After months of keeping from public view, the Army general who sparked international condemnation for his public statements describing the U.S. war on terrorism as a Christian battle against evil Islamists is now working to salvage his reputation.
On Wednesday, Lt. Gen. William G. "Jerry" Boykin took to a CBS News program to argue that his controversial statements before Christian evangelical gatherings had been badly represented in the media and that he was not a bigot.
CBS's "60 Minutes" devoted a segment to the Boykin controversy, stating that, "Tonight this holy warrior speaks about the controversy for the first time, but he's not happy about it."
"I'm here not because I want to be," Boykin told "60 Minutes" correspondent David Martin. "I'm doing this because it is the one and only chance I will get to look at Americans and say, 'I am not what I've been portrayed to be.'"
Boykin spent the remainder of the interview calmly, at times emotionally, defending his frequent speeches before evangelical Christian audiences, which drew worldwide attention when they were brought to light last year.
The general has appeared before at least 23 religious gatherings, many of them in evangelical Christian churches, to discuss his involvement in the war on terrorism. In all but two of those appearances, Boykin was in uniform according to a report in August by The Washington Post. During those talks, snippets of which were aired throughout the 60 Minutes segment, Boykin revealed several personal stories and made numerous comments that many, including Americans United for Separation of Church and State, viewed as highly inappropriate for a top government official, especially one helping to formulate the government's war on terrorism.
For example, Boykin recalled his efforts to capture an Islamic militant in Somalia who boasted Allah would protect him from Americans. Before a congregation in Dayton, Fla., Boykin said, "Well, you know what I knew, that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol."
Martin brought that comment up noting that, "With that one statement, it seemed like you offended every Muslim on the planet."
Boykin attempted to put his comment in context, concluding that the Islamic militant was not a "good Muslim."
"David, let's go back to the day that we captured Osman Atto, who is the guy that you're referring to. He was a man who worshipped graft, corruption, power and money," Boykin explained. "My reference to his God being an idol was not to Allah. My reference was to his worship of corruption, of power, of money. He was a thug. He was not a good Muslim."
Martin, apparently not satisfied with or befuddled by the general's explanation, pressed Boykin. Did Boykin's words that "my God was bigger than his," mean that America's God was against theirs, asked Martin.
"No, that's not what I meant at all," Boykin replied. "Look, I'm a Christian. I make no - no apologies for that. But I'm not foolish enough to deliberately offend or in any way ostracize any religion. I'm not anti-Islam, I'm not anti-Allah."
Martin persisted, "Do you believe Allah is a lesser God than the Christian God?"
"I'm not going to go into that, David," Boykin said. "I am a Christian. That speaks for itself."
There were plenty of other Boykin comments Martin could have brought up, such as when Boykin told a congregation in Oregon that Islamic extremists hate the U.S. "because we're a Christian nation, because our foundations and our roots are Judeo-Christian." Boykin added that the America's real enemy was not Osama bin Laden, but "a guy called Satan."
Besides causing alarm overseas, Boykin's religious musings prompted public interest groups here to urge the Pentagon to dump the general.
In fall 2003, Americans United urged Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to remove Boykin, who had recently been named deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence. "A man who sees the conduct of U.S. foreign policy as some sort of Christian religious crusade should not be making policy," said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn.
The Pentagon's inspector general did launch an investigation into the Boykin controversy. But in August a Post story said a Defense Department report has found only minor violations of conduct on the part of Boykin. The Post's article quoted a "senior Defense official" as calling the report a "complete exoneration" of Boykin.
In the "60 Minutes" segment, Martin reported that the "secretary of the Army is expected to issue Boykin something called a 'letter of concern,' which amounts to a mild slap on the wrist."
The Pentagon's whitewashing of Boykin's rhetoric will only add to international perception, justifiable or not, that America is waging war, at least partly, against Islam.