, freedom of religion in Islamic contexts means freedom to practice the religious tradition you were born into, but not to convert to anything else (unless a Christian converts to Islam). So I wish Obama had added a phrase on the right to choose a different faith, should one be so persuaded.
Finally, I do see opportunities for the Gospel in Obama’s message. He spoke of “encouraging more Americans to study in Muslim communities.” Great Commission Christians should certainly take advantage of such opportunities as they present themselves. This means studying what you go to study, but at the same time being a vibrant believer in this challenging environment. And closer to home, it is hoped the “new on-line network” President Obama proposes, “so a teenager in Kansas can communicate instantly with a teenager in Cairo,” would see many young people prepared to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with their on-line friends.
Rich Hastings, a member of First Baptist Church in Raytown, Mo., who has been involved in trade missions to Israel and also has led a yearly tour group to the Holy Land, said Obama contradicted what the Bible says about the land given by God to Abraham.
Hastings, who is president of Saint Luke’s Health System in Kansas City, Mo., and chaired the 2004 Billy Graham crusade there, told Baptist Press:
The President, more supportive of Ishmael’s descendents than [Isaac’s], today decided that the United States does not support the rights guaranteed by God to Abraham and Isaac. Either the President does not know that many of the settlements he spoke about are in Samaria and Judea or he has decided that God didn’t have the right to make a covenant with the Patriarchs.
In Genesis 15:18-21, the Lord made a covenant with Abram: “… to your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates — the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.” That would be all Israel! That would include the settlements the President says the United States doesn’t support!
One has to wonder why America, at least according to the President, chooses no longer to accept God’s Word, even if not accepting His Word will lead us to losing His blessing. In Genesis 12:3, God says He will bless those who bless Israel and curse those who curse Israel. Apparently this country, founded on Judaic/Christian principles, no longer wishes to be blessed by God and doesn’t care that we might, in fact, be cursed by God as a result of our treatment of Israel.
Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor Mark Kelly. A transcript of President Obama’s speech is available on the Internet at whitehouse.gov.