Lt. Gen. William G. "Jerry" Boykin will remain in his high-level government post while his controversial remarks about religion and foreign policy are being investigated, Bush administration officials have decided.
Boykin came under fire after it was reported that he had made a series of speeches at churches characterizing the American conflict with terrorism as a religious battle. He asserted that Middle Eastern terrorists hate America because it is a "Christian nation," said the Christian God is bigger than the Muslim one and charged that Muslims worship idols. In addition, Boykin told audiences on at least two occasions that black marks on photographs taken over Somalia were indications of demonic forces there.
The comments by Boykin, who was recently appointed as deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, sparked an uproar in the United States and around the world, with several commentators asserting that his words were sure to inflame international tensions.
President George W. Bush has been eager to avoid portraying the battle against terrorism as a conflict between Christianity and Islam. In a stab at damage control, Bush told reporters on Air Force One Oct. 22 that he does not agree with Boykin's remarks. Bush said the matter had come up during a meeting he had with Muslim leaders in Indonesia.
"I said he didn't reflect my opinion," Bush said. "Look, it just doesn't reflect what the government thinks. And I think they were pleased to hear that."
The White House also distributed a "global message" designed to make it clear that Boykin's remarks do not represent U.S. policy.
"Comments on religion by an American general weren't the views of the president or those of the American government," read the statement. "We recognize that Islam is a peaceful religion which teaches respect and tolerance."
Sens. John Warner (R-Va.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking Republican and Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and recommended that Boykin temporarily step down as undersecretary of defense during a Pentagon investigation of his conduct. Despite this rare bipartisan expression of concern, Rumsfeld later said he has no intention of reassigning Boykin during the inquiry.
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) has introduced a resolution calling on Bush to censure Boykin for his "religiously intolerant remarks against people of the Islamic faith." The resolution also called on Bush to reassign Boykin. (Americans United also called on Rumsfeld to remove Boykin from his administration post.)
Religious Right groups and their congressional allies have lined up to support Boykin. Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, the Traditional Values Coalition and the Christian Coalition have asked their followers to rally to the general's side. In the House of Representatives, Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) and 16 other members sent a letter to Rumsfeld asserting that removing Boykin would be an "injustice."
The Boykin affair has placed the Bush administration in a difficult political position. If Boykin is left in his top Pentagon post, Islamic militants will be able to point to his remarks as evidence of their charge that America is anti-Muslim. But if the general is removed, the White House's Religious Right allies will be enraged.
Some observers think the administration is biding its time while the Pentagon inspector general's investigation is under way, in hopes that the controversy will blow over.