On Tuesday, January 18th, the newly inaugurated governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley made some controversial remarks regarding religious faith during a speech at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, the Montgomery church once led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The speech was addressed to a group of religious supporters and the comments that drew the criticism and scrutiny of non-Christians from all over America were these:
“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 us? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister.
“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.”
These sentiments were very discomforting for me to hear from an elected official, and people from all walks of life who also believe in the importance of secular government share my view. The Jewish Defense League regional director Bill Nigut said Bentley’s statements raise concerns that Bentley may be using his position as governor to advocate for the Christian faith. "If he does so, he is dancing dangerously close to a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids government from promoting the establishment of any religion," said Nigut.
This type of language, however, is common among Christians in the pews of churches although it is shocking to many to hear it expressed by a public official. After receiving heavy criticism from the JDL and other groups, Governor Bentley issued an apology earlier today.
"What I would like to do is apologize, should anyone who heard those words and felt disenfranchised, I want to say, 'I'm sorry.'...I promise to be a governor of all the people.”
Now, what should atheists read into this whole situation? Well, it may surprise some of you to hear that I am personally encouraged by it!
The downsides are obvious—we have another delusional religious fanatic in public office in America. The governor of Alabama thinks that his personal faith should play a role in the people’s government. His apology was obviously just an insincere attempt to regain some political points that his statements had lost him.
But we would be remiss not to notice the less obvious upside—that Bentley felt the need to apologize at all! It should be great news to us that he felt he would gain more political points by apologizing than by standing by what he said. After all, it would not have been controversial if he were, for instance, a pastor talking to a congregation. In fact, those kinds of statements are normal to the ears of church-going Christians.
Candy Gunther Brown, an associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, said Bentley was making a "theological statement" to a church crowd. She called Bentley's statements a "classic altar call" from an evangelical.
"He's saying I want to be your brother. That's an invitation. But basically the way it's heard is as an exclusionary statement. My guess is that expressions of shock and concern by critics are even perhaps disingenuous because this can scarcely be the first time they've heard a similar statement. If they're in Alabama, they've heard this before, they've heard it many times before and maybe even by political leaders."
Bentley made statements that, for a Christian audience, are noncontroversial. However, for the general public, they were shocking. This tells us something very important about the tide of public opinion—it is turning decisively towards secularism.
The fact that Bentley had to apologize for his statements shows that mainstream America no longer identifies with basic tenets of the Christian faith. So much so that when one of our leaders expresses belief in some of those tenets, there is a public outcry. Essentially, the events of today show that Christian leaders have to apologize for certain aspects of their religion because mainstream America finds those teachings offensive.
Now, I am no advocate for political correctness, but I find it very satisfying to know that some Christian beliefs are considered inappropriate for public officials to express. Granted, this is a long way from what should be our ultimate goal—to have the crucifix become a scarlet letter for anyone running for public office in America.
I think of this instance as a stepping stone along the path to a purely secular society, where religion is a peculiar habit that only peculiar people engage in. If we can chip away at Christianity, one silly notion by one, it would not be hard to imagine a day when admitting a belief in any kind of deity would have the same effect on a politicians career as admitting a belief in UFO abductions does today.