Alabama’s governors have a history of appearing in the national spotlight, and the state’s newest governor, Robert Bentley, did it again this week.
However, unlike former governors George Wallace, Guy Hunt, Don Siegelman and Bob Riley, Bentley made the national news on only his second day in office over comments made on the day of his inauguration.
After taking the oath of office at the Capitol, he attended a service honoring Martin Luther King Jr. at King's first church, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
During comments at the church, Bentley said, “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.”
The comments landed Bentley on a variety of national news sites, including CNN, ABC, MSNBC and the L.A. Times. Some groups, including the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, which claimed Bentley’s comments sounded like he was using the governor’s office to advocate for Christian conversion.
"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 ADL regional director Bill Nigut in comments made to the Associated Press this week.
Bentley’s time in the national spotlight is unique, however, because unlike previous governors, his polarizing comments were religious in nature, unlike Gov. Wallace who was an early advocate for segregation and made his famous stand in the schoolhouse door in Tuscaloosa.
Hunt made national news after being convicted on ethics charges, while Riley had already defeated Siegelman when the latter was convicted on ethics violations. The majority of Riley’s time in the national spotlight was more weather-related, as his two terms were marked by significant damage on the Gulf Coast from hurricanes Ivan and Katrina.
However, Riley also made national news when he asked Alabamians to pray for rain in 2007 and after he called for a U.S. boycott of Aruba, following the 2005 disappearance of Mountain Brook teenager Natalee Holloway.
“I think Alabama has a history of doing things that can bring national attention to ourselves,” said Dr. Shannon Bridgmon, an associate professor of political science at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. “I think it was a stumble out of the gate, but I don’t think anyone believes (his comments) were intended to alienate.”
Despite what may be seen as an early misstep by Bentley, local religious and political experts said Thursday that his political future shouldn’t be determined by his comments, and that he’ll bounce back from the controversy.
Pastor Dr. Edwin Jenkins of First Baptist Church of Athens, said Bentley is clearly strong in his faith and zealous about promoting the Christian gospel.
“One would have to understand where a Christian is coming from to make the comments he made,” Jenkins said. “Many times, those outside the Christian faith may not understand, but I don’t think he was trying to exclude anyone.”
On Wednesday, Bentley issued an apology if he offended anyone, but stopped short of apologizing for his comments.
"If anyone from other religions felt disenfranchised by the language, I want to say I am sorry. I am sorry if I offended anyone in any way," he told reporters Wednesday after meeting with leaders of other faiths.
Jenkins said Bentley shouldn’t be faulted for his initial comments, or his apology. He said Bentley made his initial remarks in a church setting, not a government setting.
“I think it was appropriate for him to come back and say what he said,” Jenkins said. “I think he said it in as succinct a way as he could. I don’t think he was trying to be inflammatory.”
Pastor Dusty McLemore of Lindsay Lane Baptist Church said even though Bentley was addressing a church when he made his comments, he has to learn not to alienate people while in public office.
“You have to be cognizant of anything you say because you’re a national leader,” he said. “Theologically what he said was correct, but in a national audience, when you’re addressing people like that, you have to guard those kinds of comments.”
McLemore said Bentley’s “brothers” and “sisters” comment was misconstrued, though it’s evangelical terminology and a play on words.
“If he had it to do over, I think he’d recant those words because he’s being scrutinized today,” he said.
Jim Burden, chairman of the Limestone County Republican Party, said the fuss made over Bentley’s comments is just another example of the “liberal media” finding fault with Christianity. He said Bentley should never apologize for being a Christian, and appreciated that his apology was aimed at those he offended, and not for the remarks themselves.
“Every church I’ve ever attended, that’s what we called each other, ‘Brother Jones’ or ‘Sister Jones.’ Jesus called all of his disciples, ‘Brother,’” Burden said. “It’s just the liberal side trying to raise a fuss because they’re always looking for some way to cut Christians. It’s OK to persecute Christians, but you can’t persecute Muslims.”
Bridgmon said Bentley’s apology was welcome and heartfelt and though he’s off to a rocky start, he’ll eventually find his sea legs. She gave him high marks for taking the time to honor Dr. Martin Luther King on the anniversary of his birth, even though it was also his inauguration day.
“I was impressed, considering the political landscape (of Alabama) that he made the trip over to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and acknowledge Dr. King’s contributions,” she said. “I think he did well on that, but he just didn’t know when to stop talking.”
Bridgmon said there would be a period of adjustment for Bentley, who before being elected to governor, was only known primarily in Tuscaloosa, where he was a dermatologist and two-term state representative.
“When you look back at former governors, Gov. Riley had plenty of experience at a larger level of leadership in Washington and Siegelman had been on the state scene for a while,” she said. “I don’t think (Bentley’s) committed political suicide.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report