Newly elected Republican Alabama (redundant, redundant) governor Robert Bentley was speaking to a crowd gathered at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery when he made a huge gaffe, saying, “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.” He continued, “If the Holy Spirit lives in you, that makes you my brothers and sisters. Anyone who has not accepted Jesus, I want to be your brothers and sisters, too.”
This is obviously distressing, giving that Bentley is governing at least a few non-Christians in his state. Bentley made these remarks at a church service held immediately after his inauguration on Monday, and Bill Nigut, the Anti-Defamation League’s regional director says they were completely out-of-line. “On the day that he is sworn in as governor, he’s sending a statement to the public saying if you’re not Christian you can’t be with me. From our point of view that is proselytizing for Christianity and coming very close to a violation of the First Amendment,” Nigut told ABC News.
I would argue that Bentley’s speech is protected by the First Amendment, but as his fellow Republican Sarah Palin has taught all of us, free speech isn’t always wise speech. According to the website Left in Alabama, this isn’t the first time Bentley has made a fool of himself publicly. Bentley is opposed to tax increases for the wealthy, and while he was in the Alabama State Legislature, he astonishingly told PBS NOW’s Maria Hinojosa:
I’m fully sympathetic with people who are poor, they don’t have enough money to buy food. But, you know, there—there are avenues through which if they really are poor that they can get some help. They may not be poor in spirit, they may just be poor in not being able to buy all the conveniences that you think they should have. That doesn’t mean they’re not happy. You can be happy and be poor. Now, I’m not saying that you can be hungry and be happy, I don’t mean that. But money does not make you happy.
Bentley’s office released a statement today saying, “The governor clearly stated that he will be the governor of all Alabamians — Democrat, Republican and Independent, young, old, black and white, rich and poor. As stated in his [inaugural] address, Gov. Bentley believes his job is to make everyone’s lives better.” It seems clear that Governor Bentley isn’t interested in the lives of those who aren’t like him, however, be they poor or non-Christian. At least Bentley had the dignity – in a church named after civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. – to say he “considered anyone who believed in Christ to be a brother regardless of color.” So he’s not racist, just classist. Whew!
The L.A. Times quotes Richard Friedman, executive director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation, as saying “One of the things we have to do is continue to sensitize our leaders to the fact that there are non-Christians in this state, and encourage them whenever possible to be sensitive to that.” Friedman says there are about 10,000 Jews in Alabama. Ashfaq Taufique, president of the Birmingham Islamic Society, described Bentley’s comments as “quite disturbing,” and David Silverman, president of the American Atheists, called the remarks “outrageous.”
What do you think? Where do you draw the line when it comes to politicians expressing their religious beliefs? Is saying “God Bless America” at the end of a speech any different than urging people to convert to Christianity? In a day and age where some Americans question Barack Obama’s religious beliefs, needing to be sure he’s a Christian, is it any wonder someone like Bentley feels so free to say something like this?