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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Not Brothers and Sisters--Fine. But What, Then?

In Alabama--and elsewhere, too, it seems--there has been a fair of amount of reporting about a speech our new Governor, Robert Bentley (AKA "Dr. Robert Bentley"), gave yesterday at the famous Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where he said that anyone who has not accepted Jesus Christ as his or her savior is not Bentley's "brother" or "sister."  (His communications director later added that Bentley is "the governor of all the people, Christians [and] non-Christians alike.")  Of course, the news of his non-familiar relations with many Alabamians did not sit well with everyone, Christians and non-Christians alike.  The incident reminds me of then-governor George Bush saying, in response to a question, that only those who have accepted Christ are saved, implying that other Americans will spend eternity in torment.  That remark didn't go over well with everyone either, although I had no problem with it.

As a non-Christian and therefore non-gubernatorial-fraternal Alabamian, I might be expected to be a little upset myself.  I'm not sure I am.  It's not that I think my friends who are upset are over-reacting.  It's that I expect the governor to govern as if all men and women are his brothers and sisters, not to believe in religious terms that they are.  Governor Bentley was stating, however well or clumsily, a basic article of faith for many Christians, in a speech directed primarily at a religious audience (points to the Alabama news story above, as opposed to the TPM story, for putting it in religious terms by saying Bentley's words sounded like an "altar call").  The belief that he shares a unique relationship with his Christian brothers and sisters does not preclude the governor's acting well on everyone's behalf, and many Christians would argue that he is in fact obliged to do so.  Nor does his having taken office, in my view, preclude him from continuing to bear religious witness.  We should hesitate before assuming that the language of religious relationships implies anything about the governor's political relationship to the people.

That said, I think there is room for the governor to reflect, both prayerfully and politically, about his language.  To say that Christians, as Christians (perhaps more precisely, saved Christians as Christians), are his brothers and sisters is not to say anything about the the sense of connection or relation the governor feels toward his fellow citizens, Christian or otherwise, as citizens--and as neighbors, friends, and so on.  If he revisits the issue, perhaps he will find more powerful language to characterize that relationship--words like "community," "service," "stewardship," and so on.  I don't begrudge Bentley his eloquence in describing his relationship with those who share his religious beliefs.  But I do think there is room for him to devote the same amount of reflection to the nature of his political relationship with and obligations to all citizens.

Posted by Paul Horwitz on January 18, 2011 at 05:07 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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Marc, I think the notion you're politely trying to express is: "You must be a saint to have lived with that man for all these years." Which she is.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jan 19, 2011 10:07:47 PM

Paul, if Mrs. Horwitz is really your wife (it sounds credible, based on her convincing description Paul H. chez lui...), I am filled with admiration, both for her smart and keenly expressed views and, of course, for her eminently wise decision to opt for "Mrs. Horwitz."

Mrs. Horwitz, please forgive my talking about you in the third person. I hope we will have a chance to meet sometime.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Jan 19, 2011 9:13:36 PM

I was a bit disoriented for a minute. I was looking for a "like" button for Dan's comments. I think you need to suggest that to PrawfsBlawg.

As I said on FB, as soon as I read the Bentley article: (1) I knew my husband would have to write about it; and (2) I knew exactly what he would say. And I guess I'd have to add (3) because I know him well enough to predict him now, and literally live with these discussions every day, what he says doesn't bother me b/c I've had the nuances drilled into me for years.

I have a couple of reactions to Bentley and the reactions to Bentley. One is from my own perspective as a small time politician and one who has worked in politics. And that's the general view of "what are you trying to achieve or convey?" I think that's essentially Paul's final point about Bentley needing to reflect further on his role as a public official. Do you want to bring people together or create division? And I think that's been what most people are reacting to. And, yeah, I think on that level, it was a boneheaded, divisive move.

On the other hand, I'm not convinced that it's necessarily a good idea to get people to muzzle themselves or trained to the point where all they say is something bland that doesn't reflect what they believe or what's actually guiding their decisions. By way of example, I'd rather the racist just clearly speak as a racist than learn to couch his language in such a manner that it seems more socially acceptable and helps advance his (hidden, but still racist) agenda. From this vantage point, I'd just as soon know that this is how Bentley really views the world than for him to find other rationales for policies and priorities that perhaps actually are driven by his religious views.

Posted by: Mrs. Horwitz | Jan 19, 2011 3:16:37 PM

Wow, Paul. I think you're being nicer to Bentley - who is my former dermatologist by the way, which I love to tell people - than he deserves. Noone wants to begrudge the man his Christian religious beliefs. But what he said in this address was far more divisive and exclusionary than any doctrine that I know of in the Christian tradition demands. If he had said that other Christians are his "spriritual brethren," simply communicating the sharing of a belief system, that would have been much less problematic. But to say that non-Christians are not his brothers and sisters in this apprenatly more general way, in my view, is not a correct representation of Christian doctrine - and is in fact quite contrary to it. So what I'm saying is that his statements were not even consistent with the religion that he would no doubt claim is the part of his personal identity that requires him to make these distinctions. I share the concerns of many about the governor using his office to proseletyze his religion. There is a big difference between personally maintaing a religion and acting in every way in accord with that religion while in office on the one hand, and on the other making speeches expressing a divide along religious lines with many people in your state, and inviting those not of your religious faith to convert. If I were a non-Christian I would naturally feel that the governor is being clear, despite later spin to the contrary, that he has a closer kinship with and better feelings toward people in the state that are not me. I would also fear that that distinction in favor will, in non-transparent but real ways, find its way into policymaking and distribution of wealth within the state during the governors tenure. Alabama has enough of a perception problem to deal with. It didnt need this.
Dan Joyner

Posted by: Dan Joyner | Jan 19, 2011 2:03:14 PM

Thank the Lord that Jesus himself never became a Christian. In not a few of his teachings, exemplified in several of the parables, in the injunctions about loving one's enemies and loving one's neighbor as oneself, and in conjunction with the Golden Rule (at least as these are bound together in the Matthean Jesus), Jesus concentrates on the spiritual importance if not centrality of identifying oneself with others, beyond any of the conventional and sometimes invidious categories of his time and place that served to divide individuals from one other in ways contrary to Jewish ethics (as he understood same), categories associated with ethnicity, religious identification (especially when this did not coincide with proper ethical and spiritual praxis), gender, class, status, and so forth. Not a few of the self-proclaimed Christians in political office seem hell-bent on using their religious beliefs and expressing their faith in ways that make it harder for people to spontaneously or reflexively identify themselves with their fellow human beings. And it appears Jesus himself practiced what he preached, at least that's an axiomatic assumption of exemplary atonement doctrine. Were it that more Christians who make a public show of their faith embodied the consequences of taking seriously the notion of imitatio dei (as in Matt 5:48).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jan 19, 2011 8:56:41 AM

Any "altar call" is trumped by the "Golden Rule," secular and non-secular versions. The Governor needs some Brasso for his tarnishing of the "Golden Rule." I'm thrilled he's not my sibling.

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | Jan 19, 2011 6:54:47 AM

I hope you are right, Professor, that the Governor intends no inequality in executing his political or legal obligations. But I will say that it does sound everything short of an altar call, and I'm assuming that taking his opportunity at the stage to seek conversions (for it is his higher calling commanded to him personally from God) was his primary motivation for his language. I would bet large amounts of money on that.

Posted by: Adam | Jan 18, 2011 6:05:55 PM

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