Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley--a Hero for Atheism?

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. 



  1. It's TENETS, damn it! TENETS, not TENANTS. ... Oh, good article, btw.

  2. Nice Article, i kept seeing this article here and there, but never read it.

    It is quite discomforting, i may not be an American citizen, but i was quite offended when i read what George H. Bush said about Atheists.

    Robert Bentley, Much like Bill O'Reilly have actually given us ammo. Pointing out some fundamental flaws to the general audience, both in positions of power/influence.

    I can see some large movements occurring in the near future, secular governments and policies will be the norm. :)

  3. Lol Joe3Eagles, thanks for the heads up! Can't believe I did that twice...All fixed now, though!

  4. Thanks Bradyn! Yes, I am feeling very good about the future of secularism in America after the outcry over Bentley's remarks.

  5. I am also cautiously optimistic. Young people seem to be abandoning Christianity in the USA. I think it is fashionable now to say you are spiritual, but not religious. You believe in Jesus, but do not belong to a religion. As though it is the edifice of religion that is wrong, not the bricks and mortar it is built on. The conservative social programs of hate based bashing of gays, abortion and sex might do the trick.

    People will admit they believe in evolution, but many insist that there is a divine hand guiding evolution. Which proves they are almost completely ignorant of the process.

    Still, we should be encouraged. It took centuries for the religion meme complex to develop and we should not expect it to dissipate easily. I think of the religion meme complex as comparable to the HIV biological virus. Cunning and elusive to the extreme.

  6. Very true, Rich. While people seem to be abandoning Christianity in droves here in the US (number of nonreligious people has doubled in the last ten years) some still seem to hold on to some religious sentiments like a divine overseer.

    I think this is because of the American instinct for moderation. We have a political spectrum with people on the far left and the far right, and we usually like to bring the two together somewhere in the middle to reach a compromise.

    This instinct, while it works well in politics, is not something we should apply to questions of reality, but Americans seem to be doing that, too. On the one side, you have the socially conservative, die-hard, born-again Christians who take every word of the bible literally, and on the other side you have scientists and philosophers who say that there is a natural explanation for all phenomenon. So, Americans will follow their instincts and settle somewhere in the middle with some kind of mysterious divine providence that helps out with the natural processes.

    The problem is, there is absolutely no evidence for this! But, unfortunately, evidence is just a secondary concern for most people when they are forming their beliefs.

  7. So, being a saved Christian makes someone a brother or sister to all saved Christians, right? So if his wife is also a saved Christian then he is married to his sister. That sounds about right since Jesus is supposed to be his own father.

    I know this comment is off subject somewhat, but I just couldn't resist.

  8. Enjoying your written views in the blog, Ben.