Alabama Governor's Inaugural address courts controversy and sparks debate's over religion

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January 19, 2011

By Eileen McGuire-Mahony

It started as a comment in local coverage of Republican Robert Bentley's swearing-in, provoked rebuke in left-leaning commentaries, and has now gone national.[1][2] Giving his Inaugural address on Martin Luther King Day, Alabama's new chief executive left some people with the idea that only considers fellow Christians to truly be his 'brothers':

“...if you're a Christian and if you're saved ...It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister.

However, it was his next line that set off a small storm:

“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."

Bentley told reporters asking about his comments, “We're not trying to insult anybody” and his press office soon issued a statement trying to tamp down on the reaction, but it was not enough to contain outcry that Bentley was proselytizing on the platform of his office and that the statements were in particularly poor taste given that he took the oath of office on MLK Day.[3] Bentley's actual Inauguration and speech took place at Birmingham's Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, named for the man who was once pastor. The Governor is himself a longtime deacon at First Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa.


Religious comments provoke anger, disappointment

The next day, the Anti-Defamation League condemned Bentley's remarks and called for an apology. An ADL spokesman said, "His comments are not only offensive, but also raise serious questions as to whether non-Christians can expect to receive equal treatment during his tenure as governor."[4] The Rev. Dr. David Freeman, a Baptist Pastor, referred to Bentley's phrasing as “insider language” and lamented the Governor's use of fundamentalist Christian terms in front of the crowd assembled for the Inauguration. The Rev. Freeman added, “I grew up with that language, so I understand it, too. However, I now believe that that language points to one of the great failures of fundamentalist Christian theology.”

Aside from the religious debate, Bentley drew criticism for displaying his neophyte status in politics. Glen Browder, who served as a U.S. Congressman before retiring to become a political science professor, pointed to the danger of wandering off topic and the need to stick to a generic, positive message when giving an Inaugural address. Browder's advice was that in the future, Bentley will need to “...put a period on his comments...”.[5] Wiliam Stewart, PhD, a retired professor of political science, also saw signs on Bentley's inexperience in politics, comparing him to his immediate predecessors, former Governors Bob Riley and Don Siegelman, who both came to the office having been more steeped in political savvy. Comparatively, Bentley is “off to a rocky start”.

Citizens weigh in on what to expect from their new Governor

Local editorial opinion focused on the choice of words and the poor timing of a religious message, pointing to previous gaffes made by Alabama public officials and hoping that Bentley would quickly adjust to the substantially diminished privacy as a sitting Governor and begin choosing his words with the knowledge that everything he says will be closely inspected.[6][7]

Still, among the flood on citizens commenting on Bentley's words, there were more than a few who praised him for standing up for his evangelical Christian beliefs and who indicated they would judge him by how well his actions in office aligned with his professed beliefs. One Alabaman summed it up, saying, “"If he truly is a Christian, that will show forth in the way he treats people. If he is a wolf in sheep's clothing, we'll soon know that too."[8]

Bentley reaches out to faith leaders and voters with public apology

Jewish and Islamic religious leaders were particularly concerned over what Bentley's comments meant for his time in office and pressed for a meeting with the Governor.[9] 48 hours after Inauguration Day, Governor Bentley met privately with leaders of Alabama's Jewish congregations and afterward made a public apology, saying:

"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[10]

Overall, civic leaders representing viewpoints outside evangelical Christianity expressed hope that Bentley's remarks and the ensuring firestorm could be the beginning of beneficial conversation and not mark battle lines for the next four years. Huntsville Rabbi Beth Bahar told media, "Fortunately, he can be my governor without being my brother...At least he is up-front about his world view. It's a world view the Jewish community has experience working with.”[11] Blair Scott, a national officer of American Atheists and a Huntsville resident, added, “The irony of making such a statement on the day we celebrate the fight for civil rights in this country does not escape me...All the citizens of Alabama are equal. Let's hope Bentley actually understands that and we can attribute his comments to pandering and rhetoric."

Governor Bentley served eight years in the Alabama House of Representatives before winning the 2010 gubernatorial election. He actually placed second in the Republican primary, but his opponent's winning margin was small enough to require a runoff under state law. Bentley bounced back to win the runoff by double digits and then won the November election by more than 25 points. He succeeded term limited fellow Republican Bob Riley.