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Thomas S. Kidd
Islam in American Protestant Thought
A July 2005 Pew Research Center poll showed that even after the horrific events of September 11, 2001, Americans were generally divided in their perception of Islam, with equal numbers expressing a negative and a positive view of the religion, about 38 percent each. Self-identifying evangelical Christians outpaced all other categories with 47 percent expressing a negative view of Islam, while 52 percent of so-called "high commitment" evangelicals expressed a negative view. This pessimism surely reflects what evangelicals and fundamentalists in the pews have heard from some of their pastors. Famously, after 9/11, the 700 Club's Pat Robertson exclaimed, "Somehow I wish the Jews in America would wake up, open their eyes and read what is being said about them. This is worse than the Nazis. Adolf Hitler was bad, but what the Muslims want to do to the Jews is worse." Samaritan Purse's Franklin Graham called Islam a "very evil and wicked religion." Liberty University's Jerry Falwell said on 60 Minutes that "Muhammad was a terrorist." His comments spurred riots among Muslims in Asia, and elicited a fatwa from an Iranian cleric calling for Falwell's assassination. Falwell subsequently apologized. Pastor Jerry Vines of Jacksonville, Florida, former President of the Southern Baptist Convention, averred that Muhammad was a "demon-possessed pedophile."1
Are these comments just the overheated responses of incautious leaders following an unprecedented act of terrorism? Partly. But such conservative Protestant views of Islam have deep historical roots in America. Though the years since 9/11 have seen an explosion of conservative Protestant commentary on Islam, we also need to recognize that American Protestants have been thinking about Islam for a very long time.
I find at least three persistent themes emerging in Protestant thought about the Islamic religion. (American Catholic views of Islam have an important history, too, but telling that story here would require a much longer article.) ...