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.