The Mythical Martyrdom of the Religious Right's Favorite Islamophobic General
Photo Credit: U.S. Army
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Ever since retired Lt. Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin withdrew as the scheduled keynote speaker at the February 8 National Prayer Breakfast at the United States Military Academy at West Point, Religious Right leaders have tried to turn the controversy over his planned appearance into a cautionary tale of political correctness trumping religious liberty. In reality, the episode provides a case study of Religious Right propaganda techniques in action – and of right-wing leaders’ unwillingness to let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Boykin had a long military career, much of it spent in charge of special forces units. So why would his selection as a speaker at West Point be controversial? Almost 10 years ago, when Boykin was still on active duty, he generated criticism for public comments, given while he was in uniform, indicating that he saw U.S. military engagement in religious terms, as “our God” (Christian) vs. Satan or the “idol” God he said was worshipped by Muslims. It was widely feared that such comments could endanger U.S. troops.
Boykin was criticized publicly by then-President George W. Bush and in a 2004 report by the Pentagon’s inspector general; critics worried that his remarks could put servicemembers’ lives in jeopardy by suggesting that the American military saw regional conflicts in religious terms. Since he retired, Boykin has become an ordained minister and has been a regular speaker at Religious Right and right-wing events, where he has not only demonized Muslims, but also claimed that since Islam is not a religion but a “totalitarian way of life,” and since Muslims are, according to Boykin, under an “obligation to destroy our Constitution,” American Muslims are not protected under the First Amendment’s guarantees of religious liberty. More explicitly, he said there should be no mosques allowed in America.
Boykin works through his organization, Kingdom Warriors. He also serves on the board of the dominionist Oak Initiative. He is a co-author of Sharia, the Threat to America, popularly known as the Team B II report. He claims that President Obama is creating a Hitler-like cadre of Brownshirts to force Marxism down Americans’ throats.
Boykin at the Beach
In January, People For the American Way’s Right-Wing Watch blog noticed that Boykin was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the mayor’s prayer breakfast in Ocean City, Maryland. PFAW president Michael B. Keegan wrote to the mayor and city council members offering details about Boykin’s promotion of religious bigotry and his advocacy for religious discrimination. PFAW’s letter argued that city officials should not give Boykin’s extremism an implied endorsement. Other organizations, including the Council on American Islamic Relations, the Auburn Seminary and Standing on the Side of Love, asked that Boykin be disinvited; at least 2,000 people contacted city officials to express their opposition. The Baltimore Sun weighed in with a strong editorial, which concluded:
Make no mistake: This is not an issue of freedom of speech or of any of the constitution’s protections for religious expression that Mr. Boykin seems so eager to deny to those who don’t share his own Christian faith. Mr. Boykin has every right to say whatever outrageously offensive and hateful things about Muslims pop into his head, and the private organizers of an Ocean City prayer breakfast have the right to invite him to speak. Likewise, Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan and the town council can attend the breakfast if they so choose. What they cannot do, however, is pretend that their presence there won’t reflect badly on them and the resort town they lead. They need to make clear whether they agree with Mr. Boykin’s views, they need to do it immediately and they need to do it publicly.
In the end, Boykin addressed the breakfast, focusing on his experiences as a military commander and his belief that God had repeatedly intervened to save him and his men. He concluded with the equivalent of an altar call, asking participants to join him in a prayer recognizing Jesus Christ as lord and savior.