Ala. Governor Apologizes to Muslims, Hindus, Jews

Gov. Robert Bentley, the new governor of Alabama, created a firestorm of controversy on Monday when he said that if you are not a Christian he does not consider you his brother or his sister.

He added, “… so anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their saviour, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister…” Ironically, he was speaking for Martin Luther King Day at an African-American church, and was probably attempting to stress religious commonalities as a way of stressing that he opposes racial prejudice. Unfortunately for him, not all Alabamans are Christians.

Jews, Muslims and Hindus in Alabama were upset and contacted Bentley with their concerns.

Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, Alabama, among other members of religious minorities in that state, let Gov. Bentley know that he felt that the remarks were ‘disenfranchising.’

Bentley apologized on Wednesday. His spokesperson issued a statement saying, “The Governor had intended no offense by his remarks. He is the governor of all the people, Christians, non-Christians alike…”

The controversy arose because Bentley did not understand American civil religion, which requires that in the public sphere, sectarian differences be put aside.

Sociologist Robert Bellah defined it this way:

‘ “an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation,” which he sees symbolically expressed in America’s founding documents and presidential inaugural addresses. It includes a belief in the existence of a transcendent being called “God,” an idea that the American nation is subject to God’s laws, and an assurance that God will guide and protect the United States.’

Civil religion discourse is the way that various kinds of Protestants, and eventually Catholics and Jews, participated in the American public sphere. It is a way of sidestepping sectarian commitments for the purpose of doing the business of the Republic. (Obviously, it somewhat disadvantages non-believers, now 14% of the population, but most of those are not atheists but agnostics and so far have not mounted a concerted challenge to this tradition of discourse).

Bentley, and new governor, tried to go on speaking his own evangelical language of difference, which is all right in the private sphere. But as a public person, he has new responsibilities, of speaking in a way that unifies.

Since 1965 in particular, large numbers of immigrants have come in from Africa and Asia who practice religions beyond the classic ‘Protestant-Catholic-Jew’ trinity. Thus, the Hindu American Foundation and the Muslims were among those who protested, along with Jews. There are about one million Hindus in the US, 2 million Buddhists, and about 5-6 million Muslims if you count children. They are clearly as committed to a public civil religion discourse as are Catholics and Jews.

It seems to me that the groups that protested Bentley’s statement have some international responsibilities. Would the governor chief minister of Gujarat in India be willing to say that Muslims are his ‘brothers and sisters’? Would Avigdor Lieberman in Israel accept Palestinian-Israelis as his ‘brothers and sisters?’ How many Pakistani Muslim politicians would speak of brotherhood and sisterhood with the country’s 3 million Hindu citizens? Maybe some letter-writing to those figures is in order, too.

It isn’t just in Alabama that there is a problem.

17 Responses

  1. dear cole saheb
    the governor of gujarat is appointed by the central government and he would certainly accept muslims as his brothers and sisters. you meant mr. modi the chief minister of gujarat who would be quite willing to say that muslims are his brothers and sisters even if he did not mean it. the spokesman of modi’s party who appears every other day on national television is a muslim by the way.

  2. You know, I don’t think you really have to define everyone in your country as your brothers and sisters.

    That they are citizens equal under the law suffices. To reach the degree of “brotherhood” that is between people of the same faith is, I believe, quite unnecessary, and might spark unnecessary “tensions”.

  3. Compare to Rev. M.L. King’s reference, in his “I may not get there with you” speech, to “some of our sick white brothers” who might try to kill him for his efforts in Memphis. That is the real Christian attitude.

  4. I was told by a Christian minister that you can’t be agnostic and have morals. This is the same mindset that the LA-Bama govenor exhibited in these remarks. Actually, on second thought, it goes deeper. Christian theology claims that everone who has not accepted JC as their savior will go to hell, and who wants to associate with someone going to hell?

  5. If you’re going to go international, why not start with China which has 1 billion people and then go on to India which is, I think, second in total population and has the most Muslims of any country in addition to Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and what have you.

    IMO, the idea of brother-sister hood is a red herring. The question is how people of different religions/customs/cultures can get along in the public sphere as citizens.

    Given world history, it takes some time, thousands of years, and it’s never been fully settled anywhere. But why not look at areas where people seem to be doing a better job of getting along together instead of pointing the finger at those that are failing?

