As a citizen of Alabama, I’m always on the lookout for news from my state that would interest a national audience enough to highlight in a column. Thus, the other day I was at first excited to see that our new governor had made broad headlines.
Disappointingly, the story turned out to be another one of those nonissues that only get attention because the media knows the effective additives to leaven them with.
After his inauguration on January 17th, Governor Robert Bentley (R-AL) spoke to a large crowd at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church (once pastored by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.). David White of The Birmingham News reported the incident as follows:
“‘There may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit,’ Bentley said. ‘But if you have been adopted in God’s family like I have, and like you have if you’re a Christian and if you’re saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister.’
Bentley added, ‘Now I will have to say that, if we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.’”
In summary, Bentley reiterated Jesus Christ’s message of spiritual brotherhood and sisterhood (Matthew 12:50, Mark 3:35, Luke 8:21) to a bunch of churchgoers, and extended a hand to any in the audience who might not yet be followers of Christ.
That was it?
It’s not like he showed up at a radical Islamic meeting and invited elimination of the infidel – although the politically correct probably would have acted like he was just darling if he had (‘Bama goes extra multicultural – woohoo!).
Yet clearly missing the point of grace, some concluded that Bentley – the dermatologist and state representative who agreed not to draw a salary as governor until Alabama reaches full employment – had somehow said that non-Christians are subhuman, lesser citizens.
Justin Elliott of Salon.com labeled the comment “an oddly exclusionary message”, and atheist biologist P.Z. Myers called it “sectarian bias”. If you think the message is oddly exclusionary because of Jesus Christ’s claim to be the one and only way to salvation, you might be on to something.
But if you think this has something to do with being politically disfranchised due to religious beliefs, you are deeply misinformed. Whether or not you are a brother or sister of the governor in spirit is not going to determine your status in the face of state government.
Myers went on to say of Bentley, “The man sincerely believes that his fellow superstitious louts are his special brothers and sisters who he has been elected to serve, and the riff-raff who don’t go to his church are of lesser consideration.”
On the contrary P.Z., in our Book, it’s completely the opposite. The unsaved are of great consideration to us – but no, that has nothing to do with state or national politics.
Not much political fallout is expected from Bentley’s Baptist blessing, which makes sense, because it isn’t a political issue. “I think part of “the Doc’s” appeal to Alabamians is his sense of honesty and sincerity, which is what helped make him so successful in such a tough primary and runoff,” Bentley campaign worker Chip Slawson told me when I contacted him.
“Part of that appeal is built on the fact that he frequently speaks off the cuff - I don’t recall seeing him use a script, or sound like he was even using one during his victory speech in November, or [during] any other speech I’ve seen him give. Even just talking to him one-on-one, he feels very down to earth, certainly not like he’s trying to hide anything. That said, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that he made these remarks that, while true, don’t make for the best of sound bites.”
Bentley has since realized that his words to the church congregation were misunderstood. Apparently figuring that it would be more productive to focus on running the state than explain theology to shocked critics, Bentley apologized:
“What I would like to do is apologize. Should anyone who heard those words and felt disenfranchised, I want to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ If you’re not a person who can say you are sorry, you’re not a very good leader.”
Myers, a self-proclaimed “godless liberal”, insists that this is a politician’s cheap sorry-if-I-offended-anybody-but-not-sorry-for-what-I-did apology. Well in this case, of course a genuine Christian isn’t going to be sorry for personally evangelizing!
Even Penn Jillette (atheist) and David Horowitz (Jewish) have observed that salvation from hell is the best a Christian can want for a nonbeliever, and thus a believer in Christ would have to be terribly hateful to not proselytize.
Bentley surely isn’t the first Christian politician to witness while in public office. Our elected leaders are flesh and blood human beings with personal beliefs and concerns, not secular automatons. It would be absurd to deprive a public servant of the protection of the Free Exercise Clause. An honest critic of church and state should ask if an elected leader is violating law by actually threatening constituents’ freedom of belief through government action.
A governor talking about the Gospel in a church doesn’t violate our state or federal constitutions (as a side note, Alabama’s constitution specifically acknowledges God - as do all 50 state constitutions). Citizens of differing religious views should not be offended by the sincerity of a governor whose Christian views are already well known.
A leader who masked his beliefs would be more disturbing.
Amanda Read is an unconventional scholar, a Southerner without an accent, a Christian who hasn’t been a churchgoer in 16 years and a college student who lives with eight younger siblings. A writer and artist, she blogs at www.amandaread.com and is the author of the historical drama screenplay The Crusading Chemist. Amanda is majoring in history and minoring in political science at Troy University.
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