Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) probably didn’t plan to kick off his inaugural term with a religious quarrel but he fostered one when he informed non-Christians at a Monday afternoon event 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.”
The Birmingham News was the first to report his remarks. The governor was speaking at a Baptist church in honor of Martin Luther King Day and the brother/sister mention must have seemed to him like a toss-off quote in a speech about the brotherhood of man. But putting conditions on that brotherhood is what upset a lot of people.
Now this is Alabama, where politics is often mixed with prayer. It’s where former State Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore seemed destined to enjoy a long career atop the state’s highest court until he moved a monument to the Ten Commandments into a state judicial building in 2001. Despite thousands of protesters massed outside the building, the monument was removed, the judge lost his seat over the matter and Moore unsuccessfully ran for governor last year, losing to Bentley in the primary.
Although the new governor – and millions of evangelical Christians like him – believe that only Christians will go to heaven, they usually don’t say that in public. Because when they do, they’re accused of being intolerant and exclusionary– even after Bentley apologized Wednesday for his remarks. Universalism is in these days. Exclusivity is not.
I was curious as to what the new governor’s fellow Baptists were thinking and saying about all this. Answer: Most had run for cover. I scanned Baptist Press. Nothing. Ditto for a number of evangelical Protestant blogs, where I could find very little comment except from this American Family Association video where the host stated, “What the governor said is not foreign for us at all and for any Bible-believing Christian.”
“Fifteen years ago,” one of the panelists on the video said, “no one would have batted an eye at this.”
Well, they do now. Al Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, released a statement late Wednesday saying the governor’s comments “were completely consistent with mainstream evangelical piety and conviction” in that those who believe in Jesus are “brothers.” As for those who don’t, there’s always the hope they will come to believe in Christ.
“Gov. Bentley may have surprised some observers with his words, but not anyone familiar with the common language of evangelical Christians,” Mohler said. “With the best of intentions, Gov. Bentley may have confused his roles of governor and Sunday School teacher in those comments. Nevertheless, a closer look at his words will reveal that he meant to build bridges, not to burn them.”
You can also listen to Mohler’s thoughts on this podcast, where he explains what the governor meant. “The governor was right…there was no way to back off of that,” he said.
I called Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention, for his thoughts.
“Theologically, he’s correct,” Land said. “Every Christian looks on all people as God’s children but they’re not brothers and sisters until they’re Christian. But Jesus said to love others as yourself.”
About the governor, “It shows a startling naivete,” Land added. “If I were governor of a state, I’d never voluntarily say that.”
This is not to say politicians can never touch on religion. As he announced his retirement Wednesday, Conn. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman quoted from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes that “to everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.”
If Bentley wishes to refer to Scripture in future speeches, maybe he should heed Lieberman’s example and stick to the Old Testament.
Does Gov. Robert Bentley have the right to express his beliefs about salvation in public even though they will offend non-Christians? Tell your thoughts in the comments section.