Governor Bentley’s ‘Christian Brother’ Remarks

Just days after being sworn in as the new governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley has already found himself in a bit of hot water for something he said. In a speech at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church’s service honoring MLK, Jr., Bentley declared,

“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.”

Oh, my goodness!

Well, guess what? He’s absolutely right… in one sense. The statement was entirely in keeping with traditional Christian theology. (E.g., Luke 17:3; Romans 16:17; I Thess. 4:1,6,9) Followers of Jesus Christ are sometimes referred to being “brothers and sisters in Christ” (or some variation) as an expression of spiritual kinship within the Christian body of believers. Other religions and cultural/societal groups do the same (e.g., various civic fraternal orders). It’s a way of recognizing a special bond with one’s fellow group members. How could such an innocent remark, especially when taken in context, be considered an offense, let alone a threat?

Robert Bentley - Governor of AlabamaAs a devout Southern Baptist talking to an audience of (mostly) other Christians, it’s safe to say that his meaning was understood. Not surprisingly, most of the locals saw nothing wrong with the remarks, and they doubt it will have much impact on his governorship or political career. Retired historian Wayne Flynt points out that political candidates in Alabama often portray themselves in ads as church-going Christians.

“I don’t think this hurts him at all within the state. I think it really helps him with his very conservative base,” said Flynt.

Flynt thinks Bentley was trying to show that he considers the black Baptists (such as those in the congregation) as family, but explicitly stating that non-Christians were not his “brothers and sisters” was perhaps going a little too far. In that setting, maybe Flynt is right.

But, some want to take the statement out of context, questioning Bentley’s understanding of the “brotherhood of Man” or that we are all “children of God”. Some — mostly bloggers, Jewish organizations, & atheist groups — even claim his statement indicates that, rather than serving the greater community, he would only work in the interests of his fellow-Christians. Or, perhaps, that he would push for strict, religiously-motivated laws.

Frankly, I think they’re full of it. Surely these people have heard this Christian lingo before, especially in a state with such a largely-churched population. (Roughly 70% of the state self-identifies as “born-again Christians.”) Why make such a big deal about it now? One Hindu-American columnist said she found the remarks “repulsive and intolerant”. What?! Why get so bent out of shape? Isn’t this just another instance of people with an oversensitive, victim-mindset looking for reasons to be “offended” and demanding a public apology? (Maybe even try to get a law passed that would somehow restrict the offender and like-minded people?)

Well, that’s part of it. But, the other issue seems to be whether or not the comments were appropriate to the venue and to Bentley’s status as Governor. Bentley himself has stated that he was speaking as a private citizen and not as Governor. Does he have the right to make such blatantly religious statements now that he is a publicly elected official? Is that a violation of church/state separation? Balderdash.

Now, I think the new Governor should have been a little more sensitive to, or aware of, how such statements could be taken in such a setting. It was at a church, and it was in a church service. But, there was also a broader, public element to the service, since the individual being honored was not only a pastor but a societal (civil rights) leader/hero. Thus, it could be argued, it was not an entirely religious event. So, I think Bentley’s wording was somewhat ill-advised and he could have been a bit more circumspect about making such remarks. (Lesson learned, I hope.)

Still, there is no real reason to take his remarks as denying a kinship with all of humanity and not just Christians, nor does it indicate a plan for blatant favoritism in his governorship for those of similar faith. (If Bentley really was the kind of bigot some people claim or imply, he’d have to be pretty foolish to say so openly and at such an event. On the other hand, we do have plenty of politicians that can’t keep their feet out of their mouths.)

What about regular church services and other religious gatherings? Is a public official like Bentley not allowed to make any theological or religious-type statements that might be picked up by the press or a “more tolerant” blogger in the pews, lest he be accused of violating “separation of church and state”? Ridiculous! First off, particularly in church-related settings, anyone — regardless of community standing or public office — has the right to speak about their religious faith. Even in public settings, I don’t think such statements should be forbidden, either. That’s pretty clear from the First Amendment. (However, wisdom, tact, timing, and public relations are valid considerations.)

Alabama_state_sealFurthermore, the whole concern about church/state is bogus. Number one, Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation” comment to the Danbury Baptists was to assure them of their protection from the federal government, not to all religious thought and speech out of government affairs or public life, etc. And the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment forbids the U.S. Congress from establishing a national religion (e.g., the Church of England). Bentley certainly was not advocating, let alone doing, that. He couldn’t, since he’s not part of the U.S. Congress. Secondly, he’s a state governor, so it’s more of a state constitution issue, if anything. So, here’s Section 3 of Article I of the Alabama State Constitution (1901):

“That no religion shall be established by law; that no preference shall be given by law to any religious sect, society, denomination, or mode of worship; that no one shall be compelled by law to attend any place of worship; nor to pay any tithes, taxes, or other rate for building or repairing any place of worship, or for maintaining any minister or ministry; that no religious test shall be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under this state; and that the civil rights, privileges, and capacities of any citizen shall not be in any manner affected by his religious principles.”

Furthermore, Alabama’s Amendment 622 (Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment) includes these statements:

“SECTION III. The purpose of the Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment is to guarantee that the freedom of religion is not burdened by state and local law; and to provide a claim or defense to persons whose religious freedom is burdened by government.”

“SECTION VI…. (c) Nothing in this amendment shall be construed to affect, interpret, or in any way address those portions of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution permitting the free exercise of religion or prohibiting laws respecting the establishment of religion, or those provisions of Article I, Section 3, of the Constitution of Alabama of 1901, regarding the establishment of religion.”

As indicated by these two sections, Alabama law is also primarily concerned with making sure citizens are free to practice their religion (with few exceptional circumstances). So far, I don’t think Gov. Bentley has come close to violating anything. Do you? In fact, it could be argued that any sort of censure that may result would actually be violating the above law. That is, it is the governor whose rights have (potentially) been violated.

Not surprisingly, the governor has now apologized for offending anyone or causing them to feel disenfranchised, which, of course, was never his intention. He assures everyone that he intends to treat everyone equally, defending their freedom of religion and right to worship as they please, and that he does indeed consider non-Christians his “brothers,” too.

Personally, I don’t think this should ever have been in doubt.

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