On Monday, January 17th, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley delivered a speech at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The governor's controversial lines during his speech have attracted a great deal of media attention this week.
Bentley's comments ignited a firestorm surrounding religious intolerance. The Hindu American Foundation condemned Bentley's remarks, and the Anti-Defamation League asked the governor to apologize, according to Beliefnet. In a publicized letter to Gov. Bentley, Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Temple Emanu-El wrote that the governor's comments troubled him and left him feeling disenfranchized. Rabbi Miller reminded the governor that Jews too are citizens of Alabama and urged him not to allow religion to divide them. An article at USA Today quoted C. Welton Gaddy, president of the national Interfaith Alliance, as saying that Bentley's comments raised serious concerns for those devoted to religious freedom. American Atheists president David Silverman was quoted in the Los Angeles Times criticizing Bentley's comments, reminding readers that the U.S. has a secular government. Later in the same article, Ashfaq Taufique, president of the Birmingham Islamic Society, was dismayed, arguing that Bentley seemed to be saying that non-Christians would have to accept his brand of Christianity in order to be seen as equals.
As public dismay mounted, Gov. Bentley later apologized -- sort of -- by insisting that it was never his intention to offend or disenfranchise anyone, and that as governor, he has sworn to protect freedom of religion. The Anti-Defamation League was encouraged by the apology.
In my opinion, Gov. Bentley was out of line, and he should have known better. Essentially, the Alabama governor used a public speech to proselytize, which was inappropriate and insensitive to non-Christians in the audience. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is an opportunity to reflect on our common humanity, not to ostracize entire groups because of their religious beliefs. To openly ostracize large swaths of the population is divisive, ignoring the fact that diversity (religious or otherwise) has made America what it is.
Public officials are accountable to all their constituents, regardless of race, class, sex, age, or religion. I hope public outcry has reminded Gov. Bentley that he is accountable to all Alabamans, regardless of their faith.
For additional commentary, visit the following links.
The Wall of Separation: Out Of Line In Alabama: New Governor Takes On Preaching Role
Mother Jones: Gov. Bentley's Christian Brotherhood
Fire Dog Lake: Christian Compassion, Republican Style
Friendly Atheist: Atheists Not Welcome in Alabama Governor's Family
Dispatches from the Culture Wars: Alabama Gov. Misses MLK's Point