Last Monday (Jan. 17, 2011), shortly after taking his oath of office, the new Governor of Alabama (Robert Bentley) stated that anyone who has not accepted Jesus Christ as his or her savior is not his (Bentley’s) brother or sister. Everyone who is “saved” and has the Holy Spirit living within him/herself – through faith in Jesus as savior – is his brother or sister. This statement was made in a Baptist church to a Baptist congregation.
As one would expect, I suppose, many people immediately (or as soon as they heard or read about it) decried the Governor, expressing their shock and dismay that he would say such a thing. Did this mean that Governor Bentley intends to treat everyone who is not a ‘born again, Bible believing Christian’ as a second class citizen (or worse)? Is he attempting to establish Christianity as the ‘State religion’ of Alabama? Is the office of Governor going to be his “bully pulpit” to evangelize the citizens of Alabama?
Personally, it seems to me that the furor arising over Mr. Bentley’s fundamentalist Christian pronouncement is “much ado about nothing”. First of all, one needs to keep in mind that the Constitution of the United States of America – to which the individual States are required to comply – maintains that there shall be no “religious test” for any public office. There are no official religious (or anti-religious) standards a person has to meet to be eligible to serve in a public capacity. A person can be a Christian (of any denomination), Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Confucianist, Taoist, any other religion, or no religion (atheist or agnostic) and still serve in public office. One cannot be required to renounce one’s religious beliefs upon election, nor can one even be required to be silent about them until he/she leaves office. The only thing he/she can be required to do is not seek to “establish” his/her personal convictions as the “official” position of his/her State (or of the United States).
Mr. Bentley, as a fundamentalist or evangelical Christian, has every right to state his personal beliefs whether in public or private. If he states his beliefs while making an “official” speech as Governor, then he ought of course to make it clear that he is not intending to imply that he thinks his personal beliefs are somehow also the “official” position of his government.
In this particular instance, however, the Governor was speaking in a religious setting. He was addressing a Baptist congregation in a Baptist church building. It is only reasonable that he would not feel any constraints in expressing his religious views in that situation, especially considering he probably believed the congregation would be in agreement with his position. The church was the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Now from what I have read about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his Christianity was in fact more nearly what is known as the “liberal” variety, and he would not have had such a restricted conception of who were his “brothers and sisters”. Nevertheless, I simply can’t see any problem with what the Governor said in that situation.
I don’t agree with him, as my religious convictions are very “liberal”. In my viewpoint, there are several levels of “family” relationship within humanity. (1) In the widest sense, all human beings are my “brothers and sisters” inasmuch as we all have the same Creator/Parent and Sustainer. (2) On a bit more restricted level, I recognize as my “brothers and sisters” everyone who believes in God and does good deeds. This encompasses virtually anyone who is of a monotheistic (or monistic) religion, and so it encompasses Governor Bentley also. (If he doesn’t want to recognize me as his brother, that’s his problem). Within that more restricted category, there are of course those with whom I would feel a closer or more comfortable relationship; the closer our beliefs are to each other, the more comfortable we will, no doubt, feel . (3) Then, of course, there is the literal family relationship with those who have the same human parents. Mr. Bentley and I do not share the same human parents, so he is definitely not my brother in that sense. 😆
Regardless of the fact that I don’t share his very restrictive religious and theological convictions, I don’t see that he crossed any political line in stating his personal beliefs. He and his representatives sought to make it clear that his personal convictions do not at all stand in the way of him seeking to act in a just and fair manner toward all citizens of Alabama. While he would love to be able to call all Alabamans his “brothers and sisters”, the fact that he can’t will not hinder him in representing them as faithfully as possible. I can’t see that we could ask anything more of him.
Governor Bentley later apologized for any offense he may have given to people who don’t share his faith. I personally am not offended by what he said (although I don’t share that “faith”), and I don’t believe any apology on his part was necessary. If anyone should be apologizing, it seems to me it should be those who castigated him for stating his beliefs. That right is still a part of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, and he did not renounce that right by being elected Governor of Alabama.