Gov. Bentley’s ‘brothers and sisters’ and our own

Who do you consider to be a member of your spiritual family? Who are your brothers and sisters? What is … Continued

Who do you consider to be a member of your spiritual family? Who are your brothers and sisters? What is your relationship to those who are not? Events last week in Alabama evoke all these questions – questions which need to be asked in our ever-shrinking world, one in which we seek greater closeness with some and greater distance from others.

Alabama’s newly sworn-in Governor, Robert Bentley, declared that “Anybody here today (last Monday, in the pews at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where the late civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once was pastor) 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.”

Although claiming to have apologized for his comments, Bentley did not really do so. Bentley offered the all too typical and entirely unsatisfactory “If/Then” apology, i.e. if his comments offended anybody, then he is sorry. Bentley’s official response to the controversy was as follows: “If anyone from other religions felt disenfranchised by the language, I want to say I am sorry. I am sorry if I offended anyone in any way.”

The problem here, and with all “If/Then” apologies, is that while the governor expresses regret for the hurt experienced by others as a result of his comments, he places the responsibility upon them and doesn’t even admit that he in fact did cause offense to many citizens of his state. He failed to unequivocally embrace the fact that people were, in fact, offended by his words. He also failed to demonstrate the slightest understanding of why that is and how he might avoid such missteps in the future.

While I have no reason to doubt Bentley’s sincerity, ending the cycle of hurt caused by religious triumphalism in general, and the especially toxic effects of introducing such approaches into the political life of the nation demands that when politicians cross the line, they do better than the “If/Then” formulations which pass for real apologies.

To be fair to Bentley though, his comments were an interesting mix of triumphalist exclusionism and genuine inclusivity. While it is true that he reserved the status of “brothers and sisters” for like-minded Christians, he also told his audience at the historic church that he believed it was important for Alabamians ”that we love and care for each other.” ”I was elected as a Republican candidate. But once I became governor … I became the governor of all the people. I intend to live up to that.”

Why were those words not noticed and praised as much as Bentley’s theological musings noticed and condemned? That too has to be addressed if we want more responsible government.

The hurt caused by the governor’s remarks is at least partly a function of people looking for reasons to be hurt – looking for nuggets of nuisance which they can mine out of otherwise responsible comments. In other words, to the extent that this is a big deal, it is not only because of Bentley’s comments, but because of people who make more out things than they really are. That is at least as problematic as apologies which make less of them than they really are.

Ultimately, Bentley got caught between the legitimate desires to express particular solidarity with those whose faith is closest to his own and to express his commitment to those whose faith he does not share. He got caught, at least partially, because we have limited capacity in our culture for simultaneously embracing particularism and universalism. Too often, we assume that they are diametrically opposed impulses, when in fact they are complimentary impulses in each of us.

It is natural to feel a special affinity to those with whom we most closely identify, whether religiously, politically, familiarly, etc. It is also necessary that our affinities extend beyond those immediate impulses. A close reading of Bentley’s comments reveal that he was trying to strike that balance. I think he failed, and I don’t think his subsequent apology did much better.

I also think that those who went berserk about the governor’s comments are as guilty as the governor — they perpetuate a situation which forces us to choose between affection for the particular and commitment to the universal. As long as we fail to integrate those two impulses, neither our faiths nor our politics will be as healthy as they must be in order to meet the challenges we face.

Brad Hirschfield
Written by

  • tigers1

    Bentley can believe what he wishes (just like everyone else — people believe whatever they want to believe), and he can declare his beliefs. The problem is that his declaration came ex officio, as newly sworn-in governor. If he had said the same thing in his own church, there would be no problem. But of course, that would not have suited his desire to make a loud public show of strident religiosity (in ironic disregard for Jesus’ own distaste for loud public proclamations of piety).

  • areyousaying

    Christian fundamentalist teabaggers are dishonest, war mongering hypocrites. If any of you are offended because you take my comments the wrong way, I apologize.

  • Carstonio

    To echo Tigers’ point about a “loud public show of strident religiosity,” I suspect Bentley’s comment was less about his personal beliefs and more about pandering to his fundamentalist supporters.While Bentley was right to apologize, focusing exclusively on whether non-Christians were offended is somewhat misguided. It could easily be used by Bentley supporters to claim that these people shouldn’t be so thin-skinned. The real problem is that Bentley was practicing a form of exclusion. He was basically saying he loves people only when they share his beliefs. Yuck. How would he like it if a Muslim or Zoroastrian or Hindu said the same thing about him?

  • Carstonio

    Put another way – if Bentley wants to be other people’s brothers, he shouldn’t expect them to change for him. That doesn’t mean he should change his beliefs for them. It does mean that the burden is on him to treat others as brothers and sisters.

  • detroitblkmale30

    This could have easily have been avoided had Bentley said, what most Christians as well as nonchristians and atheists believe to the effect of “If you havent accepted Jesus as your savior, we may not brothers and sister IN CHRIST, but we all are brothers and sisters of humanity regardless of your faith, creed or beliefs, or lack of them.”He needed a better speech writer.

  • Carstonio

    “what most Christians as well as nonchristians and atheists believe”Good point. My theory is that the most extreme members of any group are also the most vocal ones, suggesting a personality type that transcends doctrine and ideology. I know many Christians who are frustrated that the people from their faith who get most of the airtime are demagogues like James Dobson and Pat Robertson, who essentially appointed themselves as spokespersons. These men preach an us-versus-them mentality and it’s reasonable to ask if Bentley shares that view.

  • detroitblkmale30

    carstonio: Right it would be interesting to know if it was simply a lack of eloquence or a hint of animosity towards those who don’t believe as he does. I’m going to guess given the nature of the event MLK’s church and the holiday, that it was more of an invitation to become his brother and sister in Christ, which while friendly, shouldnt have been extended in at an “official event” under his governor duties. He could say that at his church on sunday or with the disclaimer of “I am speaking not as the governor, but as a Christian.”

  • Carstonio

    “I’m going to guess given the nature of the event MLK’s church and the holiday, that it was more of an invitation to become his brother and sister in Christ”I would go along with that guess.”which while friendly, shouldnt have been extended in at an ‘official event’ under his governor duties.”Yes, and thanks for pointing that out.”He could say that at his church on sunday or with the disclaimer of ‘I am speaking not as the governor, but as a Christian.'”The former would be appropriate. The latter would still be questionable at an official event. There’s no legitimate purpose at such an event to bring up a desire to see others convert, even with that disclaimer. I recommend that Bentley study some of MLK’s speeches – although King often invoked biblical principles when speaking to people of all faiths, he also translated these into secular principles that anyone could appreciate.

  • detroitblkmale30

    Carstonio: I agree a religious invitation on public tax payer funded time would be a violation of church and state it appears.

  • mdhor

    |where life in present,is it in a phenomenon ghostly place whenever it will be died in a flextime of earth presents or be grate devote to a heaven kingdom |

  • kst2

    I dream of the days when exclusivity of some faiths disappears from our beloved earth. But this I am afraid will always remain a dream. I like to point out that such exclusivity is not part of every faith but it is part of the three faiths from the Abrahamic family.