By Rob Boston
The Web has been abuzz lately over some comments made by Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley.
Speaking at a Jan. 17 church service after his inauguration, Bentley told a crowd at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church, “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.”
Bentley asserted that he will be “governor of all the people. I intend to live up to that. I am color blind” but then added his concern that “there may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit.”
He continued, “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… it makes you and me brother and sister. If we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters.”
Some people have called or e-mailed to ask Americans United what we think about this. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that we consider rhetoric like this to be quite inappropriate.
Bentley was elected governor, not state preacher. Furthermore, he is the governor of all the people of Alabama. Perhaps he doesn’t need to look at everyone in the state as metaphorical brothers and sisters, but he does need to respect their beliefs because it’s his job to represent them all.
The controversial remarks were uttered while Bentley was at the church in his official role as governor speaking at a special service to honor Dr. Martin Luther King. That’s ironic when you consider that King forged a movement made up of people of many different religious faiths (and none) to expand freedom. King considered all of these people – no matter what they believed or did not believe about God – his brothers and sisters. Bentley’s comments in no way honored the man.
Bentley, a Southern Baptist deacon, has since apologized. He said that at the time he believed his remarks were appropriate since he was speaking to audience of evangelical Christians.
But Bentley should have realized that at a public event like this, the audience would be mixed. And in the unlikely event that everyone was an evangelical, then why did Bentley need to go on a proselytism tear at all? Wouldn’t those folks already be his “brothers and sisters” since they believe in Jesus?
I’d call Bentley’s remarks what they were: a call to conversion coming from an elected official. He backed off when there was a backlash and offered a classic half-apology, saying “If anyone from other religions felt disenfranchised by the language, I want to say I am sorry.” (Translation: If you’re feeling offended, it’s really sort of your fault for being so sensitive.)
We expect altar calls Christian ministers. It’s jarring to hear one coming from an elected government official. Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and non-believers were alarmed, and rightly so.
Bentley has met with leaders of the Jewish community in Alabama, and some non-Christians say they have accepted his apology and are ready to move on. Fair enough. But the governor is off to a rocky start. I’d like to know what sort of public policy he’ll propose. Clearly, the situation bears watching.
P.S. Alabama may be the buckle of the Bible Belt, but we know there are plenty of people there who support the separation of church and state. Americans United has chapters in Mobile and Tuscaloosa. If you live in the state and want to get involved, opportunities are there.