  6. Whenever someone asks me if I believe in God or whatever, I respond by asking them to define God.

    If the fool launches into a description of what God is and what God does and how much love God has for me (as exemplified by the ritual human sacrifice), I inform them that they must be greater than God because they just defined God, and therefore I should worship them, which is basically what religious people want.

  7. (Obviously, it somewhat disadvantages non-believers, now 14% of the population, but most of those are not atheists but agnostics and so far have not mounted a concerted challenge to this tradition of discourse)

    Whatever the percentage is, it is probably lower in Alabama than in most parts of the country. Moreover, Bentley knows they aren’t weren’t likely to have voted for him. so he feels no need for treating them with respect. John Shelby Spong has pointed out that religions are merely manifestations of tribalism and, hence, aspires to getting Christianity out of the religion business. I think this would require converting another species to Christianity.

  8. Very good point. A touchdown with a two point conversion.
    A grandslam. A hattrick.

  9. Juan, you wrote: “It seems to me that the groups that protested Bentley’s statement have some international responsibilities. Would the governor of Gujarat in India be willing to say that Muslims are his ‘brothers and sisters’? Would Avigdor Lieberman in Israel accept Palestinian-Israelis as his ‘brothers and sisters?’ How many Pakistani Muslim politicians would speak of brotherhood and sisterhood with the country’s 3 million Hindu citizens? Maybe some letter-writing to those figures is in order, too.

    It isn’t just in Alabama that there is a problem.”

    Of course we have religion poisoning politics all over the world today. But Alabama is in the United States and we at least pretend to keep religion out of our politics. If our religious discourse has degenerated to the point that we have to compare ourselves to Pakistan or right wing Israel to feel ok, then we really are in a bad state.

    As one who escaped religion years ago, I am increasingly worried about our politicians turning into preachers. I think Governor Bently should resign over these remarks. Anyone who wins a governorship of a state in this great nation should at least have a fundamental understanding of the separation on religion and state. He very well knew what he was doing and I for one do not accept his apology without some explanation. Fortunately, I don’t live in Alabama.

  10. Well, as you say, the second largest group in the US are non-religious. Jews, Muslims and Hindus are small minorities. Non-religious are a much larger minority, but seams too me they are even more disadvantaged in the USA. George H. W. Bush even said that atheists are not citizens or patriots. Would he have dared saying the same about Jews, or even Muslims?

    Has the American Humanist Association protested against the comments too?

  11. In his last speech, Obama turned into a preacher, quoting liberally from Scripture. His speeches are often peppered with biblical references. I don’t see that as practicing civil religion at all but, rather, appealing to Judeo-Christian tradition. Not exactly a practice inclusive of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. Why does he get a pass?

    • Absolutely right. It’s a funny thing. Even non-believers are somehow willing to go along with the notion that the USA is a “Christian” or “Judeo-Christian” nation. We really ought to stop doing that.

  12. It horribly disadvantages nonbelievers, who face discrimination every single day, from tax codes that favor the religious to blue laws restricting our freedoms for no good purpose, to clowns like this moron who think that the government is there to serve a particular invisible man in the sky. A thousand little insults every day combined with the major ones that last year after year.

    So no, we absolutely don’t concede or accept the existence of a ‘civil religion’ to govern political discourse, and if there was one, it would be barred by the 1st Amendment from state privilege the same as any other.

  13. Prof. Cole,

    Regarding the chief minister of Gujarat, it wouldn’t matter even if he did say any of that.

    The philosophy of his party (BJP) itself is quite clear. They say that Muslims have dual loyalties and are constitutionally incapable of loyalty to the Indian state.

    This, it is said, is because their allegiances lie partly in Mecca. The same applies to Catholics as well (the Vatican).

    This is best summed up in the words of the head of the RSS, which is the mother organisation, whose political wing is the BJP i.e. Gujarat CM Mr. Modi’s party.

    As recently as Sep 2010, none other than the highest ranking leader in Hindu right-wing political hierarchy in India has this test for Muslim to pass to prove their loyalty,

    Muslims did carry the burden of proving their “patriotic credentials” and had to “remove the trust deficit” by helping to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya. For only then a “clear message would be sent out” that Muslims do not look “outside the country” and “no one will be able to point fingers at them and describe them as unpatriotic.””

    link to hindu.com

    • Disgusting. Hindu nationalism in India is surely one of the ugliest manifestations of political-religious bigotry in the world.

  14. Seymour Hersh reports that high ranking members of the military (Joint Special Operations Command) are, essentially, agents of a particular denomination (Roman Catholic).

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