Freshly inaugurated as Alabama's new governor, Robert Bentley already is making national headlines -- but not the kind likely to excite the Republican or his press office.
From The Birmingham News, which broke the story:
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley's comments on religion stir concerns
From ABC News:
New Alabama Gov. Criticized for Christian-Only Message
Non-Christians Accuse Robert Bentley of Treating Them as Second-Class
New Ala. gov.: Just Christians are his family
What exactly did Bentley say?
Well, he was addressing a large crowd at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery -- where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. Bentley touted the need for Alabamians to love and care for each other, pledged to be the governor of all the state's residents and described himself as "color blind." Then came the part that sent shock waves across the media universe. From the Birmingham paper:
"There may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit," Bentley said.
"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? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister."
Bentley added, "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."
So far, the media coverage is fairly predictable with Jewish and Muslim advocates criticizing the governor, along with the president of American Atheists, who was quoted by ABC News, among other media outlets:
"We live in a country that is hugely diverse," said David Silverman, president of American Atheists, the country's oldest atheist civil rights group. "The governor basically said: 'If you're not like me, you're second class.' This is a man puts the Bible above the Constitution and his preacher above the president. His words are disgusting and bigoted and reinforce Alabama's reputation for being backward and bigoted."
What's sorely lacking from most of the coverage, however, is any kind of context or background to help readers understand Bentley's comments from an evangelical perspective. In other words, the notion that an evangelical Christian believes that Jesus is the only way to heaven isn't exactly breaking news. Yet most of the coverage fails completely to explore that angle.
An exception was the Los Angeles Times, which to its credit provided background on Bentley's church and interviewed its pastor:
The new governor is a Sunday school teacher and deacon at Tuscaloosa's First Baptist Church, which considers "passionately" evangelizing to be a "key core value," according to its website. ...
Gil McKee, senior pastor of Tuscaloosa's First Baptist Church, said the new governor "was in no way meaning to be offensive to anyone."
"He was coming strictly from the fact that Scripture talks about how those that know Jesus Christ as their savior are adopted into the family of God, and as we are adopted into God's family, we are adopted into the family of Christ," McKee said.
See how easy that was? A little context goes a long way.
Update: Religion News Service's just-published story also includes McKee and a rabbi who suggests the governor's comments weren't totally out of the mainstream in the Bible Belt.
Second update: The Associated Press reports that the governor apologized today for his remarks.