Hours after his swearing-in on Monday, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) spoke at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King once served as “a pastor at the church during the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott.” But rather than channel the inclusive message of Dr. King, this dermatologist-turned-governor drove a religious wedge between his constituents. According to Bentley, if Alabamans and he “don’t have the same daddy” in Jesus Christ, then “we’re not brothers and sisters.”
Bentley’s spokeswoman Rebekah Mason quickly tried to drown out the backlash, telling Fox News “the governor had intended no offense by his remarks. He is the governor of all the people, Christians, non-Christians alike.” In a meeting with Jewish leaders this afternoon, Bentley offered even less: “I did not mean to offend anyone.”
This “no offense” defense, however, implies that he is not acknowledging his error, but rather apologizing for the unease it caused “non-Christians.” This apologetic reaffirmation of his view was not lost on the Anti-Defamation League”:
“The governor does not have to be a seasoned politician to understand the impact of remarks like that,” said Bill Nigut, the Southeast regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. “These are remarks of a man who truly believes what he said, apparently. This seems to be quite clear that Christians are part of an exclusive relationship he has with his brothers and sisters and the rest of us are not.”[…]
“An apology is only meaningful if it is consistent with a sincere understanding of what a person has done wrong. If Gov. Bentley were to say: ‘I realize I was wrong that we are all brothers and sister, and not single out only the ones who believe in Jesus Christ,’” Nigut said.
Bentley’s remarks also raised the eyebrows of The First Amendment Center’s executive director Gene Policinski. “Religion is a part of many peoples’ lives, but there is an implication when a particular faith receives favorable or disfavorable treatment,” he said. “It is a very difficult line to draw, but it is one any politician has to be aware of.”
Dr. Gil McKee, senior pastor at the church where Bentley is a deacon and Sunday school teacher, insisted that Bentley’s comments were “misinterpreted” because his “strong Christian faith is what causes him to love other people, not matter who they are.” But Rev. Dr. David Freeman of a local Baptist Church said Bentley’s “insider language” is “one of the great failures” of Christian theology that “entreats us to see all human being as our sisters and brothers.” A local rabbi, however, shrugged off his words, saying “at least he is up-front about his world view. It’s a world view the Jewish community has experience working with.”
Birmingham News opinion writer John Archibald argued Bentley’s entire inauguration day besmirched the memory of Dr. King. Leaving denouncement of his church “sermon” to others, Archibald pointed to Bentley’s celebration of his tentherism in his inaugural address earlier that day as equally “unnecessary, divisive and blind.” As he notes, “it was, after all, Martin Luther Day in Montgomery. It was the inaugural, the same event George Wallace used in 1963 to wave his ‘segregation forever’ fist at the federal government.” Bentley’s words that day “burn like a bad memory,” and a worse testament to a seminal American legacy.
The AP reports that Bentley offered further apology during today’s meeitng with Jewish leaders. Insisting “he didn’t mean to insult anyone,” he said he was “speaking as an evangelical Christian to fellow Baptists.” “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,” Bentley said, adding that “no one should hate anyone else because of color or religion.”