Alabama Governor Robert Bentley spent his first day in office finding out how Christian an elected official can get before causing a scandal. His big misstep is, by now, well known: shortly after his swearing-in, speaking from the pulpit Martin Luther King Jr. once occupied at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Bentley said:
There may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit. But if you have been adopted in God’s family like I have, and like you have if you’re a Christian and if you’re saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister.
And then the bombshell:
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’s supporters have rushed to explain that the remark is less baldly divisive than it seems. The Governor, they say, was addressing the congregation (“anybody here today”), not the public at large, and speaking in a well-known idiom of evangelical Christianity that imagines the family of God to be those “born again” into the faith. In other words, it was private speech, in a private setting.
But to Bentley’s critics, this is pretense. Such remarks by their very nature cannot be “private.” David Freeman, a member of Montgomery’s Interfaith Mission Service, accused the Governor of speaking an “‘insider’ language” meant to sound innocuous to outsiders while reassuring the initiated that he ascribes to proselytizing principles that dare not loudly speak their name. “Anybody here today:” that indeed sounds like Bentley is addressing the congregation alone. But is a serious evangelical—as Bentley is—ever only addressing his congregation when he speaks of his faith? The First Baptist Church of Tuscaloosa, where Bentley is a deacon and Sunday school teacher, considers “passionately” evangelizing to be a “key core value,” according to its website. Presumably such evangelizing extends—one might even say it properly starts—beyond the nave.
Less than an hour before he spoke at Dexter Avenue Church, newly-instated Governor gave a his inaugural address. It was a much different beast, though it, too, contained pungent allusions of scripture. Comparing the two speeches serves as a reminder of what kind of Christianity unites mainstream America, and what kind divides it.
Faced with the state’s nine percent unemployment rate, Alabama government officials, Bentley said, would have to follow the example of Jesus, who showed servant leadership “with the lowly act of washing the disciples’ feet.” (Bentley has vowed not to take a salary until unemployment has improved). He concluded with a rousing call:
The challenges are great, but as Mordecai told Esther as she placed her life in jeopardy to save our Jewish brethren, how do we know that we have not been placed here today for a time such as this?
In these times of challenge, we must stand on the principles that unite us.
You could call this a model of ecumenism: the appeal to “our Jewish brethren,” the idea of the The Book as a repository of ethical ideals all can share, and the assurance that Providence is looking after America (or at least Alabama). But the theology on display at Dexter Avenue Church—focused on the utter need for salvation through faith in Christ—divides by its nature. In the aftermath of the remarks, Bentley has tried to split the difference: apologizing “if I offended anyone in any way” on the one hand; on the other, maintaining that his remarks were misunderstood. Part of him wants to depoliticize his evangelical theology, to pass it off as merely a matter of “private belief.” The other part knows that it’s not so simple. In this conflict, he embodies the American struggle over what kind of Christianity our liberal state can bear, and what kind it can’t.